Vintage Couture Wisdom from the Vogue Editor and Curator of Balenciaga: Spanish Master
The sartorially distinctive, bespectacled figure of Hamish Bowles has been a regular sight on the front row of fashion shows (and ever-present on international best-dressed lists) through his tenures at Harpers & Queen, which he joined in 1984, and Vogue, where he has resided since 1992. Now European Editor-at-Large, Bowles has established himself as an expert on interiors and fashion history, authoring several books and curating exhibitions that include the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2001 show Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years and his latest triumph, Balenciaga: Spanish Master, conceived by Oscar de la Renta, at the Queen Sofia Spanish Institute in New York. We spoke to him about his world famous collection of couture.
What's the first piece you ever bought?
Funnily enough it was a Balenciaga suit in a French navy wool from 1962. I got it at a jumble sale at Sadler’s Wells [Theatre in London]—a fundraiser for the ballet. They had a mini-auction, and one of the things was a Balenciaga embroidered bolero that Margot Fonteyn had given them. It sold for £60—much more than I could afford because I was about 11 at the time. I could afford the suit because it was 50p, and I always regretted the bolero and remembered it vividly. I walked into a vintage store in Los Angeles five years ago and the bolero was there, lacking its label. It’s now in the show.
Do you have a favorite from your own collection?
Some Galliano pieces from his first collection, and pieces I found through sleuthing, like a wonderful 1926 beaded Chanel dress, and a Schiaparelli jacket embroidered with cellophane from the late 1930s. Then things from designers that I think are unsung, like Mainbocher and Molyneux. I also have some wonderful mid-century ball gowns––so yes, plenty of things!
Do you have any regrets over pieces that you've missed out on?
Oh yes, endless––I lie awake at night. Things I've missed at auction, or foolishly haven't bought at vintage fairs. There are always regrets, but there is always another dress.
Is there anyone whose wardrobe you would love to own in its entirety?
Well, yes––the Met has quite a few doesn’t it! Mona Bismarck had fascinating things from the 20s through to the 60s. Pauline de Rothschild had wonderful taste. Daphne Guinness’s collection would be lovely to have, as would [the late] Isabella Blow’s…
Regarding current or recent seasons, is there anything you suspect will become highly collectable?
I’m intrigued by anyone who has a really strong point of view and has shaped fashion in various ways. So now I’d be interested in collecting Tom Ford’s work at Gucci and Saint Laurent, Nicolas Ghesquière, Alber Elbaz, Olivier Theyskens, Alexander McQueen, Helmut Lang. I’ve certainly been collecting early Gianni Versace. I’d love a great Rodarte piece; maybe a Christopher Kane piece. Designs that have been much photographed, much worn and have changed the look of fashion.
Delve into the details of Bowles' Balenciaga extravaganza here.