Friday, 24 October 2014

Oscar de la Renta: The Fashion Maker

“If my life were to end now … I would have no regrets. I’ve lived every day to the fullest and I’ve had a marvellous time. I’ve tried to be nice to people I care about and ignore the ones I don’t. I enjoy what I’ve done.”

Spread in The Fashion Makers by Barbra Walz and Bernadine Morris

Understandably, the death of the designer Oscar de la Renta early this week resulted in a huge number of tributes. One - frustratingly I can't remember which - used the quote taken from the book The Fashion Makers, which described what de la Renta said on his 40th birthday.

It sent me back to the book to see if the way he was talked about in the late 1970s was any different to the way he was discussed his week. And – pleasingly – the answer is no. The profile reveals the same charming Oscar, who enjoys the company of “people with a tremendous commitment to life” and making beautiful clothes for women in the spotlight (although while contemporary articles mention the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Sarah Jessica Parker and Amal Clooney, The Fashion Makers goes for Nancy Kissinger, Pat Buckley, Lee Radziwill and Babe Paley). The verdict of the author, Bernadine Morris, that “fashion has been good to him, and he’s made his mark on it, turning out clothes that are usually outrageously feminine and flattering,” could have been taken from 2014 as easily as 1978.

Spread in The Fashion Makers by Barbra Walz and Bernadine Morris

When I wrote about this book before, I commented on the mix of old meets new designers in the book. Looking at the other names from the book that are still known and operating today, de la Renta seems to stand apart again, distinct from the preppy empires of Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren or the soft, strong, body aware fashions of Diane von Furstenberg and Donna Karan.

“Being well dressed hasn’t must to do with having good clothes,” he states in the piece. “It’s a question of good balance and good common sense, a knowledge of who you are and what you are. There are many kinds of taste. The rules that apply to one person do not hold true for another.”

As much as talking about how to decide what to wear, in that simple piece of advice Oscar de la Renta summarises the design philosophy that maintained the desirability of his clothes for over forty years: know yourself and stay true to your style.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Talking vintage fashion with Nicky Albrechtsen

One of my first jobs after going freelance was project managing the Thames & Hudson book, Vintage Fashion Complete. It's a huge book, over 400 pages, over 90,000 words, over 1000 pictures. The book is based on the amazing collection of Nicky Albrechtsen.

In the sea of vintage fashion books that now exist, Nicky brings a stylist's eye to the subject. She explores vintage fashion through its prints and patterns - from animal print to polka dots - and through its individual elements, be that a jumper, a swimsuit or a wedding dress, making it more of a gorgeous book to inspire than simply another fashion history of the twentieth century.

When she's not writing books for Thames & Hudson (she's also written on scarves, handkerchiefs and spectacles for them), Nicky owns Vintage Labels, a vintage clothing resource studio in London. She was kind enough to answer some questions for me about her love of vintage and her incredible collection.


The lovely Nicky Albrechtsen 

How did you start collecting vintage?
Vintage clothing has really always been apart of my life although I never gave it such a grandiose title. I grew up during the sixties in fairly impoverished circumstances, albeit in the very attractive and bohemian lower part of Hampstead, known as Belsize Park and Primrose Hill. Jumble sales were the primary source for clothing and household bits and pieces and nothing was ever new. We would queue for ages on a Saturday morning outside church halls and scout huts, but what we found was amazing and I had the most fantastic dressing-up box. I still have the old wicker chest that I kept everything in, it's one of those large old theatrical hampers that belonged to my father who was a dancer, but sadly none of the wonderful clothes that were in it. As a cash strapped art student most of what I wore came from the local Hampshire jumble sales and once I joined the BBC costume department as an assistant designer "old clothes" took on the new title of "period costume" whether the era of the particular story was set in, be it the early 1800s or the 1950s.

