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Cabinet Of Curiosities: The Wardrobes Of These Fashion Collectors Will Give You Closet Envy



The Coromandel Gold Coat from Chanel Fall/Winter 1996/1997 Haute Couture once belonged to fashion collector Mouna Ayoub before selling at auction for AU$518,000. Ahead, a rare glimpse inside the wares of fashion’s most ardent archivists. Credit: Kimberlee Kessler


As I write this, my closet – the built-ins of Sydney’s rentals and IKEA-assembled ’robes of one’s youth – sit idle. For the past week, they’ve borne witness to the flurry of vintage and one-of-ones that have crossed my path; an encounter spawned by an attempt to delve deep into the psyches – and wardrobes – of the individuals who dedicate their lives and livelihoods to curating archives of legacy.

These fervent collectors are masters of their craft, accruing masses of rare and mundane pieces of designer wares. For the ‘Queen of Couture’, Mouna Ayoub; the patron saint of avant-garde menswear, David Casavant; and the founder of catnip for It Girls fashion boutique Pechuga Vintage, Johnny Valencia, their sartorial possessions serve less as utility and more as a tangible history of fashion’s most impactful creations. Pieces of cultural and historical significance worth amassing.

Nestled in provincial France, away from the bright lights of Paris where she does most of her shopping, lies Ms. Ayoub’s collection of Karl Lagerfeld-designed Chanel Haute Couture, estimated to be worth €200m (AU$332m). Across the Atlantic, Casavant’s archive of esoteric Raf Simons and Helmut Lang is obscured from the buzz of Manhattan’s streets in its own studio apartment – a collection that fully justifies its appellation. Over on the West Coast in Los Angeles, Valencia concocts fantasies with a reservoir of Vivienne Westwood corsets and body-conscious, retro-futuristic Jean Paul Gaultier cyberdot dresses.

Take stock of your closet – the contents of which can only carry a torch for the cabinet of curiosities this enamoured trio has forged. The opportunity to peek into their contents is as scarce as the garments themselves. Yet here they unbar their hatches and allow us an unwonted pry. Let the lurking begin.

Mouna Ayoub

GRAZIA: What first sparked your love of fashion and how did this moment blossom into a collection valued at AU$200m?

MOUNA AYOUB: I first came to Paris to study when I was 16 and I was mesmerised by the clothes that were on display. Although I didn’t have the means [to buy the clothes], I used to spend all my free time studying fashion via the shop windows.

GRAZIA: What was your first trip to Paris for haute couture week like? Which atelier did you visit first and how many creations did you take home in your first season?

MA: My first Paris haute couture week was shortly before I secured my divorce. I visited Chanel, Dior, Jean Paul Gaultier and Yves Saint Laurent and selected and purchased around 30 pieces in total in just that one season.

GRAZIA: Couture pieces are not only works of art but impeccable displays of craftsmanship. How do you decide which pieces to purchase from a collection?

MA: Initially, I consider the silhouette of the piece. Then I look at the craftsmanship in the decoration and the intricacy of construction involved. The more artisanal skill involved – whether it’s embroidery, feathers or pleats – makes it a unique and special piece and not so easy to copy.

GRAZIA: Has there ever been an instance when you’ve attended haute couture week and never bought anything?

MA: Never. I always find something to buy.

GRAZIA: For you, collecting isn’t a matter of hunting down a piece online, but having four to six fittings to create the garments based on your measurements. Do you ever buy retrospectively or only new season?

MA: I prefer to buy new season works mainly because I want to encourage the creation behind a collection and give work to countless couture premieres – the skilled fabric weavers, button makers and, of course, the atelier seamstresses. (In France we call them ‘les petites mains’ or ‘the little hands’.) I don’t buy vintage as such, but lately I’ve been considering acquiring a couple of exceptional Dior haute couture pieces designed by John Galliano. Pieces that I missed ordering at the time. We shall see.

