The Vintage-Expert

No excuse to be badly dressed!

The Frenchwoman Pénélope Blanckaert is co-editor of the book Icon of Vintage Fashion. She heads the department Vintage & Fashion Arts for the auction house Artcurial, which since recently has been running an office in Vienna. Over a Viennese breakfast she told us about her protected childhood in Lyon, her hard years of apprenticeship at Yves Saint Laurent in Paris, and how she discovered the world of vintage in the USA. After our conversation she privately went in search for a loden jacket – and made a find at the Humana second-hand store.

Antje Mayer-Salvi: There isn’t much to find about you personally on the Internet. Please tell us a bit about your life!

Pénélope Blanckaert: I was born in Paris. When I was seven years old my family, my parents and my two siblings, moved to Lyon. Our big house was always bustling with artists; there were paintings and sculptures everywhere. Literally everywhere. It was a very special atmosphere. My father, Gilles Blanckaert, an entrepreneur, was and is a passionate collector of contemporary art. But he was already a collector at a young age, when he wasn’t as wealthy as in his later years. He would often take me to the museum. There were studios in his factory that he rented out to artists. We visited them frequently as children. I think my love for fashion and art comes from him.

And your mother?

She is very talented in handcrafts and knits the most beautiful things. She is also very good at sewing. She makes great pieces for my two children based on patterns she already used for us when we were young.

"I had a “La Redoute” catalog hidden under my bed!"

Were you trained as a fashion designer?

No, I cannot draw and don’t have big ambitions in handcrafts, but I have always been very interested in fashion. It’s hard to believe but I originally studied economics, even temporarily had a PR job for beauty and fashion. This wasn’t at all to my taste. So I decided to do a post-graduate program at the Institut Français de la Mode, a very prestigious fashion school in Paris. Then I went through two hard years of apprenticeship at Yves Saint Laurent under Stefano Pilato – Laurent himself wasn’t there anymore at this point. I had quite a hard time accepting that I had to first start at the bottom of the pyramid there. (laughs)

Were you already interested in vintage fashion in your youth?

My mother always bought this conservative stuff in Paris for us to wear. It was good quality, for sure, but in Lyon this was not so cool. I had a “La Redoute” catalog hidden under my bed, and I would sit there in the evenings with my calculator and put together outfits in my mind. This was in the 80s, the time of famous supermodels like Cindy Crawford, Claudia Schiffer, or Naomi Campbell, the time of strong women – at least visually – with broad shoulder pads, narrow waists, and bright neon colors. I imagined myself as a successful, admired business woman walking down the streets in such outfits. Pretty silly, isn’t it? (laughs)

I totally remember the 80s! A kingdom for a pink knitted Benetton sweater with shoulder pads! But how did you eventually arrive at the vintage thing?

Through a study trip on the West Coast of the States at the end of the 90s. There, vintage has been part of the fashion culture since the 70s. There were and still are these huge second-hand stores where you can buy a cashmere sweater for five dollars. Brands are secondary in these stores; it’s about the combination. Back then in France, actually until some years ago, there wasn’t a lot of interest in vintage. Now the market is booming.

"No excuse to be bad dressed!"

And when did you discover the fashion auctions for yourself?

In Paris they were basically in the hands of two women at that time. They are well advanced in their years now and a couple in private. They had a downright monopoly with these auctions. After I left Yves Saint Laurent, I learned the trade from them – from scratch, so to say – by draping, photographing, and describing the pieces, including all the research. So I acquired my knowledge from the objects, not the library.

Is vintage fashion taken in commission at auctions?

Yes, only in commission. When I want to have something myself I participate in the bidding. Clients can try out the pieces before the auction. But nowadays it is actually no problem to buy vintage fashion online. You can buy new clothes on the Internet just as easily. At Artcurial we don’t always have that much time, but of course we try to describe and categorize the pieces in the catalog as best as possible. You don’t have vintage fashion auctions in Austria, do you?

Dorotheum does some. Do you buy vintage fashion online yourself?

I have to admit, I just don’t find the time for it, I simply don’t manage! But I have a great tip for your readers: Join the bidding at auctions. You will find vintage much cheaper there than in the online shops, who get their stuff primarily from auctions as well! It is also a lot of fun, by the way, because you have to fight for your piece.

What is good style for you?

No excuse to be dressed badly these days! Good style is not a question of money, and sexy is not just about the cleavage. Quite the contrary. I find the democratization of fashion wonderful!

But at Artcurial you auction rather expensive items, don’t you?

As we know, Maison Hermès only delivers the coveted classics like the Kelly and Birkin upon order. Until you eventually purchase one of the luxury items it can take two to three-and-a-half years, depending on the model. After one of our auctions you can take your Hermès bag home immediately. Of course, our prices are also very high, with starting prices between about 15,000 to 60,000 euro. The blue Kelly from 1954 with a photo print of Grace Kelly went for 73,720 euro.

"Evidence is the magic word! Clothes you wear for years because they work!"

What makes Artcurial different from other auction houses?

At Artcurial we pursue a type of reappropriation strategy with vintage fashion. We call it “Vintage & Fashion Arts”. We auction jewelry, accessories, and fashion whose history and context we intensively research and communicate, including entire collections with a fashion historical significance, which are of special interest for museums, such as the collections of Poiret, Schiaparelli, Vionnet, Balenciaga, all Japanese designers from the 1980s as well as Martin Margiela from the 1990s. And we show how one could place the old items in a new, contemporary framework. That’s my active creative part in the big picture.

What do you like to do in your free time?

Deal with fashion (laughs) – but really! And with everything that has to do with it in the broadest sense: cinema, art, cooking, doing nothing, living. I have two children, one two, one five years old, and an exciting job. There’s not much time left after that!

What do you love about vintage fashion?

I can’t buy anything expensive. A new blouse from some label for 4000 euro? No way! I wouldn’t even spend 500 just because of some sewn-in label tag in the back. I find even 300 euro too expensive for a vintage Yves Saint Laurent blouse. I’m very strict there. When you are from the trade you would never do that since you know that these are fantasy prices, which have nothing to do with the actual value. I don’t care about the brand in the first place when I buy something – it’s all about the style. That means it has to create a silhouette with its material, proportions, color, and cut.

Very French, that statement! Will you also buy something in Vienna?

Yes, I would like to buy a traditional Austrian loden jacket in navy blue. Do you know by chance where I could get something like that?

The store is anything but elegant, but Humana on Wiedner Hauptstraße has a kind of department for traditional clothing, and it is quite well equipped. But don’t expect any Birkin bags there!

That’s okay, we already have them! (laughs) Thanks for the tip! It’s these shops where you get the best things. (Later on, Pénélope mailed me that she purchased some treasures there. — editor’s note)

Are there vintage items you will never forget?

Yes, for sure. I had Dior dresses in my hands which were utterly beautiful – but I’m not that interested in these star items. I have great respect for fashion that is evident. Evidence is the magic word! Clothes you wear for years because they work. They are like good tools that also help you to express your personality. The simple pieces by Comme des Garçons, for example, fulfill these criteria perfectly for me!

Many thanks for this conversation!