How big (roughly) is your collection now?
I'm too scared to count the individual garments but it fills a studio that is 18, 000 square feet and everything is hung on two tiers of scaffolding! (Not counting the boxes and drawers…)

How did you grow it into a business rather than purely a passion?
After having trained and worked as a fashion textile designer, I changed track and joined the BBC. My changing career taught me to appreciate the value of old clothes from all aspects. I had always sold vintage pieces that I picked up from the fantastic jumbles sales around Hampshire where I was at art school. It supplemented my student grant and it proved there was a demand for lovely old clothes. When the BBC made all the design services redundant I began to freelance as a designer and stylist and over the years ended up with quite a large, eclectic stock of garments that were too good to sell. I knew their value to both the fashion/ textile trade and other costume designers and stylists so I looked for premises in a good location.

What is your favourite piece from your collection?
It's impossible to pick one – I have so many pieces that I love for different reasons; I have some beautiful jersey pieces from the seventies by Bill Gibb and Yuki. The clever cutting and resulting drapery is exquisite making them timeless without being boring classics. Among the scarf collection I have several of the famous Ascher Squares by different artists that I love not only for the artwork but for the uplift their acquisition gave me. I went out buying very early one Saturday morning at the time I was writing the book Scarves. I was feeling utterly depressed and exhausted from family/ work pressures and the additional commitment of trying to write a book. I picked up two of the most famous squares by Philippe Julian and the yellow rose design by Cecil Beaton for Ascher for pennies! How could I not continue the book on scarves?! Julian's illustrative designs are so intricate and Beaton’s rose is so evocative of the early fifties.

Have you any piece you really regretted letting slip through your fingers?
When I first opened up the studio on a commercial basis Topshop's online department approached me to supply them with really special vintage garments. Nothing like the cheap, easily found vintage that was sold in store at the time and can be found in many vintage shops and concessions today. The buyers wanted to create an online vintage selection, very high end, expensive and unusual. From my constant sourcing, I used to sell them the garments that I felt I could part with: one maxi dress was a real museum peace by Jean Varon. The floral print was so bold and distinctive set within a black and white checkerboard border, rather like an empty crossword. Around the neck someone had filled in an address and phone number on the white squares: it conjured up pictures of bohemian sixties parties and a very stoned gentleman leaving his contact details on a ladies dress. I managed to remove the ballpoint message and Topshop loved it: but that dress would have quadrupled in value even now. 

Now that vintage is your business, do you still wear as many vintage pieces?
Yes of course! But I really miss my art school days when my best friend and I used to plan our Saturdays around the local jumble sales of Winchester. We used to drive around in her old green Renault 4 called Horace and return with the car overloaded with naval whites, fifties ball gowns, thirties silk night dresses – just an incredible selection. My staple student summer wardrobe included white canvas brogues and long white cotton drill sailor shorts.

What is a ‘typical’ day/week in your business?
In all honesty no day is really typical! I am constantly sourcing new stock, which is getting harder as British stock is starting to run out. I may have an appointment with a high street design team looking for inspiration for two seasons ahead or I may be prepping for a photo shoot or helping a costume designer select garments for a television series. I rarely know what the following week will bring!

Have you noticed any difference in the types of vintage being most sought after in the last couple of years?
There is an increasing demand for inexpensive "recent" vintage that is cleverly styled by the vintage shops. While many knock it for not really being "vintage" it has an important place in the cycle of fashion; street trends often trigger fashions that are adopted by the more commercial and mainstream markets.

Now that vintage is fashionable, do you think it’s in danger of becoming over-priced/over saturated?
Original pieces cannot saturate the market as there simply aren't enough of them. But many are abusing the term vintage and applying it to any second hand clothes. These are saturating eBay, market stalls and cheaper venues. The rarer, original pieces are being bought and resold through "curated" vintage outlets so much that the price is just escalating. A dealer will search auctions or ebay for desirable garments that are then bought and resold by selective vintage shops and so on: the price of a garment just increases as it passes through so many hands.

What piece of advice would you pass to someone just starting to experiment with vintage?
To do just that; experiment until you find the shapes and styles that suit you. Vintage holds its price so garments can always be resold if you make a mistake. Think eclectically, not in terms of era – treat each garment as a thing of beauty in its own right and then you will successfully blend it into your wardrobe.

