When Keni Valenti, the New York Dealer of vintage clothing, heard that this would be Tom Ford’s last season designing for Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche, the very first thing he did was rush out to the nearest Gucci store and gobble up roll upon roll of shiny wallpaper embossed with interlocking G’s. “I have three bathrooms in my apartment in Miami,” Valenti says, “and they all have it now. And matching Gucci towels. It’s a tribute to Tom. Because this is the end of glamour.”
Tribute accomplished, Valenti turned his thoughts to a stash back in his garment-district showroom: matte jersey dresses from Ford’s fall-winter 1996 collection for Gucci. Long and lean with delicately placed slashes and holes for flashing bits of thong underpants and Elsa Peretti–esque hardware, the dresses evoked a bit of Gernreich here and Halston there and were terribly sexy. They were an inspiration for Harold Koda’s “Goddess” exhibition at the Met in May 2003, and many serious collectors of contemporary fashion had already labeled them a must-have. Every time that Ina, the high-end Soho consignment store and dumping ground for celebrity once-worns, got any, they sold out quickly.
Now that Ford would be leaving after a scant decade spent making clothes, bound for destinations unknown (Versace? Hollywood?), Valenti’s jersey dresses would be in even greater demand. “Collecting Tom Ford had never been a focus before,” says Hamish Bowles, Vogue’s European editor-at-large and a major collector of haute couture, “but I think it will now. It’s just a movement in the pattern of collecting—everyone’s focusing on recent, contemporary designers. Lots of the stylish girls who weren’t born in the seventies see this stuff as vintage. So now one of my few everlasting regrets in life is missing a sample sale in New York, because it’s such a finite period, isn’t it? It parallels Christian Dior’s span at Dior, which was also just a decade.” Bowles plans to explore downtown resale shops like Ina, Resurrection, and Tokio 7, where turnaround on recent fashion is brisk. And of course, a good dealer can always find what his client needs. And quick.
What Ford did for fashion, season after season, was constantly bring up sex—in-your-face, jutting-pelvic-bone sex—and remind everyone just how well it sells. He wasn’t subtle: When the fashion world did lady with structured handbags and tweedy pencil skirts, Ford shaved a tidy G into a model’s pubic hair for an ad campaign.
But his impact on the collectibles world comes from his skill as a marketer: Every season, Ford created an “It” piece, a must-have, a season-defining trend, photographed to death, knocked off ad nauseam. There were those jersey dresses in 1996, followed by beaded jeans, à la Sonny and Cher, that caused baby boomers to roll their eyes and their daughters to shell out four figures a pair. There were sheer, naughty baby-doll tops tucked into sleek leather stovepipe trousers, and mod minidresses made of dozens of soft, lilac squares of silk finished with rough luggage zippers, and $75 condom cases in swirling blue-green prints. Because the company had never had a significant ready-to-wear collection, the vocabulary was Ford’s alone.
When he took over at Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche in 2000, he was up against decades of iconic fashion moments. YSL collectibles were already hot commodities: A Le Smoking from 1966—the first haute couture collection to feature pants—can fetch around $5,000 at auction. It’s unlikely that Ford’s ruched-velvet tuxedos will ever reach such prices, but he did manage to create essential objects. There was a silk-charmeuse peasant blouse that was a little bit hippie, a little bit goth, and voluminous caftans inspired by Talitha Getty. But he really focused, at YSL, on accessories, as there was no great tradition to compete with. His signatures became roomy, horn-handled bags, like the much-promoted Mombasa, and endless iterations of thick-soled sandals introduced at a moment when the rest of the world was stuck on the stiletto. (Jemznjewels.com, an online resaler of designer accessories, does brisk business in YSL accessories.)
“I think his stuff will hold its own better than any other label in the contemporary resale market,” says Clair Watson, the director of couture at Doyle New York, the Upper East Side auction house. “The early years of this century are all about sex in the abstract, and Tom Ford mastered the ‘about to have sex’ look at Gucci and the mussed, smudged, post-sex look at Yves Saint Laurent.” And there was Ford himself: in his tailored jeans and jackets, charcoal stubble, and stiff white shirt unbuttoned to there, sipping a martini as he took a bow. Who wouldn’t want a piece of that?
