Saturday, February 19, 2011

Canadian Chanels? Well, Montreal is our Paris...

a Linton tweed suit by Auckie Sanft of Montreal features a band of the diagonal rib material used as a welt or piping, an innovation likely adapted from an original Chanel using the identical fabric

this was sold at the prestigious St. Regis Room (also known as "the Room") of the flagship Simpson's store (now owned by the Hudson's Bay Company) on Queen Street in Toronto
labels of the above suit

note the gilt buttons with double CC Chanel buttons, and the skillful way the material has been manipulated to make an excellent edging

In three decades of experience of working with and studying vintage clothing, I’ve seen a lot. The spectrum ranges from pristine Paris couture to decades old Levi’s denim, to rare and valuable leather motorcycle gang or WWII aviator jackets with cartoon like leather appliqued motifs. For the most part, the search, be it at prestige auctions, estate sales, antique shows, Salvation Army outlets, or in curbside garbage, is like finding a needle in a haystack. In spite of limited success and discovery I consider it a pleasurable treasure hunt for grownups.

When one is confronted with heaps, stalls, and racks of vintage clothing, the eye learns to quickly scan for colour, quality, rarity and the unique. Go looking for a specific item and it will never show up, but the unexpected often does. In this search anything is possible…like the colourful leather Wonder Woman boots. Where did they come from, and how were they used? Were they part of a very elaborate Hallowe’en costume, or were they an ironic accent in a circa 1970 hippy outfit?

Of course one is excited to find vintage Chanel, Hermes and Vuitton, but after looking at thousands and thousands of items, I’ve come to conclusion that there are plenty of other brands, or even anonymous pieces, that are as good as the most prestigious brands. For example, the leather goods of the American firm Ghurka or even pre-Chinese manufactured Coach sometimes surpass Hermes in quality, design, and durability, and are 1/10th the price. Some “Vuitton” items are lined with leather rather than fabric, and are better made than the originals.

One of the interesting vintage products that I see from time to time, are the fine clothes of Montreal designer Auckie Sanft. I am not sure exactly what years they were in production, but stylistically, the pieces I’ve encountered would date from 1960 to 1975. Their signature look was an interpretation of the classic Chanel tweed suit, and they did some very carefully selected copies of iconic French designer dresses, such as Yves Saint-Laurent pop art dresses from the period. But it is these Canadian “Chanel” suits and jackets that are remarkable. They are beautifully made and styled. They have gilt buttons with the famous Chanel interlocking double C logo. The tweeds are superb Linton (linings have the Linton tweed label), identical to those Coco Chanel herself selected. These tweeds are light, soft, and show an adept use of colour and texture; they are as visually satisfying as artisanal tapestry.
this late 1960s Auckie Sanft Linton tweed suit has an orange lining, and russet and tangerine yarns in the fabric

note the wear around the buttonhole, through the lining to the canvas inner construction; the tweed exterior is entirely unworn and looks like new

Auckie Sanft pieces were sold at the Simpson’s St. Regis Room (ironically they sold original Chanel later in the 1980s and early 1990s), Eaton’s, Holt Renfrew, Creed’s, and the WASP-y Ada Mackenzie shop in trendy Yorkville.

How does an Auckie Sanft suit differ from a vintage Chanel original? The linings were not silk, the jacket hems are not weighted with gilt chains, and they didn’t come with matching blouses. An original Chanel jacket usually uses 3 varying sizes of buttons; on a Sanft jacket the buttons are all of one size. They also lack the triangle inset of material under the arm where the sleeve is affixed to the body of the jacket (this gave ease of movement). Other than this they look, and can absolutely pass for Chanel. I’ve found Sanft Linton tweed jackets in which the linings are worn to shreds, but the tweed itself shows no wear whatsoever. Like Harris tweed and other fine fabrics, it is incredibly durable.

If ever you come across an Auckie Sanft “Chanel,” grab it. It looks as good as a new $10,000. Chanel jacket and it will be under $150.00, sometimes much less.

I’m not sure if there was a sort of licensing agreement with Chanel or use of a toile or pattern when Auckie Sanft produced their pieces and put gilt CC buttons, but whatever their arrangements were, if any, they are an excellent example of how a coveted example of Paris couture fashion was translated for the North American, specifically Canadian market. For this reason, I’m sure there are examples of Sanft “Chanels” in the textile and fashion collections of Canadian museums.

the Canadian made garment with union tag is now as rare as a horse and buggy; even some of the most prestigious manufacturers, such as Brooks Brothers and Coach, are now manufacturing in China

fine suede detailing on a pocket
this mid 1970s Auckie Sanft Chanel suit is noticeably more subdued in colour than the preceding earlier example; it was retailed at Eaton's of Canada, and the original price was $350.00; today's price would be about 10 times that, still a third of the price of an original Chanel

Thursday, February 3, 2011

A Balenciaga Masterpiece in Toronto

1960s magazine ad for Balenciaga perfume

I recently had the opportunity to examine a superb vintage Balenciaga day coat at the flagship of Toronto’s Holt Renfrew. Canada’s most prestigious clothing retailer, Holt Renfrew, was founded in 1837 in Quebec, and has held royal warrants, such as furrier to Queen Victoria. In the late 20th century, as furs were seen less frequently, and were viewed as politically problematic, the store became better known for supplying designer and other fine clothing and accessories for men and women. Among the brands carried are Christian Dior (a relationship starting in the late 1940s when Dior himself visited the store and Toronto social scene), Chanel, Gucci, Saint-Laurent, Moschino, Oscar de la Renta, Dolce & Gabbana, Ralph Lauren, Louis Vuitton, and Roger Vivier. In keeping with the times, and the popularity of vintage clothing, they have offered a diminutive, exclusive collection of pieces by vintage dealer Linda Latner of Vintage Couture. The collection consists of a single rack, but is of such quality and so carefully selected, or curated, that it is always a pleasure to view. This is the closest one can physically get to museum quality vintage couture.

