The global economy is collapsing, lethal bird flu has just jumped to humans, North Korea wants to nuke us, and there's a totally cool vintage couture sale coming up at Leslie Hindman Auctioneers. We will be focusing on the last.
Ever since the day, many years ago, when my uncle mentioned in passing that the name of the celebrated fashion designer Scaasi is "Isaacs" spelled backward, I've taken an interest in news of the little fellow and his work. There used to be quite a lot of it since, as a mere twentysomething—after a New York apprenticeship with Chicago's own Mr. Fabulous, Charles James—Scaasi started dressing Mamie Eisenhower and went on to be the designer of choice for Barbara Bush.
Not your idea of glamour? How about Barbra Streisand, Sophia Loren, and Elizabeth Taylor? (Jackie Kennedy would also be on the list of first ladies he clothed, but once she was in the White House, she didn't want to pay.) The grand-occasion dresses he specialized in were gorgeous and—what's harder to come by—flattering, and once Arnold Isaacs morphed into Scaasi, in 1954, his career took off on a ride that carried him all the way through the rest of the 20th century.
He's been less in the news lately, so it was a kick to read the New York Times's coverage of the celebrity-studded wedding bash he and his partner of 50 years, publishing executive Parker Ladd, threw for themselves in July 2011, after New York enacted the Marriage Equality Act. (You may remember Ladd from his stint as host of A&E's author-interview series, Open Book.) The judge who was supposed to officiate had failed to show up, the Times reported, but neither groom let that detail put a damper on a great party.
And my ears pricked up when I heard from Casey Monda, Leslie Hindman's director of vintage couture, that there's an unusual cache of "Skahzzi" in Hindman's upcoming auction, one of three devoted to fashion that the company does annually. Seventeen out of the 286 pieces of designer clothing going on the block April 16 are his.
Hindman, who started in the auction business here in 1982, dropped out in '97 after selling to Sotheby's, with whom she signed a five-year noncompete agreement. She reopened in 2003, and moved into her own 30,000-square-foot building on West Lake in 2007. She now has branches in Palm Beach, Denver, Milwaukee, and Naples, Florida, and is doing $40 to $50 million in sales annually. Hindman says her vintage clothing department, a small (but "fun and chic") fraction of her business, is nevertheless "the largest couture department in America," drawing commissions from all over the country.
When I dropped in, ten days before the start of the three-day preview period, the stash, curated by Monda and organized by designer, was hanging on eight racks under fluorescent lights in Hindman's couture storage room. Monda says it spans the 20th century, starting with lot number one, an embroidered silk slip of a flapper dress, and including a knockout rose-splashed midcentury ball gown with an Elizabeth Arden label (and an extra faint splash or two); a Zandra Rhodes beaded "face dress" with flapping eyelashes and shoulder pads, from the over-the-top 80s; and a pair of Warhol-inspired Versace leggings sporting an all-over Marilyn Monroe print that made an appearance in Vogue Italia in '91.
And then there are the Scaasis, a half dozen of which came from the closet of New York socialite Patricia Davis Raynes, daughter of the late oilman-turned-movie-mogul Marvin Davis, who inspired the 80s TV show Dynasty. Monda pulled out lot number 58, a to-die-for strapless, black lace ballerina-length gown with spidery gold and silver metallic embroidery. Its neighbors on the rack included a strapless cream-colored silk sheath covered in dare-me red polka dots and a deep-green velvet floor-length gown, draped from hip to knee in a silky swath of lighter green that Monda says reminds her of a Monet.
The clothing goes on display April 13, and the auction will begin at noon on Tuesday, April 16. Another 501 lots of accessories (from $50 costume jewelry to a $20,000 Hermès ostrich Birkin bag), also on display during the preview, will be auctioned starting at 10 AM on Wednesday, April 17. Working those days? No problem: the entire catalog's at lesliehindman.com, and you can bid in advance or in real time, online or by phone.
Most of the clothing is estimated at $200 to $400, but be aware that you'll pay an additional "buyer's fee" of 25 percent on anything less than $50,000, plus sales tax. Also, be prepared for action: the auction itself will flash by at 80 to 100 lots per hour. Because of the Internet, the business is global now, Hindman says. It's also more competitive than ever. Which is why I haven't mentioned lot number 62, the little black velvet Scaasi with confetti embroidery that pops like firecrackers against a night sky. And I might not call your attention to the hot-pink satin Galanos cocktail suit that's lot number 77 either. At least, not before I get to the preview and check it for size.