And what advice do you wish someone had told you when you started collecting vintage?
Well I suppose I have always looked at vintage professionally rather just for wearability. So I will buy a ripped mouldy dress if it has a commercial print. I don't think there is much anyone could have told me except that it was going to start running out more quickly than anyone ever imagined.


Thanks Nicky for those wonderful insights. But how depressing is the thought of vintage running out? Stockpile now, everyone (I seem to have been obeying that policy for quite a few years now...)

You can order a copy of Vintage Fashion Complete here. Nicky is also taking part in an event at London's Fashion & Textile Museum on 6 November, discussing how vintage fashion influences contemporary style. Find out more and how to get your tickets here

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Monday, 6 October 2014

Monday Detail: The Hand Motif

5. The Hand Motif

Gloves designed by Elsa Schiaparelli, autumn/winter 1936. Philadelphia Museum of Art

Over at my new blog Fancies, I've pulled together a collection of items all inspired by the hand motif. While I was writing it, all I could think about was Schiaparelli. I'd seen some of her hand gloves in the Paris Haute Couture exhibition and they still looked suitably shocking, almost 80 years on.

Causse x Yazbukey via Colette

Really, this 2014 design, a collaboration between French glovemakers Cause and the designers Yazbukey just jazzes up her idea a little. 

Another company I feature, Vivetta, have a love of the Surreal that screams Schiap, while the scarf makers SuTurno acknowledge their debt to the designer on their About page.  

Evening belt, Elsa Schiaparelli, a/w 1934. The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Schiaparelli first employed hand motifs eighty years ago, for her autumn/winter 1934 collection. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, she also used hand on a jacket, cape and handbag. Schiaparelli was moving in Surrealist circles and the hands, along with the rest of the body, were a key surrealist motif. The likes of Man Ray in his photographs and Meret Oppenheim's art objects also played with them in their work. 

Elsa Schiaparelli 'Cocteau' evening jacket, a/w 1937. The Metropolitan Museum of Art

This jacket from Schiaparelli's autumn/winter 1937 collection is a result of her collaboration with Jean Cocteau. Indeed, her association with the surrealists proved fruitful in many ways: think of her witty Shoe hat or the Lobster dress which resulted from working with Salvador Dali. 

Elsa Schiaparelli brooch, a/w 1936. Via Or Not Magazine

As well as the gloves and the bags, Schiaparelli used hands motifs for jewellery too. This elaborately bedecked brooch was designed by Jean Schlumberger, Schiaparelli's jewellery designer, for the a/w 1936 collection. 

Almost as well-accessorised is this contemporary hand brooch, this one designed by Lou Taylor

Hand motifs also appeared in a/w 2014 collections from the likes of Holly Fulton, Osman, Opening Ceremony, Karen Walker and Carven. Perhaps - in reaction to all the 'normcore' chat - fashion is taking a turn for the surreal. now, wouldn't that be fun? 

Monday, 22 September 2014

Models Never Talk

Over the last few years, I've become more and more fascinated by fashion models. There they are throughout fashion history, the medium through which a designer presents the clothes to the consumers, but them models rarely get studied in their own right (Caroline Evans' The Mechanical Smile is one of the honourable exceptions).

Instead they can be seen as instruments for the designer or the photographer to convey their vision. Think of Paul Poiret's instruction, "do not talk to the models, they do not exist," Their mute beauty creates a canvas onto which we can project our fantasies and also our fears: remember the blame that was laid at the feet of the models in the size 0 debate?

I was therefore really interested to hear about a presentation put on by Paris' Palais Galliera curator Olivier Saillard in Paris, titled "Models Never Talk" (pictured above, and at the top of the post). It featured seven French mannequins who had worked for the likes of Yves Saint Laurent, Rei Kawakubo and Thierry Mugler during the 1980s and 90s. From their memories, Saillard put together a script, which the models themselves acted out, dressed in black leotards and tights, reminiscent of the black tabards that had to be worn under the garments shown by the very first models in the late 19th century.

