Vintage couture and accessories specialist
Abigail Rutherford, at Leslie Hindman Auctioneers, dishes on the art and commerce of designer duds.
Time is on her side A testament to the power of having been in the “right place at the right time,” Abigail Rutherford landed the job as director of vintage couture and accessories at Leslie Hindman Auctioneers in 2006 with nearly no formal education in fashion. The 27-year-old Kenilworth native studied art history as an undergrad at Lafayette College and worked as a wine purveyor after graduating while taking classes in fashion construction at the International Academy of Design and Technology in Chicago. While attending a preview event at Leslie Hindman, she “just happened to talk to [Leslie] about [her] knowledge of fashion,” says Rutherford. As luck would have it, the director of the fashion department was moving on at that time, and Rutherford was ripe for the job.
The way it works Over the course of a three-month period, sellers from around the world approach Rutherford with garments and accessories, which she either accepts on a consignment basis (if the seller agrees with the projected profit) or rejects. After garnering an average of 500 lots—either single items or a collection, such as 20 clip-on earrings sold as a set—she photographs the items, produces a catalog, hosts a preview for potential buyers and, finally, produces a live auction. Shoppers from around the globe, including vintage-couture shop owners and budding enthusiasts with just a few hundred bucks to spend, show up in person, call in or visit via the Internet to place bids. Prices range from $100 for a snakeskin patchwork clutch from the 1980s to $20,000 to $30,000 for an Hermès crocodile-skin Birkin bag.
Learning curve To identify and authenticate items, Rutherford turns to the Internet and books to supplement her hands-on daily experience. “You start to train your eye to look for certain things, like types of zippers,” she says. Still stuck? Experts schooled in particular designers such as Chanel help her nail down the history. “Everyone is willing to help and thinks this is such an important art form that’s been brushed off along the way. It’s really gaining momentum right now,” she says. “[For instance,] museums are finding that any fashion exhibitions are bringing new life.”
Selling points “So much of my industry is driven by what’s current, so I really have to keep on top of what’s on the runway,” she says. “Whereas in early 2007, it was mostly ’60s, now it’s comprised mostly of ’80s.” And not just any designer label will do. “We won’t even take St. John or Escada. We want the cream-of-the-crop inspired fashion garments. For instance, [with] Yves Saint Laurent, we want ’60s and ’70s, or his small stint with Dior, whereas his ’80s and ’90s just doesn’t sell that well. We generally want the top ten designers that are synonymous with that decade and any sort of avant-garde fashion at that time.”
Eye on design “I kind of stopped shopping at, for lack of better words, janky stores,” she says. “You really understand why you’re paying such a [high] price for something. I have a better grasp of the craftsmanship that goes into everything. I’m seeing it much more as an art form and less of a commodity.” In addition to shying away from inferior fabrics and shoddy construction, she bristles at knockoffs. “[Working here] really opens up your eyes to who is inspired. It always comes from the avant-garde. People like Alexander McQueen and Martin Margiela, you know you’ll be seeing them in 20 years, and their stuff will have withstood the test of time.”
To wear or not to wear Buyers fall into one of two camps: museum and institution types who essentially leave their collections in glass cases, and those who shop for items to wear. “They butt heads, obviously, because they think two opposite schools of thought,” she says. As for her personal collection, she understands both sides, leaving the few collectibles she purchases for herself—mod pieces by Courrèges and Pierre Cardin—at home to appreciate in value, and actually wearing less valuable items like her gold-leopard Judith Leiber belt because “it’s simply ghetto-fabulous.”