Some months ago, I was particularly intrigued by this superb, mid 1960s Balenciaga couture coat offered at Holt's. Interestingly, it had been first retailed by Holt Renfrew, the same store selling it now, some 45 years ago. Apart from this fascinating historic detail, the coat in itself is an exemplary piece of Balenciaga, the type that connoisseurs and curators of fashion admire. Typically, in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, a few select pieces of couture were brought in, and promoted by top retailers such as Bergdorf's, Saks, and Neiman-Marcus in the United States, Harrods in London, and Eaton's, Simpson's, Creed's, and Holt Renfrew in Canada. They were often featured in illustrated, full page newspaper ads, and would create an exclusive buzz while demonstrating a trend, colour, or theme for the season that was available in the store's less expensive lines. Sometimes, a couture example was reproduced as ready-to-wear, at a much lower price, but with a certain cachet of having the design reproduced or adapted from an exclusive Paris model.

In the mid 1960s, Balenciaga clothes reached an amazing level of skill and design evolution. The clothes were simple and wearable, but very original. Balenciaga believed in simplicity as a form of dignity. Many consider the clothes almost monastic in feeling, reminiscent of liturgical robes, ecclesiastical garments, and religious habits. Balenciaga was partial to heavy, costly fabrics that had body and structure. His designs were simply cut so as to show the quality and beauty of the fabric.

For aficionados who appreciate cut and couture, this day coat deserves closer examination. It is boxy and cut away from the body. It is pieced in large horizontal panels, giving a slightly segmented feeling, especially when it is worn. It has an ease and generous feel that was the antitheses of the corseted, cantilevered, padded and shaped 1950s Christian Dior ideal a decade earlier. The narrowest horizontal panel, about 4” wide, is at waist level (the bottom edge is also the opening to the left and right slash pockets), and becomes a loose, drape-y half belt at the back that holds in the fabric folds in soft box pleats. In a medium weight wool with an almost felt like surface, and in a quiet cream, this is luxurious Paris couture in the most discreet manner. Considering the great expense of Paris couture, a coat like this which sits away from the body, and would actually fit a range of sizes and weight fluctuations, might be considered a better investment than a fitted, limited use, gala gown.

In considering such a design, one should imagine it in different fabrics and colours, just as Wallis Simpson did with her favorite couture models. She is known to have pleasantly surprised Dior himself by reordering one of his own models in an entirely different colour and material. This would be a bewitching evening coat in black or raspberry heavy matte satin. It could be a beautiful spring coat in hot pink mohair. A Donegal or Linton tweed example would be wonderful in fall. Black wool serge or gaberdine would make it the ultimate all purpose coat.

Looking at a really fine couture example such as this, it is understandable that the elite of the 1950s and 1960s, women like Mona Bismarck and Bunny Mellon, ordered several versions for various residences, and in different colours for variety. One is struck by the balance, proportion, and taste of such a design, and yet it has a retiring aspect. Balenciaga clothes are as much about the wearer as they are about the garment, and they have a sense of modesty that is ennobling.

One cannot help but wonder why a stylist or design studio didn't acquire this piece. Top design houses are known to take vintage pieces as "inspiration." It certainly wouldn't have been out of place in a well edited Prada, Jil Sander, or Marc Jacobs collection. With a price similar to a new Chanel jacket, I don't think that such a rare and exceptional piece is unreasonable, but then stylists of the world don't usually think of Toronto as a destination for superb vintage couture.

I agree with fashion historians who have assessed Balenciaga as the greatest couturier, and I’ve seen many incredible pieces in museums, private collections, and books, but this has to be one of my favourites. Because it is such a superb example, and is a document of the way Paris couture was disseminated to far away, sparsely populated Canada, I would loved to have seen it go to the fashion collection of the ROM, Seneca College, or the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal. But least I have photos and got to hold it in my hands, and in a way, that was better than viewing it behind glass and in obligatory archival low light conditions.

Many thanks to Lynda Latner for generously sharing the images, and for sleuthing out such a masterpiece.

Images courtesy of Lynda Latner of Vintage Couture

mid 1960s cream wool Balenciaga coat

detail of back of Balenciaga coat; note the elegant yet casual draping and the way the back panel is one with the sleeves (cut Raglan style at the front)

these wonderful large buttons, so simple and beautifully proportioned for the coat design, remind me of French macarons from Ladurée

the labels of Balenciaga and Holt Renfrew that connect the old and new world with couture