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The Art and Science of Valuing Vintage

How to price vintage goods? The answer is part art, part science.
Vintage Louis Vuitton cases | Source: Shutterstock
  • Guest Contributor

LONDON, United Kingdom — Falling under the spell of a beautiful dress, a gorgeous pair of shoes or a well-crafted handbag is no strange feeling for followers of fashion. Falling in love with a piece that was first worn 30 years ago and has been waiting, it seems, just for you to discover it, is all the more rare.

This is the magic of vintage fashion. It’s what makes pre-owned Hermès bags go for double their estimated value at auction and specialist vintage stores like Decades in Los Angeles, Rellik in London, and Didier Ludot in Paris such noteworthy destinations.

But how does one price vintage goods? It turns out the answer is part art, part science.

What is vintage anyway?

Over the last decade, the term 'vintage' has come to describe anything at least 10 years old. But given the tumultuous fashion landscape of recent seasons, with the loss of great talents like Yves Saint Laurent and Alexander McQueen and the musical chairs of designers moving from house to house, some believe that age is no longer the only criteria for what defines vintage fashion.

"Vintage implies that it has archival value," said Cameron Silver, owner of Decades, the landmark Los Angeles vintage store, which has become an institution of sorts. "When we first opened in 1997, everything had to be at least 30 years old," he continued. "But now, with such a seismic shift in fashion, especially in the last three or four years, and with things happening so fast, some of those pieces that still seem current are certainly collectible." For Silver, this includes pieces by Tom Ford from the Gucci years, Christophe Decarnin at Balmain, Prada from the mid- to late 2000s and Phoebe Philo for Céline.

According to Pat Frost, director of fashion at Christie’s, “Vintage is anything up to the ‘90s — but it means different things to different people.”

“To some people, the wear on the piece is important; it has to show an interesting, unique patina that shows it has been well-travelled, but also well cared for,” added Matt Rubinger, director of luxury accessories at Heritage Auctions. “To others, it has far more to do with the look of the piece,” he continued. “Still others believe that vintage is about ‘uniqueness’ and seek pieces that have long since been discontinued so that they might be the only person to own the piece.”

The growing demand for vintage

What everyone seems to agree upon, however, is that vintage fashion has never been as sought after as it is today. Many enjoy the special feeling of discovery that goes hand-in-hand with buying vintage. Others see vintage as an opportunity to make a statement against the artificiality of modern consumerism. They crave the authenticity that comes with owning an item from the past. Still others relish the attention to detail and high-quality craftsmanship of vintage fashion and accessories.

Of course, there’s also a certain feeling of exclusivity that comes from wearing a one-of-a-kind, rare piece. And not surprisingly, most industry experts trace the rise in popularity of vintage fashion to the presence of vintage gowns on the red carpet, where exclusivity and glamour are king.

"Images of stars in vintage clothing made it socially acceptable to wear vintage," agreed Silver, recalling Julia Roberts in black-and-white vintage Valentino at the 2001 Academy Awards, Renée Zellweger that same year in a 1959 strapless yellow chiffon gown by Jean Dessès, and Reese Witherspoon in a 1955 champagne-coloured Dior gown, accepting her Oscar in 2006.

Christies' Frost agrees. "Ten years ago, people weren't wearing vintage Chanel to an Oscar presentation unless they had a pre-existing relationship with the house," she recalled.

And after the celebrity endorsements began flowing in, “suddenly, editorials included vintage clothing and it just became part of the fashion vocabulary,” said Silver. So much so, in fact, that luxury vintage dresses and purses can now even be found at upscale department stores such as Liberty and Bergdorf Goodman, where dedicated shop-in-shops such as The Dress Box Vintage and Coquette Atelier, respectively, offer customers a well-curated collection of vintage fashion.

Designers are also amongst the many consumers of vintage fashion, often finding inspiration in the archives. Case in point: Yves Saint Laurent's unmistakable presence in the Spring-Summer 2011 collections of Marc Jacobs, Tom Ford and Jason Wu, and Alber Elbaz's tribute to the same designer a decade ago, during his first season at Lanvin.

"In the '90s, 60 percent of our revenue was from designers," noted Mr Silver. And even if design houses have cut back on extravagant research budgets, teams of Burberry employees are still known to scour certain military resale stores for old trench coats. Even Kate Moss was inspired by vintage, fashioning several of the pieces in her now-defunct range for Topshop after dresses her mother wore in the '70s.

