Inside The Mind Of A Collector

“I remember selling a Galliano look that broke a world record. A very early piece from an early collection. It went on at £15,000 to £20,000 and it sold for £72,000. Everyone was asking, ‘How much did that cost you?’ And I’ll tell you what my answer was. I said, ‘It cost me 10 years of my life.’”

That’s Steven Philip speaking, the internationally renowned collector of Vivienne Westwood and John Galliano. He runs vintage mecca Steven Philip Studio and was the co-founder of Rellik, which he is no longer involved with. He has devoted not years but decades to collecting the work of the designers he developed a passion for. That rare John Galliano complete ensemble from his SS85 Afghanistan Repudiates Western Ideals collection sold at Kerry Taylor Auctions in 2019.

The wee lad from Glasgow had always loved high fashion but felt alienated by the bourgeoisie and glamour of it until he discovered the ultimate rule breaker, Westwood, devoted his career to her, and then to Galliano. He started by saving up all his money to buy a Westwood sash and ended up with the foremost collection in the world, putting in countless hours and travelling endless miles in the pursuit of lost or divided original catwalk looks. “I call it the jigsaw,” he says. “For me, it’s always been about finding full ensembles, the way the designer had on the catwalk. And it’s very difficult to do that [because] some ensembles get up to five [parts], some could have 12 pieces. So a pirate look [from Westwood/McLaren AW81-82], maybe you have a brocade jacket. Wonderful. One just sold for £1,500. Now, if you’ve got the jacket, and then you’ve got the brocade trousers, you’ve got the start of a suit. Then you need to find the original Hammerhead pirate boots, not the regular-strap ones that everybody’s got. Then you’ve got to find the socks, the shirt, the sash and the waistcoat that pulls it all together. And finally you’ve got to find the original hat. When you have all these pieces, that completes the jigsaw.”

Steven Philip in his Brighton vintage studio.

This summer, in the wake of Westwood’s passing, Philip sold part one of his archive’s prized collection (part two is coming up in December) and that complete Westwood/McLaren Pirate ensemble from 1981 went for £12,000 at Kerry Taylor Auctions in June.

By the way, Philip’s not moaning about investing 10 years into that particular Galliano piece. Collecting is his joy, has made him a decent living and has given him a name in the fashion industry. But he does want to emphasise how much work it takes to collect. To really collect.

Real collecting is a vocation, a bit like joining a church. You start off by worshipping at the altar of a designer and then you commit to devoting your life to it. “I think to be a great collector, it takes a very particular personality type,” says Lucy Bishop, an auctioneer at Kerry Taylor, which sold the Mr Steven Philip Collection. “The characteristics, or the subtle clues, of a great collector are still the same now as they were in previous generations. It’s someone who usually starts when they’re very young, sometimes even when they’re a child. They develop a specific interest in a particular designer or a particular period of fashion and that interest will turn into a passion.”

There are varying degrees of this passion. “You get the most intense type of lifelong collector for whom it will become an obsession, almost an illness, where they just cannot stop themselves from acquiring pieces. And then there’s the collector who has a more flexible approach. Maybe they collect some things purely to look at, treating them like museum pieces in that most traditional sense of collecting, but maybe they also wear other pieces and then sell them on.”

Vivienne Westwood green croc ghillie platforms and archive Vivienne Westwood pieces.

For Michelle Elie, a Haitian-born, Cologne-based jewellery designer, editor and model who has a world-renowned collection of Comme des Garçons pieces, the pleasure of collecting comes not just in owning something she has long loved, but in wearing it. “I have one life. Who knows? I might die tomorrow. I have to wear my clothes,” she says. “It’s like people buying china and waiting for the guests to come over at Christmas – I don’t do that. I like to wear the clothes that give me so much power and energy. I don’t have to wear them directly, it can be four or five years from now or two seasons from now. But it’s going to be the right occasion because every dress has its moment.”

She’s not only a disciple of CDG. On our Zoom call, Elie is wearing a Julien Dossena Paco Rabanne visor, a show piece that has just arrived at her door. There’s a long and funny tale surrounding how she fell in love with the visor at the show, how she first acquired it, then lost it and then had to go to some lengths to get hold of a replacement. It entirely sums up just how devoted she is.