GRAZIA: You vow to never wear the same thing twice, and sometimes you’ve never even worn these couture pieces in public. Can you tell me the story behind a piece you’ve felt was so special you’ve never shown or told anyone about?

MA: The Coromandel gold dress from Chanel Fall/Winter 1996/1997 Haute Couture. It was a unique dress that I never wore and ended up donating it to the Musée des Arts Décoratifs because it was too precious and, frankly, belonged more in a museum than in my possession.

The Coromandel gold dress from Chanel Fall/Winter 1996/1997 Haute Couture. Credit: Chanel and Mouna Ayoub.

GRAZIA: Can you indulge us in revealing the piece you spent the most money on? Was it worth the price?

MA: It was that same Coromandel gold dress from Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel FW96 Haute Couture that I donated. I can’t remember the exact price, but it was well over a million French francs at the time. It was an exceptional piece that now forms part of this major museum collection. Such a big honour for both Chanel and I.

GRAZIA: Your Coromandel Chanel coat sold for a world record of €312,000 (AU$518,000). Now that you’ve sold off 252 pieces, what remains as the rarest piece in your collection?

MA: From my Chanel collection, I kept some unique tweed pieces and some long evening dresses. One of them was even more expensive than the Coromandel gold dress. I still retain major haute couture pieces by various designers and with every new season I add more – especially as I have a little more room, having sold several hundred pieces now via [Parisian auctioneers] Kerry Taylor chez Maurice.

GRAZIA: Is there a piece that you regret selling in that recent auction? What is one piece you’ll never part with?

MA: I regret selling lot nine – a beautiful long sequinned ‘ribbon’ dress from Chanel’s SS91 Haute Couture. Karl was inspired by the fringed ribbon dresses Coco herself designed in the mid-1920s. But I never found the opportunity to wear it, not even once. Editor’s note: the gown, worn by Linda Evangelista on the runway, sold for €18,200 (AU$30,200).

GRAZIA: Was there ever a time you were told acquiring a piece was impossible?

MA: Yes, it was the animal-themed Schiaparelli SS23 Haute Couture collection. Daniel Roseberry designed gowns with realistic faux animal heads as decoration. I wanted the snow leopard dress, but there was such a furore and backlash in the press (even though the animal heads were made from silk and no animals had been harmed) that the house decided not to reproduce them, which was a shame.

GRAZIA: What was the last conversation you had with Karl Lagerfeld?

MA: Karl and I were not close friends, but we regularly met at big social events. The last time I saw him, he told me how appreciative he was that I had supported haute couture over the decades by always ordering new creations and thus giving work to the skilled craftsmen and women of the ateliers. Indeed, he described me as ‘the saviour of haute couture’, especially in the late ’70s and ’80s when haute couture was struggling and many houses had to close. He also approved that I regularly expressed, via the press, not only my love of haute couture but also my anxiety about not losing such a beautiful artistic expression – one of the most precious of all applied arts.

Johnny Valencia

GRAZIA: How many pieces are in your collection? What was the most difficult piece to obtain?

JOHNNY VALENCIA: The pieces are always revolving, and because I count every single piece that comes in as a potential item to sell, I’d say a bit over 1,000. The most difficult piece to obtain? That’s the next one.

GRAZIA: Which piece did you actively hunt down most keenly?

JV: At the time of writing, I’m currently on the hunt for two very specific items: the cobalt blue fox-fur coat from Saint Laurent’s FW16 collection by Hedi Slimane, and the Louis Vuitton x Vivienne Westwood faux cul centennial bag from 1996. I’ve managed to track them both down. Now it’s a matter of waiting.

GRAZIA: Your collection of Vivienne Westwood corsets is what put you on the map. Tell us about the process of acquiring them.

JV: In 2015, Vivienne Westwood sent out a company memo that said, “All corsets and corseted pieces are to be taken off the sales floor.” I had started working for Westwood as an intern in 2012. This note made me seek these specific pieces out. The first corset I ever got my hands on was one from the SS96 collection, ‘Les Femmes’, and that led me to collect several others from FW93/94 and FW90/91. There was never an intention to be known as the guy who collected corsets. That happened over time. Now corsets are a renewed global trend. Funny how that is!

