Past Perfect

With the '50s back in fashion (the '20s too), vintage couture has never been more au courant.

When Balenciaga designer Nicolas Ghesquière recently announced that he would be going into the legendary house's archives to produce vintage couture styles from 1932 to 1968, Barneys New York ordered all six pieces. "How cool is it that a girl can wear Balenciaga from the fifties?" said that store's fashion director, Julie Gilhart. Quite cool, apparently. This season is well stocked with 1950s-inspired looks—a circle skirt from Prada, a pink satin girdle dress from Narciso Rodriguez—and Jazz Age references—floaty flapper dresses from Yves Saint Laurent, spectator T-straps from Ralph Lauren. Of course, for loyal vintage shoppers fashion's flashback is nothing new.

On June 10, they'll line up outside Sotheby's New York for a chance to own Katharine Hepburn's crushed-velvet wedding gown, fuchsia one-piece pantsuit with white piping, brown suede boots, and the diamond and sapphire brooch given to her by Howard Hughes. "The clothing," says director of collectibles Leila Dunbar, "is unique to the time, and to her."

That allure, of times past and of very particular style, is exactly what has propelled vintage shopping out of musty back-room hovels and into full-service—and high-polish—vintage boutiques. Hamish Bowles, Vogue editor and eminent collector of vintage couture clothing, counts among his treasures a 1940s Mainbocher silk crepe blouse that was designed for the Duchess of Windsor, a Balenciaga bolero—crimson silk velvet embroidered with jet—like one made for Margot Fonteyn in 1947, and an Elsa Schiaparelli evening coat, ca. 1938, replete with Christmas tree-decoration buttons. "There's a history," he says. "Vintage pieces are extremely evocative witnesses to the ages in which they were created."

For Tiffany Dubin, collector and creator of the fashion department at Sotheby's, the vintage compulsion took a slightly different tack. "I became captivated when I discovered that some guy named Norman Norell made a size six dress that finally gave me a waist," she says of the U.S. couturier. "I look for a perfect item no one else will have, or something that represents a moment in fashion history."

Historic retrospection aside, right now it does seem the surest way to be of the moment is to take a look back. And if designers are rummaging through the archives, why shouldn't you? For those seeking the season's "must-have," a piece of fashion history, or just exquisite craftsmanship, the following is an insider's guide to the best vintage shopping around the world, online, and on the auction block.


LOS ANGELES

Lily et Cie This may be America's largest collection of museum-quality 20th-century clothing. Here you'll find an extensive Galanos archive, all of Madame Grès' original samples, and the largest collection of Rudi Gernreich in the world. Other highlights include a vast selection of Zandra Rhodes and a silk georgette Jean Dessès evening gown. (All prices upon request.) At 9044 Burton Way; 310-724-5757.

Decades An expertly edited collection of designer labels from the late '50s to late '70s, this is where designers scout ideas. Recently seen: a '50s Madame Grès red jersey and silk goddess cocktail dress ($6,800); a 1937 Lanvin couture peach crepe dress with Lesage sequins ($7,200); a 1959 YSL for Dior purple velvet strapless gown (price upon request). At 8214 1/2 Melrose Avenue; 323-655-0223.

The Paper Bag Princess Owner Elizabeth Mason's philosophy is to fill her two stores (in L.A. and Toronto) with the best of fashion's past. This season, it's "pretty pretty, girly girly, color color," says Mason. Which translates to flirty '80s Scaasi dresses with full skirts and fitted waists ($450); '50s crocheted knit dresses with swing skirts (from $450); and gowns by designer Ceil Chapman ($800-$2,000), who kept Marilyn Monroe looking glamorous. At 8700 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood; 310-358-1985; and 287 Davenport Road, Toronto; 416-925-2603.


NEW YORK

Resurrection With a trend-conscious take on vintage, Resurrection has Betsey Johnson's Punk label ('80s corset dresses with crinoline skirts and bright floral prints with ruffles, $98-$450), and covetable '80s Azzedine Alaia dresses including the Alaia hood dress made famous by Grace Jones ($1,250). At 217 Mott Street; 212-625-1374.

