A vintage-fashion treasure trove
By Valli Herman Los Angeles Times
(Original Publication: October 23, 2006)
LOS ANGELES - If you were a vintage clothing fan, you'd probably dream of finding a stash of designer-label clothes with styles from the last 50 years. There would be multiple choices of colors, a range of sizes and, just for fun, the accessories to match. And since we're dreaming, it would all be in mint condition.
Doris Raymond, owner of the La Brea Avenue vintage store The Way We Wore, isn't dreaming. Late last month, she found the mother lode.
Raymond, a longtime vintage-clothing retailer and collector who recently set up shop in Los Angeles, bought most of the 5,000-piece wardrobe of an eccentric, wealthy and now departed clotheshorse who shopped madly for most of her long life. From the moment the collection landed in the two-level store, vintage aficionados, costumers and designers have been buzzing about the great finds and the mystery woman who owned every single piece.
There are Halston evening gowns, Goldworm print dresses, St. John skirt suits, James Galanos party frocks, Diane von Furstenberg prints and many items from obscure and significant moments of fashion history. Together, they constitute a kind of fashion time capsule. All of it came from one fashion-loving woman - Raymond declined to identify her but said she was not a celebrity - who for nearly five decades bought and saved every piece of clothing she ever adored. And she was, it's fair to say, promiscuous. Almost all of it was never worn.
This new collection, which may be named "The Mint Collection" because of its condition, can only improve upon her store's and the city's desirability for fashion researchers and fans. Both will likely build on their reputation as a top destination for midcentury fashion and help spin the wheel of inspiration for designers, stylists and the fashionable.
"This is food for certain visual people," Raymond said. "I'm only now thinking of who to contact. I can see Donna Karan loving the Bonnie Cashin," she said, heading toward a rack sporting perhaps 100 pieces of the California designer's colorful, artfully woven woolens - all unworn. "I'm already thinking of how Prada would like these," she said, pulling out one of several early 1950s bathing-suit ensembles, with coverups, hats or skirts. Designers for the swimwear company Cole of California have already been in to survey items they might add to their archives. Others are shopping for items to put in collections down the road.
The collection starts in roughly the 1940s with rare Claire McCardell culottes and a museum-worthy balloon bloomer playsuit, progresses to flirty, frilly 1950s cocktail dresses, wanders through riots of 1960s prints, discovers designers in the 1970s and matures into neatly matched knit sets in the 1980s.
Through it all, the collection includes multiple copies of a single design.
"This woman had severe obsessive-compulsive disorder," Raymond said. She was a pampered only child who late in life married a wealthy older man. He indulged her shopping habits and even built a mansion with 14 closets. She was petite in her youth, a size 2 or 4, though grew to a 12 or 14 in her last years. These were her everyday clothes; the couture was sold to museums.
"Shopping was her job," said Raymond as she surveyed the crammed back room that will stock her store for at least six months, if not longer. The woman, who lived into her 90s, often bought every color and every variation and every matching accessory and tucked them away, unworn. That's why there are two still-tagged St. John skirt suits, one in turquoise, one in purple. And there are Castleberry knit suits, one blue with white trim, and one white with blue trim. There are two identical leaf-print '60s cocktail dresses and at least 60 Von Furstenberg dresses from the '70s.
A few phone calls to top costume designers and collectors had them coming in before Raymond even had a moment to organize the piles. She hadn't even addressed the 2-foot-deep stack of scarves, the towers of hatboxes, the gloves still in their wrappers, the fur stoles, jackets and wraps. With only two racks on the floorweeks, the clothes have already started a feeding frenzy, Raymond said.
"I've been selling volumes of things," she said. Already, she's sold or shown items to representatives from the chain Forever 21, the stylists for Jada Pinkett Smith, Kylie Minogue, and the young designer team for Trasteverine, Brian Frank and Michalyn Andrews.
The day after Raymond unpacked part of the collection, actress and vintage aficionado Mia Sara was upstairs, trying on the eveningwear.
"I've always wanted a beautiful cocktail dress," she said as onlookers admired how a shirred blue dress created a shapely backside. "At a certain era, I'm the same size as this woman," she said.
Downstairs, costume designer Albert Wolsky and his assistant designer Susan Hall scouted '80s pieces for their movie "Charlie Wilson's War." Costume designers for Cate Blanchett had already put a hold on the rare vintage leotards for her movie "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." A few days later, the star's stylist pulled nearly 100 pieces for her to try.
The staff and customers get giddy as they reach randomly into a rack and pull out five matching Halston gowns, each in a different color, or discover a '60s manufacturer unknown to all but the vintage cognoscenti. Rack after rack, row after row, the variations just keep coming - one with roses, one with peonies; another with a collar, another without.
"See what happens when you're obsessive-compulsive and rich!" quipped Sarah Bergman, store manager, as she attempted to squeeze through the jammed aisles. Although the collector's hoarding disorder is disturbing, the beneficiaries of her efforts are rejoicing in the clothing's like-new condition.
The collection, though vast, is deficient in several significant ways. It appears light on some American designers such as Pauline Trigere, Adele Simpson or Ceil Chapman, for example. The sizes are quite small in the most desirable eras, and the mystery woman's purses are, said Raymond, mediocre. At first glance, it also seems to avoid pants, black and several key turning points in fashion, including the signature Von Furstenberg wrap dresses.
"The thing that's interesting is she had a conservative bent, but she also had a playful side. You can see the fashion rebel in her," said Raymond.
Although a 5,000-piece collection is unusual, it's not unheard of, said Linda Donahue, a Palm Beach-based vintage and couture expert. "It would be nice to know who she is, because it would be nice to give her the credit," Donahue said. "Maybe she wasn't famous, but she's famous for this, in this eccentric way. And thank God we have eccentrics or else great collections would never come up."
Still, the mystery woman remains just that - a mystery.
"I wonder what she actually wore," said Raymond. "Where is that stuff? Did she throw it away?"
This particular collection, a microcosm of vintage collecting, offers as many answers as questions. It illustrates a singular period in history along with the quirks of its collector.
"This is the ultimate aspect of anthropology," said Raymond, a former anthropology student. "It's so rare to get a glimpse of a person's life."
The items could sell for as little as $20 for a summer blouse to $250 and up for a cocktail dress to $3,000 for a rare piece. "At least half of these clothes transcend time," Raymond said, scanning the still-unpacked 14 trash bags, 48 hatboxes and uncounted piles 4 feet high. For Raymond, too, this is the collection of a lifetime.