GRAZIA: What is the rarest piece in your collection?

JV: That’s a hard question to answer because rare doesn’t always equate to intrinsic value. I’d say this one Jean Paul Gaultier shopper bag from the mid-’90s is probably the rarest piece of ephemera we currently have in our collection. It’s made out of paper and it was designed by Thierry Perez. The V&A in London has one in their collection; ours is currently in our office. The next rarest item is the two completed ensembles we have from Vivienne Westwood’s SS89 and AW95 collections. I love completing outfits, it’s like working backwards on a puzzle. You have no choice but to find the missing piece.

GRAZIA: What is the most amount of money you’ve spent on a piece?

JV: I think to date probably the Issey Miyake acrylic bustier from FW80/81. I spent around US$50,000 (AU$76,800), and yes, it was worth every cent! Worldwide there are only two for sale and we have one of them; there are approximately four in private collections.

Issey Miyake’s acrylic bustier from FW80/81 was purchased by Valencia fro AU$76,800. Credit: Johnny Valencia.

GRAZIA: You once had a Jean Paul Gaultier FW95 Cyberdot dress for two hours before selling it to Kim Kardashian. Can you elaborate on what you choose to keep versus what you choose to sell?

JV: Ultimately everything has a price. I acknowledge that I won’t be around forever and that hoarding is a disservice. There’s a saying, ‘You can’t get high off your own supply’. As a vintage dealer, I find this applicable. One sale only funds the next one and if you sell wisely that one sale can lead to many transactions.

GRAZIA: You also famously sold Vivienne Westwood armour boots to Beyoncé. How did you come to sell them to her?

JV: That was a magical morning, and I only say that because I had been hunting those armour boots since I saw them displayed in a French museum exhibition. It was a slow day at work and I needed a serotonin boost, so after tracking the shoes down, I put the boots on and just recorded myself for the Pechuga Instagram, uploaded the lighthearted reel, and my video made it all the way to Ms. Carter. I got a text the next morning saying, “Ms. Carter saw these on your Instagram and would like to…”. You can’t make this up. We packed the boots out and as we all saw, Beyoncé wore them just a week later in London.

GRAZIA: Tell me about your shopping experience when you add something to your collection. Is it an adrenaline rush? Stressful? Do you ever have buyer’s remorse?

JV: I regret nothing! No regrets, no remorse. Acquiring a dream piece can definitely be an adrenaline rush. Imagine seeing an item you’ve only ever come across in images or that you’ve only ever encountered behind a glass wall, and the next thing you know it’s in your hands. It’s like magic. I live for those moments.

GRAZIA: When it comes to your relationship with Vivienne Westwood, what is more important: the art or the artist?

JV: I’d say that one cannot separate the art from the artist; both entities are invariably connected because one cannot exist without the other. I admire Vivienne Westwood first because of her genius, her mind, and then what procured from it. These enchanted pieces that emote. It’s like electricity.

GRAZIA: Can you tell me about the last interaction you had with her, both as an employee and as a contemporary?

JV: When I met Vivienne, I was still working for her and didn’t know quite what to expect. I was still her employee, so I greeted her, did a slight bow with my head, and excused myself to get back to work. I’m sure I was nervous as all hell. I never encountered her again.

GRAZIA: You’ve continued your relationship with the Westwood family through your relationship with her granddaughter, Cora. What is one vintage piece from their archive that you’d love to acquire from them?

JV: I don’t think I’d ever ask for anything from her. But she does have this gorgeous rose-printed silk jacket from Vivienne Westwood SS94 that I admire. It’s my favourite Westwood print and my favourite collection.

GRAZIA: The theme of our print issue is Legacy. What will happen to the collection once you’ve passed on?

