For lovers of fashion, sartorial tomes are an essential adjunct. Even if the clothes survive, it is books that capture most fully the ineffable spirit of an era, pinning down the mix of ideas, images and attitude that lie behind the style, whether they are monographs on leading designers, visual celebrations of fashion photographers and stylists, or narrative biographies. But while some titles remain continually in print, it’s the lavishly produced editions, or cult classics, printed in limited runs, that find an eager second-hand market.
One such collector is London-based businessman Eric Hagan. A jewel in the crown of his collection of over 400 fashion and design books is Jun Takahashi and Hiroshi Fujiwara’s photographic record of Malcolm McLaren’s and Vivienne Westwood’s Seditionaries designs (published in 2005, and a copy of which is currently for sale at London’s Donlon Books for £650). “McLaren’s and Westwood’s creations weren’t just fashion – they encompassed politics and popular culture,” Hagan says. Hardly a conventional monograph, the appeal of the book, simply called Seditionaries, lies in the wit with which the subversive spirit of the designers, expressed through their clothes, is refracted through the very Japanese sensibility of the authors.
Such specialist and out-of-print fashion books about era-defining designers are highly sought after, says Deborah Mack, of London’s Potterton Books. She cites Coco Chanel, Christian Dior and Louis Vuitton as standouts. Currently available, for $950 through 1stdibs, is a scarce copy of Shocking! The Art and Fashion of Elsa Schiaparelli, the glossily produced 2003 book about Chanel’s great rival, who was at the peak of her career during the 1930s and 1940s. Paul Lawrence of November Books, which specialises in books about fashion, youth cultures and subcultures, also highlights early material about groundbreaking brands like Comme des Garçons, the label created by Rei Kawakubo in 1969.
But it’s not just the designers who are the star attraction; the hard-to-source book Grace: Thirty Years of Fashion at Vogue, honouring Grace Coddington, former model and creative director of American Vogue, is a large, beautifully produced book of stills from photoshoots that has become a fashion classic. The book was republished late last year with a retail price of £100, but it is the gorgeous 2002 edition that collectors favour – one is currently being offered by Potterton Books for £950. Hagan regards his copy as “a big highlight” of his collection.
The vogue for fashion books is by no means an exclusively contemporary phenomenon, however. “Most valuable are original 17th- and 18th-century texts,” says vintage fashion auctioneer Kerry Taylor, who often includes books within her sales. “But these are very rare.” It’s both the subject matter and the beautiful hand-coloured illustrations that attract attention, says Pierre-Yves Guillemet of London’s Shapero Rare Books, which specialises in art deco tomes that mix art, fashion and design “led by the French”. Those illustrated by the suave George Barbier (1882-1932) are especially valuable – a set of La Guirlande: album d’art et de littérature (1919-20) is available for £9,000. It also currently has La Mode en mil neuf cent douze (1912), with Charles Martin’s charming illustrations of the latest fashions in hats and five hand-tinted photographs featuring the actress Mademoiselle Berthe Cerny, for £950.
One of the largest categories of fashion book is fashion photography, where it is the creator of the image as much as the designer who is the star. Sarah Wheeler of Bloomsbury Book Auctions now includes these books in her photography book sales. Particularly sought after is Helmut Newton’s huge tome Sumo (1999, Taschen), with its accompanying chrome stand by Philippe Starck. Every one of the edition of 10,000 was signed by Newton and they now “go for up to £10,000 each”, Wheeler says. Looking back to the 1930s, she adds, “Last year, we sold a group of Cecil Beaton books [£950]. To get a whole group in good condition, with all the beautiful endpapers, you are looking at estimates in excess of £500.” A little more under the radar are the books of fashion photographer James Wedge (The James Wedge Book, 1972, sold in June 2015 for £500.)
Photography books where models themselves are part of the narrative are also a draw. Michelle Meyer-Masterson, MD of the Elegantly Papered vintage magazine archive, observes that Juergen Teller’s Go-Sees (1999) – portraits of models entering his studio for castings over the course of a year – is a volume people seek out, fetching around £200-£500, as is Birds of Britain (1967), a photographic compendium of fashion models, singers and actresses of the 1960s by fashion photographer John E Green, which goes for around £150-£250.
Finally, the gloss of fashion advertising also makes books on the subject an attractive prospect for collectors. Neil Kumar, director of media firm The Research Station, has several books by provocative French image-maker Guy Bourdin (1928-1991), “who transcends advertising to make beautiful art” with his playful, subversive images (witness his mannequin legs on their tour of Britain in various brightly coloured shoes). Lucy Moore, director of Claire de Rouen books, who also runs the cult art and fashion book fair Room & Book at the ICA, has the ultimate homage: Guy Bourdin (£500), one of 50 limited-edition books by Mike Figgis, printed in the director’s studio and bound by hand. As Moore puts it, this is “a very exceptional book. And a very glamorous one too.”