Rubinger believes there’s a third reason for the growing vintage fashion market, at least for accessories. “The popularity of vintage luxury has been developing in a major way since 2007,” he said. “It was, in my opinion, the recession’s answer to the ‘It Bag.’ It was no longer in style — nor appropriate — to run out and buy the bag that everyone else had — the Balenciaga Motorcycle, the Fendi Spy, the Chloé Paddington. It wasn’t that people weren’t buying, it’s that they were shifting from current and cutting edge to tried-and-true.”

How is vintage valued?

Clearly, the magic of decades past continues to ring true in fashion — but what is the value of this magic in commercial terms? As it turns out, most vintage boutiques price their items according to what’s happening in the auction world, where estimates and final bids are well documented and luxury goods are released regularly. Since December 2010, Christie’s has held bi-annual “Elegance” sales, which always include a large selection of Hermès handbags.

According to Frost, the price of an Hermès bag is dictated “entirely by supply and demand.” Catering to two markets — collectors seeking one-offs, special commissions and unusual Hermès bags, and those who want an ‘It Bag’ but are unable to buy one in store — the Hermès bags at auction are, technically speaking, largely not even vintage. Indeed, up to 80 percent of those sold at Christie’s were made within the last five years. What’s more, “the small vintage selection actually doesn’t do as well,” said Frost.

Nevertheless, there is both an art and a science to the pricing of Hermès bags sold at auction. “We know that certain colours are more popular,” she explained. “People always love red — though several of our French clients joke that it’s the English who want red!” There is also a current trend for citrus shades, blues and pastels, she continued. Naturally, runway trends have something to do with this, but Frost added: “these colours are also appealing to an Asian palette: lime green in London looks very, very bright, whereas it doesn’t in the Hong Kong sunshine.”

Condition and rarity also play a big role in determining the final price of an Hermès bag and, as anyone who has ever engaged in a bidding frenzy will know, so does passion. Generally speaking, however, "we base our estimate roughly on the retail price of the bag," explained Frost, "then add a plus for condition, a plus for an unusual colour, and so on." At its recent Elegance sale on May 30, all three top lots were crocodile Birkin bags, going for nearly double their estimated price; a 2011 braise crocodile Birkin was purchased for £48,050 (estimated value: £26,000 – £28,000). In total, 58 Hermès bags sold for nearly £700,000.

But beyond Birkins, the value of vintage accessories can vary dramatically. “In general, the piece’s current desirability and the size of the market for it are the most important factors,” said Rubinger. “Whether the piece was a collaboration with an important designer or artist, whether it’s rare, whether it’s still produced, discontinued or re-released: these are all considerations,” he continued. “In very basic terms, the most important factors are brand, model, condition, material, and colour — in that order.”

Vintage resellers are, not surprisingly, tight-lipped about their profit margins. Most boutiques, including Decades, Rellik and Atelier-Mayer, the prestigious e-boutique that now has a London storefront, purchase items individually rather than by the lot; some sell on consignment, paying their supplier a percentage (usually 40 or 50 percent) only once an item has sold.

What's more, given the amount of research that must go into each piece before it even hits the shop floor, selling vintage requires a significantly larger investment of resources than selling current season items. Sure, there are a handful of designers that are guaranteed sellers (Chanel, Hermès, Azzedine Alaïa, and Yves Saint Laurent do well across the board; Gucci, Lanvin and Pucci are also popular at Atelier-Mayer, while Vivienne Westwood Gold Label sells quickly at Rellik), but the truth is there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to valuing vintage fashion. 'The older the better' does not necessarily apply; it depends entirely on the designer. For example, "the Russian collection by Yves Saint Laurent is like the holy grail," said Frost, "even though that was from the late '70s, not early on."

Not surprisingly, personal taste is extremely important in vintage fashion, too. Carmen Haid, founder of Atelier-Mayer covets an original YSL Mondrian dress, as well as a pair of oversized Courrèges sunglasses that, second-hand, still retail for nearly £1000.

Whether it’s a piece of the Russian collection or a pair of discontinued eyewear, to each of these women, it’s knowing the history of a piece, its lineage, perhaps, the fact that it may very well be the last of its kind on earth, and an appreciation for the sweat and tears that went into its design that makes vintage so valuable.

For collectors, it’s not just the fact that it’s a beautiful dress, a gorgeous pair of shoes or a well-crafted handbag. It’s the combination of history, rarity, design and a true love of fashion that are the magic of vintage.

Rebecca Tay is a Canadian fashion writer and editor based in London.

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