Through their performance, according to this report in the NY Times at least, they not only showed how couture felt and moved, they also showed how they walked and how cut and footwear could change the way they walked (remember The Mannequin Glide from even further back in modelling history?). It's interesting in itself the show was reviewed in the dance section of the paper. "Models are an important part of fashion history,” Saillard is reported as saying by “They are important to a fashion designer’s process. But suddenly, when they’re on the catwalk, they’re silent."

Sarah Grant on World of Difference, via

This week, I came across another example of models talking, a 1978 TV programme called World of Difference: The Models that's back up on the BBC website thanks to their current Sound of Style season. The programme contrasts the experiences of Cherry Marshall, a model in the 1940s and an agency owner in the 1950s and 60s who I wrote about here, with those of Sarah Grant, an Australian model working in London in the 1970s (and who, more recently, modelled for Chanel in Sydney aged 60 according to this article).

The film is well worth watching for many reasons, including a brilliant appearance from Norman Parkinson. But it's also great in charting how much modelling changed over that 30 year period, from the upper class gals with their cut glass accents (I did not expect Cherry Marshall to sound like that) and their ladylike demeanour, to personalities, nudity and the storytelling of the 1970s and that we take for granted in editorials today. “I regret that the glamour has gone," Cherry Marshall says. "That your average model girl today doesn’t look like a model. You pass her in the street and she could be anybody. I think that’s a shame.” 

Both Saillard's show and this TV programme prove the point that when a model talks, you can learn something new, and different, about the process of fashion than you might get from fashion designers or journalists. Perhaps that shouldn't need to be stated. But, as articles such as this one remind us, there's still a lot that models need to speak out about.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Fancy New Fancies

I was meant to be setting up a professional website; instead I found myself creating an entirely different blog. Fancies is my new toy, a brand new blog devoted to brand new things, from fashion to interiors. You can take a look here, follow it on bloglovin here and on Twitter here.

It's going to include the kind of thing I wrote about for Domestic Sluttery and the kind of thing pictured here, plus a few more "in my wildest dreams" pieces. Basically it's a place for all my materialistic urges, meaning Last-Year Girl will continue on its vintage/bookish path: not quite as new, not quite as shiny, but equally beloved by me.

Hope you enjoy reading/looking at the pictures/window shopping along with me!

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Buying Biba

Biba is having a moment. Well, Biba always seems to be having a moment. Remember the excitement about founder Barbara Hulanicki's range for Topshop? Or the Brighton exhibition last year? Even House of Fraser's Biba collection (nothing to do with Hulanicki) can't seem to dampen the love for this 1960s and 70s label. That's certainly reflected in the prices: clothes that were proudly pitched at secretaries, as well as model girls, now go for hundreds and thousands of pounds. 

Part of the reason for the current enthusiasm is down to this gorgeous new looking book, The Biba Years, published by my friends at the V&A and written by Hulanicki with Martin Pel, the curator of the Brighton show. The Biba label is also strongly represented in next month's Kerry Taylor auction, as the sale includes Lorraine Harper's Biba collection. Harper worked for the company between 1970 and 1975 and her role, which included merchandise planning and overseeing production, means she was able to collect one-off Biba pieces as well as the kind of merchandise that defined Biba as a lifestyle brand. Over at FarFetch, they're also promoting a collection of vintage Biba, sourced by the L.A. boutique Decades.

Biba vintage cat print trouser suit, FarFetch

It's amazing how fashionable these Biba pieces look in 2014. Check out this vintage cat print trouser suit for example. See also: culottes, floral trousers, chunky platforms.

Madeline Smith, photograph by David Silverstein. Via

Biba vintage geometric print mini dress, FarFetch

At FarFetch, the Biba items have been listed alongside contemporary pieces that share the same aesthetic, including many of the accessories from the new Saint Laurent collection.

Biba black and white striped lurex dress, early 1970s, Kerry Taylor Auctions

Biba dress photographed by Arthur Elgort for British Vogue, November 1972, via

While Biba's original photography and merchandising, and the almost-mythology surrounding the Biba stores, create a notion of undeniable glamour, perhaps the most noticeable thing about the clothes themselves is that they seem so wearable. They're clothes you can imagine buying for parties and special occasions, or even every day: I'd like to wear an awful lot of these clothes regardless of their label. That combination is as potent today as it must have been in the 1960s and 70s. Imagine what it must have been like when the clothes were also comparatively affordable.

