Hamish Bowles is not of the opinion that fashion is best appreciated on a short-term memory. For more than 30 years, the British style maharishi and longtime European editor at large at American Vogue has been amassing one of the richest and rarest collections of couture on the planet. He started as a child in London, picking up costume pieces from thrift stores—a compulsion that quickly turned into pure obsession by the time he studied fashion at Central Saint Martins College. His various jobs at top-tier fashion magazines hasn’t helped things either. His trove ranges from the 1850s all the way to last season, with heavy doses of Balenciaga, Galanos, Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, and a number of rare-bird couturiers you’ve probably never heard of. Today, a vast majority of Bowles’s boon—upward of 2,000 pieces—is housed in a storage unit in Long Island City, New York, where the collector can be found giddily digging through racks of Montanas, Molyneuxs, and Malandrinos, wearing white gloves and gasping in delight at his own finds. He’s currently at work organizing, documenting, and cataloging the entire collection, with plans to one day create his own foundation. In the meantime, Bowles remains ever busy curating costume shows in his mind.
I have Tom Ford, Gucci, Saint Laurent, McQueen, and odd pieces that I’ve just acquired because I happened to have come across them and felt they have some historical resonance. A case in point that I’ll never forget is this Catherine Malandrino dress. After 9/11, at the first party that people actually felt that they could go to, all the women were wearing Catherine Malandrino’s American Flag dress.
Oh, that’s great.
It was such a defining moment. I just happened to come across one of those dresses in an Upper East Side thrift store recently. I acquired it because it encapsulated a very precise moment. Actually, I have some other patriotic dresses. I have a red, white, and blue piqué Fourth of July evening dress that Trigère made in the mid-’60s. Basically, I am acquiring things for the exhibition in my head. I am thinking, Well, this would be a great dialogue with that.
I have a variant of that piece that was made for Princess Liliane of Belgium, who was a woman of impeccable chic and glamour. She had her own intervention in the process, because she used to collect exotic Indian and Far Eastern brocades, often metallic brocades, and this is a fabric which she might have presented to him to have made into a variant of that white satin jacket . . . So you see, I have the entire history of that piece!
A lifelong passion, yes. How old am I now . . . It’s been 30 years of collecting. These things do accumulate, even if you’re just buying one or two things a month. I’m afraid rather more now. My long-suffering parents had to spend family holidays going around the costume museums of Great Britain—one in Manchester, one in Bath, one at Castle Howard in Yorkshire . . . That’s how I wanted to spend my time.
You have some of your collection in London and Paris, and obviously a huge amount here in New York. They’re so fragile. I know with the few things that I have, just to be conscious of bugs, to take very good care of them . . .
That’s the stuff of my nightmares—I mean, bugs and dampness and all those things. Ask the Brooklyn Museum or the Met. Costumes and fashion are the most difficult things to store and the most demanding in terms of conservation.
It has gotten to the point that I’m considering setting up a foundation. Obviously, I am thinking about things that would be appropriate for [“The Model as Muse: Embodying Fashion”] at the Met this spring, because I have dresses that were worn by Marion Morehouse in the ’20s for Steichen photographs, and by Veruschka for Penn in ’60s pictures, and Sunny Harnett. One is constantly making those discoveries. Then I have things that Kate Moss and Linda Evangelista wore. When Linda dyed her hair red to accent it, Karl Lagerfeld created this vivid Lypsinka orange-Lurex Chanel couture suit for her. I think the idea of being able to lend things to museum shows and seeing them reach a wider public and seeing them mounted and displayed from different curators’ points of view is really an exceptionally rewarding part of having assembled this collection. But I’d certainly love to do a show and curate pieces in the way that I’ve assembled them, and made the connections in my mind.