The resale-and-vintage market has never burned brighter, its flames stoked by two kinds of collectors: those who buy things they intend to wear and those who buy them to wrap carefully and store in a humidity-controlled box.
Straight from Milan
See photos of Tom Ford’s last collections for Gucci
The wearers exist as a collector species because of the very corporate fashion hegemony that Ford did so much to create. When he designed a dress, it was photographed for every magazine, paraded down some red carpet somewhere by someone terribly famous, and photographed some more. It was knocked off before it even made it to a store. And so everyone with a sense of individuality in her style turned to vintage stores for things she wouldn’t see coming and going. The other kind of collector fixates on the objects themselves, on their detail, on their significance in the unfurling ribbon of fashion history. “That’s the Hamish collector,” says Mark Walsh, a collector and dealer who sells to individuals as well as major museums. “He collects for collecting’s sake.”
Walsh’s clients may not all fit that description, but he certainly does. “People who wear make us cringe,” he says. “They want to, like, sweat all over a Vionnet. They do a couple of seasons, and then they’re gone and their stuff is back at auction, or resold at Ina.”
Matters of wear aside, abundance is a factor in determining what the value of Ford’s pieces will be. “It’s not couture; it’s ready-to-wear, so there’s a different degree of importance,” says Cameron Silver, the owner of Decades, a shop in L.A. with regular trunk shows here at Barneys. “These clothes were mass-produced, so it’s not like getting a rare Dior piece from 1955.” The ubiquity of all that Gucci—with the exception of handworked pieces, like a delicate feathered minidress, or the hand-beaded jeans that were produced in far smaller numbers—will keep prices for Ford collectibles lower than those of comparable but older pieces. “Everything relevant to designers used to be quite different,” says Rita Watnick, who owns Lily et Cie, a Beverly Hills collectibles shop with a red-carpet clientele. “With Norrell or Galanos or Trigère, it was more likely that they only made several dresses, or even just one. Now we have this very mass, very corporate-conglomerate notion of what luxury is, and so we make tons of ‘the’ piece. Which means that as a collector, I don’t need to run out and get them. In fifteen or twenty years, I’ll decide if I’m interested. There’ll be plenty around.”
Still, if Ford never designs again and becomes, as some have predicted, the next Joel Schumacher (the movie director is another fashion-world dropout), his prices will increase significantly. If he goes on to Versace, or some other house, and keeps creating iconic pieces for decades to come, the early ones will still have special value, in the way that the few collections Karl Lagerfeld produced for Chloé in the seventies are desperately sought-after now. And if the museum world decides to promote Ford, that will have its own impact on collectible prices. “It translates something accessible that you saw in Colette into an art object,” says Walsh. Ford himself seems to have planned well for this possibility. “He was always very into museum placement,” Walsh continues. “A lot of designers don’t think of that. He was conscious of his place in fashion.” The Met already has a comprehensive Ford collection, but there won’t be a show quite yet. “The museum doesn’t allow monographic shows on living designers,” says Koda, “because there’s the sense that not all fashion is art. A good portion has to be about commerce.”
Like museums, collectors would be wise to have patience; the real money is to be made by hanging on to the clothes for a long time—Walsh suggests it’s a good twenty years before a piece comes to its full value—though, of course, there are defining events that make prices rise and fall. “Back in the eighties, a Balenciaga could be purchased at auction for less than it sold for originally,” says Koda. “The surge in the market right now is being precipitated by the wearables market. You can still get important historical garments for very little if they are more extreme. The value of a Fortuny that is black is higher than the cost of a Fortuny in a sumptuous color, because it is more wearable.”
Wearability may, in the end, wind up affecting availability. “A lot of people really liked these clothes and actually wore them out,” says Valenti, “which means they’re more likely to just give them to Goodwill rather than consign them.” Once things are given to large charities, they can really wind up anywhere: Chicago, Tulsa, Bismarck. And if they don’t sell there, they are often shipped as part of relief packages to Third World countries. “Oh, God,” Valenti says, considering the possibility. “Do you think there’s some poor Ethiopian or Somalian woman wearing one of the jersey dresses? It’s probably all cut up.”
Tom Ford’s Look
Images from recent Gucci collections