Biba vintage off-shoulder maxi dress, FarFetch

Sunday, 7 September 2014

What's your fashion type?

Bullock's tea room, Los Angeles, 1920s. Via. Is this the "daily fashion showing during luncheon"?

How would you describe your fashion personality type? Are you artistic, with a love of vivid colours, peasant necklines, and bizarre jewellery? Or are you modern, sleek, boyish, “just now shingle bobbed”? I’ve taken those descriptions from a 1920s guide to fashion personality types by L.A. department store Bullocks (as quoted in this post on American Age Fashion), but – according to Elle magazine at least – these questions are just as valid in 2014. Their September accessories supplement asks the question: “What kind of woman are you?” with possible answers including The Athlete, The Lady, as well as The Modernist and The Artist (illustrated with some vividly coloured bizarre jewellery, naturally).

The September issue of Elle UK pushes fashion ‘types’ in a big way. In her introduction to the issue, editor Lorraine Candy writes: "I'm excited about a/w 2014 because there are no style rules - every trend is open to your own personal interpretation, which means fashion is fun again … Now you can be anything from a BMX biker girl to a power woman dressed in superbold colours." Exciting, yes, but it's further into the magazine they get to the real crux of the matter, writing: "In her 10 years on the magazine, Anne-Marie Curtis has seen some remarkable seasons come and go. And this one: It's tricky."

For fashion magazines that thrive on picking out trends and must-have buys, this disparity of styles is tricky. Simon Doonan expands on this in a piece for the FT:

“The fashion landscape has never been more vast, diverse and mind-numbingly confusing than it is today. Where there were 20 designers, there are now 20,000. Where there was serenity, there is now only mayhem and despair.

Adding to the confusion is the fact that the fashion commentators – editors, reviewers, fashion directors – are in total denial. Rather than cop to the fact that mother fashion has exploded and fragmented beyond all comprehension, these advice-givers persist in distilling the season into a neat little cluster of trends just as they always have: masculine tailoring! Couture shapes! Grey is the new black!”

He concludes with the advice: “In order to traverse this endless fashion landscape … you need only take one simple step: you must adopt – drumroll – your own signature look.”

Except it’s not that easy, is it? No matter how closely you opt in or out of trends, they do influence the way we get dressed in the morning and they help us judge, for better or worse, the people we encounter. Most importantly, they help drive that urge to go shopping, because (if you're me, something along the lines of) you realise you don’t own any culottes and suddenly they look quite fresh and fashionable and actually you quite fancy trying some.

We’re not in the early 70s anymore, but – according to Amanda Mackenzie Stuart’s account at least – towards the end of Diana Vreeland’s editorship at Vogue she being criticised for not letting her readers know about trends: by encouraging them to create their own style, she was alienating them. Moreover, she was losing the support of the magazine’s advertisers who needed her to push trends.

Thanks to the internet, it’s easier to go shopping and buy anything we fancy. Perhaps we’ll see more fashion ‘types’ used again in editorials and by shops to help us navigate all the choices, with future purchases governed by BuzzFeed-style quizzes. Back to September 2014, “Here's how to nail it, whatever your style” states Elle, giving you options whether you are A Rock Chick, Ladylike, Boho or A Minimalist (these types all distinguished by the Use Of Capitals). However, just like Bullock’s insistence that dark hair and dark eyes qualify you as the artistic type, this argument isn’t terribly convincing either. We can have days when we want to look ladylike, (perhaps a job interview), or like a rock chick (at a gig maybe?). Talking about people in terms of fashion types seems even less persuasive than talking about wider fashion trends.

In a much wider field, how we going to be made to Buy More Things? And to Buy The Things the huge clothing brands want us to buy? The answer is probably closer to Doonan’s suggestion of a signature look. But I imagine that signature look won’t be your own: it’ll be the look of a celebrity or, more likely, one of the uber bloggers, who can attract dedicated and devoted readers. Read about their lives; shop their wardrobe. Less fashion personality types; more fashion personalities.

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