“I buy Comme out of passion and I buy out of love,” she says. She now has more than 80 runway pieces. Her first was acquired in 1992, a conical straw hat with leather straps. Two years later she committed to apparel: a white cotton trouser suit and integrated dress. “I had gotten paid from one of my first Maybelline modelling jobs and it was the first time I had a chunk of money together,” she says. “Otherwise I couldn’t have afforded it. I was modelling on the side of going to school and then doing a job at Burger King, so my salary was like $75. The dress and the suit together came close to $3,000, which was so much money for me.” And after that she was addicted? “It wasn’t addiction: it was dedication,” says Elie. “You had to be dedicated to the vision of the designer back then. In the 1990s and 2000s we shopped differently. You didn’t see it on the runway, there was no vogue.com, no internet [shopping]. If you were into a certain designer you had to wait for the pieces to come to the shop in the first week of September. So my dedication was from the beginning.”

It’s somewhat easier now to be a collector. “There is a lot more awareness around collecting fashion as an art form than perhaps in previous generations,” says Bishop. “The advent of the internet and the rise of social media has meant that archives and old pieces are more in the limelight. Information about collecting and collectible pieces are much more accessible now. Our auctions can reach people all over the world, whereas back in the day, you had to physically come into the auction room. You had to find out all about a sale by buying a paper catalogue. Now people can hear about it and access it just by looking at their phones.”

Philip with a 1979 Chanel Haute Couture ensemble, archive Bill Gibb ensemble and archive Mugler suit on an original Mugler mannequin.

A common misconception is that collectors have to be rich. But while some are wealthy, for the most part they are people who will sacrifice other indulgences to follow this one particular passion. “I don’t have a big budget and never had a big budget,” says Elie. “Every piece, I struggled to buy.”

At just 25, Henry Wilkinson, a freelance fashion historian and designer who works in costume design for film and television, is part of a new generation willing to make those same sacrifices in order to collect, in his case, Givenchy. The Londoner fell in love with Audrey Hepburn and her clothes after watching the 1961 classic Breakfast at Tiffany’s when he was 10 and decided his life’s ambition was to buy one Givenchy piece. He started to save up and, nine years later, found a pink silk, heavily beaded dress on eBay. He recognised it as an AW62 Givenchy piece, the same style Audrey Hepburn had worn in 1963 to co-present, with Hitchcock blonde Eva Marie Saint, the pair of Academy Awards for Best Costume Design (back then they had one for films in colour and one for black and white). “I decided that this was the piece I had been waiting for,” he says. “I finally won the auction for just shy of £1,000, which was a huge amount of money for me. But it was one of the most exciting moments I can remember, a genuine dream come true.” It wasn’t until a few months later that he discovered his was the only example of that design made. “Meaning my dress was the one worn by Hepburn.”

His collection now consists of more than 30 pieces, including a pair of red shoes worn by Hepburn in his favourite film, 1963’s Charade. “Due to logistical and financial restraints, I have to be very selective with what I buy,” he says. “But that suits my mindset because I never wanted to own everything with a Givenchy label – only the pieces I found really special, that provoked that same excitement that the very first piece brought.”

Although he hasn’t calculated how much he’s invested so far, “It’s certainly more than I’d care to admit. And as much as I understand the investment value, I need reminding that I have to sell them one day to see that investment return. I do have difficulty with the idea of letting some of them go!”

Philip has reached that moment. “The reason I’m selling now is partly because of Vivienne’s passing. But it was always my intention once I completed the jigsaw to sell it. Because if you don’t sell it, you’ll never move on.”

For Bishop, this heralds an interesting point. “The older generation who have built these lifelong collections, which are the best in the world, they’re entering a later stage in their lives and looking to perhaps sell those collections. And now the next generation of collectors are beginning to emerge. For me, as a younger auctioneer, it’s exciting,” she says, “because I’m looking around thinking, whose collections am I going to be selling in 20 years time?”

Top image: Vivienne Westwood AW93/94 tartan heels and mini kilt. Photography by Anna Stokland. Mr. Steven Philip Studio, new location: 78 St George’s Road, Brighton, BN21EF from 15 September 2023. Taken from Issue 71 of 10 Magazine – FASHION, ICON, DEVOTEE – on newsstands now. Order your copy here.

@katefinnigan__

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