What is Vintage?

Here’s an interesting article about how Chanel is suing the New York vintage clothing store What Goes Around Comes Around for selling ‘vintage’ Chanel. The company is citing unfair competition, false advertising, and trademark infringement.

What Goes Around Comes Around has been in business for 25 years and has a very chic looking online website where all their merchandise, by various makers, is sold with clear catalogue-quality photos. Everything is in top condition and appears unworn. It doesn’t look like your typical vintage shop, but that’s because the owners spend a lot of time making it that way. They are trying to make used clothing a viable part of the contemporary fashion market, and so the goods have to be fresh and wearable.

The shop’s goods mostly date from the last 25 years, which Chanel says isn’t vintage, citing the Federal Trade Commission as defining vintage as being at least 50 years of age. I looked it up and the Federal Trade Commission does say “A vintage collectible is an item that is at least 50 years old.” However, the trade commission’s concern is not with the definition of vintage, but rather confusion in the marketplace over what is an antique, vintage collectible and reproduction. The general thought is that something becomes vintage after about 20 years. eBay, Etsy, and the Vintage Fashion Guild all follow that idea of about 20 years to call a garment or accessory vintage.

The term vintage is loose. It is used in the wine industry to describe a particularly good year (not relevant to any particular age – last year could be vintage.) It is used by car collectors to refer to something similar, but does also require at least 25 years of age. The term is also used by Oriental carpet dealers to refer to non-antique carpets (a nice way to say used but quality). The term vintage in the used clothing industry is in itself a vintage term, popping up in the mid 1960s when vintage clothing boutiques started opening up for their hippy clients. However, the term is not set in stone — Patsy Stone in Absolutely Fabulous quips that her clothes are vintage as soon as they come back from the dry cleaner.

As for the rest of the claim by Chanel against the vintage clothing store. They cite finding one counterfeit Chanel bag amongst their stock, but that is why the shop has a guarantee of authenticity for their merchandise, so in case this happens, you can return the bag without problems. Mistakes can happen as there are some very good Chanel fakes out there, and the store obviously has a good reputation, otherwise it wouldn’t still be in business 25 years later. As Chanel is known to be uncooperative and will not authenticate any Chanel item unless there is also a proof of purchase receipt from a Chanel dealer, it seems Chanel itself isn’t exactly an expert at identifying their own goods.

This lawsuit is a case of David and Goliath. Chanel looks silly for making a big todo over one fake purse and the definition of vintage. Chanel says the store damages Chanel’s reputation, but I think silly lawsuits are doing that just fine.

The problem with museum acquisitions…

In my experience, fashion museums have three problems to deal with when it comes to acquiring artifacts:

  • The museum is the last to know

unknown Museums are often the last place to be contacted. After grandma dies, every female in the family ransacks the closet for mementos, wearables, or items of value that can be resold on Etsy. The next person called is usually a local dealer or auctioneer, and by the time the museum is called what is left consists of unexciting pieces like autumn haze mink stoles, pairs of white kid gloves, and yellowing acetate wedding dresses.

imagesWe were once contacted by a woman about a massive collection of clothing from the 40s and 50s that her recently deceased mother had made. The daughter’s voice quivered when she spoke of wanting a couple of her mom’s pieces preserved for posterity in a museum. We came to see what she had, and after going through ten boxes of pretty standard children’s clothing I had pulled a boy’s suit from the early 1950s, and a girl’s dress from the late 1950s. The daughter refused to tell me when the dress was made because it had been hers and giving the date would reveal her age… And then she let it slip that a dealer had gone through everything the previous day and taken what were probably the best pieces…

Sometimes we get an offer of an exciting piece – like a couture dress from the 1920s, but when it is brought in, it turns out the owner had worn it to a party and torn out the underarms and ripped the hem in the process. This has happened more than once.

  • But is it fashion?

iris-van-herpen-20100b94d66cfe63de8596af9f79a460a3a0If money allows, it’s too easy for museums to purchase crazy items. The FHM doesn’t have this problem due to a lack of funds, however, many museums buy garments that are irrelevant examples of real fashion. In my opinion, the unique quality of  true fashion is that it balances art and commerce – a dress that nobody wears is not fashion, it’s wearable art.

  • Fakes

The market for vintage fashion has soared the past thirty years, especially for designer clothing, and this has made forgeries profitable. I have seen ready-to wear labels recut to imitate couture labels, designer tie labels used as dress labels (Lanvin, Dior, Schiaparelli, Cardin all had lines of men’s ties), photocopied labels, as well as labels moved from lesser garments that are real, into flashier dresses that are not.

fb104381-1stephen-lewis-dior-souvenir-tourSometimes the attempts are amateurish and obvious. I once purchased a Chanel suit from a blurry picture on eBay. Although it was pink wool tweed and early 1960s, upon receiving the suit it was obviously American ready-to-wear workmanship, and the label, which had been sewn in with the wrong coloured thread, probably had been taken from a 1980s blouse. I had paid $75.00 for it, and when I returned it to the dealer she refunded my money without a fuss.

However, there are far more clever deceptions being done. A recent acquisition of 130 dresses by an Australian gallery from a French couturier has a suspicious looking dress in its midst that I seriously question. The dress is purported to be by Dior – an example of his Palmyre evening gown from 1952. It looks impressive at first glance (see above left), but the embroidery is more spare than a verifiably real gown (see above right), and in the close-up, the work (bottom left) looks clumsily sequinned with standard-looking artlessly-arranged couched thread work that looks like lurex. The acetate fabric (identified by the gallery in their description) was probably embroidered somewhere other than Paris and then exported somewhere like the U.S. where it was made up by a company like Nanty in New York – a company known for knocking off Dior evening wear in the 1950s. A real dress (bottom right) shows a far more finessed version of embroidery on what certainly appears to be silk with better placed sequins and beads, and chain-stitched silver gilt thread. The possible knock-off cost the Australian museum more than $10,000, and that means this is a serious issue if its a forgery – more problematic than a misidentification.

1-dior-palmyre-1952-detail-x468

Faking It at FIT

Faking-It-brochure-cover_482I am fascinated by this side of fashion and always thought there was potential for an  exhibition and/or book on the topic. The Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York thinks so too and beat me to it!

Their online exhibition is now available and its an interesting read – the breakdown of the differences between the Chanel and the Orbach’s copy of the grey tweed suits pictured in this image is fascinating!