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Thrill of the Hunt

After news of Yves Saint Laurent's retirement, fans scramble to buy the legendary designer's vintage fashions.

January 21, 2002|VALLI HERMAN-COHEN | TIMES SENIOR FASHION WRITER

The day after the news broke that legendary French designer Yves Saint Laurent was retiring from the fashion business, Rita Watnick had to unplug the phone minutes after opening her Beverly Hills vintage salon, Lilly et Cie. Dozens of customers were clamoring for a piece of vintage Saint Laurent haute couture or his less expensive ready-to-wear, Rive Gauche.

"There were people literally grabbing clothes from each other," she said. "It was like a long-lost sale day at Filene's Basement a million years ago."

Saint Laurent had been gradually withdrawing from his namesake fashion house since handing the ready-to-wear design reins to Alber Elbaz in 1998, though he still produced couture collections. Serious collectors had been buying the best of Saint Laurent for years. For casual collectors and fashion fans, however, the announcement on Jan. 7 that his last couture show will be Tuesday sparked a nerve. Suddenly, many scrambled to own a piece of the designer's work.

"We had maybe 500 pieces in the store last week," Watnick said. "Now we maybe have one or two."

Experienced couture collectors, such as author Sandy Schreier in Southfield, Mich., expect the new attention on Saint Laurent to cause prices to skyrocket. "I think that they will rise because his clothes represent the 20th century and the modern woman. And because everyone is wearing collectibles, and because wearing vintage is in. And it's in not just for Winona Ryder, Renee Zellweger and Julia Roberts but for everybody."

Many of Saint Laurent's signature designs have reappeared in current fashion, which is stimulating demand for the original looks, even if they're not the valuable haute couture pieces.

"Rive Gauche is going to get a real boost," said Schreier. "Saint Laurent is hotter and hotter all the time. I think his retirement will make it go over the top. Your average people are going to go out and find it in resale shops and flea markets, and it will become collectible for a new breed of collector/wearers and not just for the serious couture collector."

It's not the first time that the designer's clothes have heated up the vintage clothing market. Watnick also saw a sudden interest in vintage Saint Laurent when American designer Tom Ford assumed creative control of the ready-to-wear line in 2000, shortly after the Gucci Group acquired Rive Gauche. Watnick credits that surge to buyers who felt "a loss of tradition."

Interest has been strong among the hip and trendy vintage crowd. This fall, local dealer Cameron Silver opened a special sale of vintage Saint Laurent at Barneys New York in Manhattan, where he operates an offshoot of his Melrose Avenue Decades boutique. Though the sale opened on Sept. 12, Silver said, "we had one of our best weeks ever at Barneys. The fashion world was aware that this was their shot at getting YSL by YSL." When the retirement announcement came, Barneys customers scooped up most of the remaining Rive Gauche collection at $180 to $220 for a blouse and $100 to $150 for a scarf. Prices could rise up to 25% by the end of the year, Silver estimated.

A clearer picture of Saint Laurent's growing worth to collectors could arrive with the May 22 couture auction at Doyle Galleries in New York. Couture and textiles director Linda Donohue has watched, sometimes with astonishment, as interest in and prices of vintage clothing have surged since she started the department in 1983. "Last spring we had a Charles Frederick Worth dress sell for $120,000," she said. "Other pieces went for $50,000 to $70,000." Saint Laurent's best couture ensembles have fetched $100,000, said Schreier, who saw a mid-1970s peasant blouse, belt and skirt set sell for that amount in London last year.

Only the audience of buyers can really determine the value of vintage Saint Laurent. "His couture will be strong," Donohue said. "I think the Rive Gauche is a great wearable. I wouldn't suggest people going out and buying Rive Gauche except to wear. It's great style but not a serious collectible."

Sometimes, when a celebrity wears a vintage designer or a certain look, less desirable items can gain value from the new association, she said. As an example, the $3,000 vintage Rive Gauche safari suit that Silver recently sold to Nicole Kidman could boost the demand and thus the price for YSL safari looks.

Moreover, Ford's spring 2002 collection reintroduced many safari styles, which will help bring fashion relevance to the once-outdated shirt jackets.

Though the particular items that become collectible in the vintage market are often susceptible to fads, Donohue is betting that wearing vintage clothing is here to stay. "I don't think it's a fad," she said. "It's an understanding of what's beautiful." But prices, like fashion, are fickle, and there's a wild card in the Saint Laurent hand: the designer himself. He didn't always keep key pieces of his collections, Schreier said, and now he has a 2-year-old museum to complete in Paris. On occasion she has found herself bidding against one very interested, and deep-pocketed, buyer: the house of Saint Laurent.

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