JV: My main goal with my collection is to teach. I’d love for that to be the continued mission after I pass. It would be a great idea to have some of these items either sold for a good cause or distributed to galleries and spaces of learning so that others may benefit. It would be a dream to have my collection be tied to my country somehow. I’m from El Salvador and I’ve always thought about donating to the Museum of Art of El Salvador. I wonder how they’ll fit in my pieces with what’s currently displayed. (I’ve already thought of this question, as you can tell.)

David Casavant

GRAZIA: What is the piece that cemented you as a bona fide collector?

DAVID CASAVANT: I don’t think there is a singular piece. I don’t know what would quantify being a collector, but maybe when I had to get a separate apartment for my clothes. It’s a big open space and everything is hung on racks mostly by category – coats, pants, T-shirts, sweaters – and then my shoes and accessories are on shelves on the walls.

GRAZIA: How many pieces are in your collection? What was the most difficult piece to obtain?

DC: It’s in the thousands. I don’t really hunt pieces for the most part; I like to say I let them find me. I just look around and buy what I’m drawn to, rather than already having something in mind and hunting down where in the world it is and how I could buy it.

GRAZIA: Raf Simons’ 2001 ‘Riot Riot Riot!’ jacket is a rare piece that sold for US$47,000 (AU$72,000). You possess a few of these. What is the rarest piece in your collection?

DC: You could say it is the Raf 2001 Riot jacket as I have also had a lot of celebrities who have worn it as well, so I feel like that adds to the value and rarity of it. In my archive, I also have different samples that weren’t produced by Raf Simons and Helmut Lang, making them one-of-one.

GRAZIA: Are there garments you own that you’ve never shown or told anyone about?

DC: Yes, but not because I’m trying to hide them. Some have been in storage so just haven’t had the chance to be seen yet.

GRAZIA: Your collection was valued at approximately US$20m (AU$31m) in 2018. What piece did you spend the most money on?

DC: Most things that I own that are now valuable, I bought years ago and for not very much, as they weren’t valued at the time. I used to buy more new pieces from stores but I don’t as much anymore. The most might have been a Hedi Slimane for Saint Laurent leopard-print fur coat. I just went to the store and bought it. My philosophy with buying is that I have usually gotten things for such a great deal that if I pay a lot for some items, it all averages out. [The coat has] been used a lot, so I feel like it was worth it.

GRAZIA: Your archive has taken on a life of its own, thanks to the celebrities you’ve loaned to and the shoots you’ve styled. How do you balance adding to the archive for yourself, versus curating based on commercial value?

DC: I usually just buy what I like and what fits into the aesthetic and world I’m curating. Whatever I’m currently inspired by and into inspires what I buy. My overall aesthetic is street-grunge-chic. When I was young I bought things just because I wanted to own them, not to necessarily wear them myself. Every so often, I might see something I know people might [want to loan out] a lot so I might buy it.

GRAZIA: You’re one of the few collectors who isn’t overly precious about loaning out pieces from your archive. Which piece will you never let anyone wear?

DC: Maybe my grandmother’s wedding dress. It was handmade by her family in the 1920s or 1930s and I’ve never seen anything quite like it. It’s quite modern, in a way. The last time I loaned it to someone I regretted it, so I don’t think I will again as that is something more personal to me.

GRAZIA: You’re fascinated by Raf Simons and Helmut Lang, both as designers and for their work. What is your relationship like with them?

DC: I met and talked to Raf at one of his shows and at a party when he was living in NYC, and I wasn’t disappointed. I talked to him about collecting. I had an old parka of his that he was looking for. Of course, it’s sad his own line is no more, but it makes what he did even more special. I haven’t met Helmut but feel the same way about his work and love owning it.

GRAZIA:  You’ve already compiled a book of your archive and sold some of your pieces at Dover Street Market. What will happen to the rest of the collection once you’ve passed on?

DC: I’m pretty young still, so odds are that might not be for a long time. I think if I died now it would just go to my family who would have to decide what to do with it. They would probably donate it to a museum.


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