Vintage dresses collected as art

People often think of vintage clothes as bargain-priced discoveries. So it may be hard to fathom the excitement of New York collector Juliana Cairone when eight dresses from a now-obscure designer emerged recently from a New Jersey basement.

But in the rarefied world of fashion collecting, the name of the mysterious couturier Madame Gres has its own allure. Gres, who worked from the 1920s into the 1980s, defined the modern Grecian goddess gown and experimented intriguingly with kimono sleeves. To look for her influences, consider goddess gowns we see on red carpets. “She's such a critical designer that anything by her is significant,” said Andrew Bolton, assistant curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute.

The eight dresses include a teal silk-jersey goddess gown, a multihued '70s caftan-like number that just screams cocktails and Bobby Sherman, and a rust kimono-sleeved dress.

Today, Gres is more collected than worn. For the most serious fashion collectors, clothes are art, and the perspiration and skin oils of bodies are dangers. While there are plenty of women who buy and wear vintage fashion, some of the rarest pieces go to private collections and museums such as the Louvre in Paris and the Victoria & Albert in London. These days, the market is lively, fed by London auctions and private deals, with prices rising at times to $20,000 or more for 20th-century garments. Many collectors are prominent in the fashion world. For instance, Hamish Bowles, the owlish European editor at large of Vogue magazine, is known for the vintage couture he began collecting as a teenager.

Filling such collections is as much about scavenging as shopping. Many of the best pieces are sitting in people's closets or in forgotten storerooms. Often, they're mildewed, faded or altered — their value diminished — by descendants who have inherited what they thought was an ugly old dress. The Met regularly scours eBay looking to flesh out its fashion collections — and finds things, Bolton says.

Cairone, a soft-spoken mother of young twins, started out buying vintage haute couture to wear, but when her collection spilled out of her closet into the rest of her New York apartment, her husband began to complain. She set up a booth at a trade show to sell off a few pieces. One thing led to another, and a few years back, she opened a boutique, called Rare Vintage, on West 57th Street in New York City.

The prices at Rare Vintage range from a few hundred dollars to as much as $10,000.

She has stumbled along the way – once buying what she thought was a Gres gown, to find later that only the bodice was original. She has been sent a “Dior” that turned out not to be – a fact she ascertained from details such as the brand of zipper, which was YKK rather than the expected Eclair. Her reputation grew: She dressed actress Angelina Jolie in a flowing mahogany Hermes gown for January's Screen Actors Guild Awards.

A month ago, Cairone received an e-mail from a vintage-clothing appraiser inviting her to see several suits and dresses by Christian Dior and Madame Gres. Cairone hightailed it out to a small home an hour outside New York City.

It was the Gres dresses that drew her. Madame Gres, born Germaine Krebs, was once as well-known as her contemporary Coco Chanel, but while Chanel sold mass-produced ready-to-wear, Gres designed only hand-made haute couture that sold first as the label “Alix” and later as “Madame Gres.” Without a juggernaut corporate investor and global ready-to-wear lines, Gres, who died in 1993, disappeared into obscurity.

But she didn't disappear to collectors. The Gres dresses, Cairone was told, were purchased in Paris in the 1970s and 1980s by a wealthy New Yorker. “Even though Gres' most important period was from the '30s to the '50s,” Bolton said, “we recently showed one of her dresses from the '80s in a ‘New Acquisitions' exhibition.”

Cairone continues to discreetly reach out to other potential buyers. But she is aware that she may be condemning the dresses to decades in a museum archival box. The other day, she dressed carefully in the morning, without putting on lotion or scent. She then headed to Rare Vintage and tried on a multihued teal and red dress. “There's a part of me that feels clothing should have a warm body inside it,” she says.