What Comes Around Goes Around At the shop: a vast collection of vintage denim ($55-$3,500). At the by-appointment-only showroom (7,000 square feet, a few blocks away): leather, fur, and western wear, from the 1860s to the 1980s. Of particular interest is children's clothing, from 1900 to the 1970s; an extensive Pucci collection; Callaghan dresses from the early '70s (when Gianni Versace designed the label); and brights from Courrèges and Missoni. At 351 West Broadway; 212-343-9303; showroom, 13-17 Laight Street; 212-274-8340.


EUROPE

Paris: Didier Ludot One of the first, and largest, vintage boutiques. In-store now are YSL suits from the '70s and early '80s ($3,100); Courrèges dresses and suits, one a perfect, sumptuous orange ($2,277); and a white mink shown paired with flirty dresses for spring. "For my customer, it is not a problem, the season," says Ludot. At 20-24 Galerie de Montpensier, Jardin du Palais Royale; 33-1-42-96-06-56.

London: Steinberg & Tolkien Featuring 20th-century English design—right now, Ossie Clark: a red silk wrap day dress in a Celia Birtwell print ($1,500) and burnt orange silk wrap gown with full pleated skirt ($1,560). At 193 Kings Road; 44-20-7376-3660.


ALTERNATE SOURCES

ONLINE Ebay may have democratized vintage buying, but fakes abound there. For safer dot-com shopping, try:

Pieceunique.com "I'm obsessed with details," says site owner Catherine Leroy. Typical finds include a Fendi floral paillette-covered evening jacket and skirt ($1,850); Pucci silk jersey dresses dating from the '60s and '70s ($498-$550); a Gianni Versace Couture black cotton corset dress ($498); an '80s frilled and printed YSL Rive Gauche dress ($350).

Vintagecouture.com Lynda Latner's site swirls with surprises like a Bonnie Cashin trench coat ($500); Hermès Kelly bags in leather ($2,950) and ostrich ($4,500) and Hermès scarves ($250); and, from Yves Saint Laurent, a 1980 smoking plus skirt ($500) and a '70s safari suit ($370).

IN STORES Department stores have taken note of the interest in clothes past, setting up in-house vintage departments that are "pre-edited," says Tiffany Dubin, who runs the vintage shop Lair at Henri Bendel (712 Fifth Avenue; 212-247-1100). Recent offerings include trench coats from the '50s to the '70s; Egyptian-inspired jewelry by Kenneth Jay Lane; sunglasses and scarves from the '60s and '70s. Decades at Barneys (660 Madison Avenue; 212-826-8900) is a twice-yearly trunk show run by Decades' Cameron Silver with items similar to those found at the L.A. store. The vintage shop at Selfridges (400 Oxford Street, London; 44-87-08-377-377) offers a variety of British designers. And at Holt Renfrew (50 Bloor Street W, Toronto, 416-922-2333) Lynda Latner, of vintagecouture.com, stocks classic looks by American couturiers.

AT AUCTION Auction houses provide the best way to acquire high fashion with a clear pedigree—sometimes straight from the original owner. The following houses hold periodic sales and have strong backgrounds in historic clothing.

Doyle New York Doyle began holding its semiannual sales in 1983. The most recent included spectacular 1960s couture pieces by Valentino, Givenchy, Pucci (with head-to-toe beading); the entire collection of the Pauline Trigère estate; a 1956 Christian Dior Musique de Nuit smoke-gray silk faille gown with matching stole (Richard Avedon photographed Suzy Parker wearing it). The next sale is scheduled for early December. 212-427-2730; www.doylenewyork.com.

Sotheby's Past sales include the estates of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (the former Wallis Simpson's scarlet velvet Delman court shoes sold for $13,800; her Christian Dior satin brocade suit for $7,475) and of Jackie Kennedy Onassis (a gold, emerald, and diamond belt fetched $20,700; a diamond hair ornament, $63,000). On June 10-11 the estate—and closet—of Katharine Hepburn will be up for grabs. At Sotheby's London this past November, The Passion for Fashion sale included post-1900 fashion from Castle Howard Collection—flapper dresses and original Worth gowns. New York, 212-606-7000; London, 44-20-7293-5555; www.sothebys.com.

Christie's The New York branch had the dresses of Princess Diana and fashions from the Oscars, but head to the South Kensington branch in London for regular vintage sales. Its next, Costumes and Textiles Including Street Fashion (featuring 20th-century designers like Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Dior), will be held on September 21. New York, 212-636-2000; London, 44-20-7930-6074; www.christies.com.