PHOENIX — Far from its origins in Paris’ grand ateliers, an astounding couture collection has found a permanent home at the Phoenix Art Museum. Its former owner, Ann Bonfoey Taylor, who died in 2007 at age 96, spent a well-crafted lifetime amassing pristine quantities of Balenciaga, Charles James, Madame Grès and Givenchy, among others. In the same manner art collectors often say they’re mere caretakers, she and her staff meticulously maintained her wardrobe, storing it in ample cedar closets for future generations to study and savor.
“It’s an unusual donation for its quality and cohesiveness. We took so much,” says Dennita Sewell, the museum’s curator of fashion design who hails from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute. “The enormous presence of daywear, such as double-face wool and leather dresses by Madame Grès, sets it apart, too. Most women only keep their wedding and ball gowns.”
Sewell cherry-picked 200 pieces, including 60 ensembles, for the exhibit “Fashion Independent,” which runs through May 29. Since the bulk of the pieces date from the Fifties to the Seventies, the show exemplifies James at the pinnacle of his career, according to Sewell. She says a rare, possibly unique, three-piece matching set with gown, bodice and evening coat is on par with the dresses from the designer’s iconic portrait by Cecil Beaton. Other treasures are his wool day coats and two mermaid dresses in silk crepe that he also cut for boldface clients like Elizabeth Arden and Gypsy Rose Lee.
Taylor favored drop-waist, monochromatic outfits in every shade of gray to the brilliant magenta of a Givenchy jumpsuit with built-in coat, and long sleeves for chilly nights in Denver, where she shared an estate with her husband, the oilman Vernon Taylor Jr., and six children. Not one for ruffles, she chose strong silhouettes to show off her athletic figure.
“Her style is perfect timing for today,” says Sewell, noting visitors also could learn something from Taylor’s perseverance. “She really picked herself up by her bootstraps.”
Disowned by her family after her first marriage’s demise, Taylor became a World War II flight instructor to support a daughter and son. The expert skier whose Olympic dreams were dashed by the war then pioneered skiwear under the Ann Cooke label that sold at New York’s finest department stores. During an initial career as a model, she was photographed by everyone from Edward Steichen to Toni Frissell for Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Town & Country, and parlayed those connections along with a long-term friendship with Diana Vreeland into a successful company.
Upon meeting her second husband in her Stowe, Vt., boutique, the golden couple fashioned a real-life Ralph Lauren campaign existence: Foxhunting in England, where she ordered bespoke riding habits from the royal family’s tailors; entertaining the world’s elite, and hitting the slopes outside their Vail chalet, one of the resort’s first. The exhibit delves into her role as renaissance woman with rows of riding hats, Henry Maxwell boots, and skiwear such as Mongolian fur coats in primary colors, as well as some of her famously documented 101 ski hats. like military shakos and a custom green velvet headband with yellow plastic shield.
In a 1967 Vogue article, Taylor said, “People in Colorado are more doers than watchers,” a motto she continued with this once-in-a-lifetime gift to the museum.