DECADES’ DESIGNER REVIVAL
Byline: Rose Apodaca Jones
LOS ANGELES — Wanted: Designers, dead or alive, who’ve slipped off the fashionista radar, want to reestablish their pioneer status, or have been resigned to the closets of their clients’ memories. Reward: the kind of overnight interest and reverence that leads to new celebrity fans, magazine features, runway homages and, best of all, turning mothballed archives into cold-hard cash.
So, maybe Cameron Silver, the proprietor of the eponymous vintage shop here called Decades, is a bit too elegant a man to place such an ad. But with the opening last Thursday night of Decades’ sixth retrospective, this one for the late Los Angeles designer Holly Harp, the 30ish Silver has established himself as more than just another dealer pushing designer vintage.
“I didn’t know about Holly until Cameron,” said designer Tara Subkoff, a guest at the opening who admitted to performing an “Imitation of Christ number” on her Harp. (She made a mini out of a maxi.) Just two weeks ago, on Oscar night, her pal Chloe Sevigny swept about town in an ivory jersey Harp. It made a stop at the dry cleaner before its gallery appearance.
Silver began the exhibition-style shows a year after opening in 1997 under the pretext that his clients — Renee Zellweger, Nicole Kidman, Cameron Diaz and Marisa Tomei, among them — are as interested in the designer’s history as they are in the dress. (All shows can be viewed online at decadesinc.com). The exhibitions, he found, are as good for the soul as they are for business. He gets close to the families and friends of the featured subjects, and forges bonds with new fans. The retrospectives, says Silver, mean the designers are not just about a piece of used clothing. “Even in this little store on Melrose, it’s still an exhibition,” he says. “It generates interest and it keeps a legacy alive.”
While not all pieces are for sale, many are stickered “sold” before opening night, as designers and their reps increasingly request advance peeks.
Silver had already begun work with Harp’s former husband and business partner, Jim Harp, on the latest show when Tom Ford, a long-time Decades client, sent a Stevie Nicks-flavored collection down the runway in February that brought to mind Harp’s signature silk jersey looks. In the Seventies, Nicks was a fixture at Harp’s Sunset Boulevard store.
After Nicolas Ghesquiere left Decades last summer with several Koos van den Akker patchwork pieces in hand, Silver decided to bring the Dutch-born designer out from the cult status of his hidden Madison Avenue salon and monthly QVC appearances where he hawks mass-produced versions. As the exhibit closed in February, van den Akker was blowing out of his new original pieces at Henri Bendel and his vintage items at Barneys New York. He also had a stack of press clippings to his credit.
“If it wasn’t for Cameron, I would’ve never seen this again,” van den Akker told WWD opening night. “This kind of adoration you usually get when you’re dead. It will pass, but right now I’m enjoying it because Cameron came into my life.”
Silver opened an East Coast installment of Decades in April 2000 on the third floor at Barneys on Madison Avenue. “Cameron has such a great eye,” says Julie Gilhart, Barneys’ vice president of fashion merchandising. “He really knows how to pick up on the influences of what fashion is saying now.”
Indeed, Silver’s mantra is that vintage is not about being retro. “I wanted a store that approached vintage clothing that looked modern, that served people in a modern way,” he says. “I wasn’t interested in period-looking clothing or costumey things.” He has a penchant for the quirky and bold, pieces mostly from the Sixties and Seventies that make a statement. It wasn’t so much his parent’s love of fashion (his dad’s Sixties Gucci loafers, in fact, ended up on Brad Pitt’s feet in “The Fight Club”), but his required courses in costuming as a theater major at UCLA.
The conversation pieces appeal to clients like book publisher-photographer Lisa Eisner. “Nobody is as committed as he is,” she says. “The shows, the hunting he does for designers that even the most fashion-knowledgeable should know about. He’s Mr. Radar.”
He’s also Mr. Entertainment, Eisner adds, echoing Gilhart and others who’ve fallen for Silver’s wit. Yet Eisner is also referring to Silver’s previous incarnation as a touring cabaret singer. “Fashion is his stage right now.”
He spent much of the early Nineties crooning Kurt Veill and Friedrich Hollaender to, as he puts it, “anyone who’d listen,” and even released an album of German cabaret in 1997. It turned out to be his swan song. He’d already started scouring the vintage shops in the odd towns he visited and decided to open his own store.
When he’s not tinkering on the 1930 Schindler-designed “Elliot House” in Los Feliz that he restored, Silver is traveling: London’s Portobello market, Paris flea markets, New York’s Metropolitan Vintage Show and the homes of wealthy socialites who have become his sartorial benefactors. But he’s also found his next retrospectives that way.
At a London vintage show in 1999, his cries of “any Ossie Clark, any Biba” were met with an introduction to a young collector who had amassed a considerable inventory of both designers. But it was Clark who Silver, sensing a “fashion moment about to happen,” gave more than a rack on his selling floor. The retrospective opened a year later.
Although the Clark show is considered Decades’ first official retrospective, Silver was on to something in 1998 when he presented a collection of Georg Jensen’s sculptural biomorphic silver jewelry in his street-level boutique, followed a year later with a combined book signing and archival sale of Rudi Gernreich.
As of Friday, Silver had already bought a ticket to New York to visit Verushka to discuss a possible show.
And he’s been busy at work with the older brother and niece of Kaisik Wong, the innovative San Francisco apparel artist who died in 1990 shortly after his 40th birthday — but whose futuristic piecework, as first reported in Hintmag.com’s “Chic Happens” column, has made a mark on Ghesquiere, as well as the costume designers for the upcoming “Star Wars” installment. But the designer’s family seems nonplussed.
“It was shocking to see something so similar, that my uncle’s genius has been recognized after all this time,” Wong’s 24-year-old niece Katherine Wong said. “And to see what he did is now in Vogue and Harper’s [in ads for Balenciaga] — it really is a case of imitation is flattery.”
Her father Kailey Wong agrees. “I’m not saying he’s [Ghesquiere] is copying or anything — but that he’s influenced. Fashion repeats itself. But Kaisik was truly an innovator.”
After a Wong fan put Silver in touch with the designer’s family, he took a $100 cab ride to Kailey Wong’s Pleasant Hill home outside San Francisco to view the archives; Katherine Wong is assisting Clark with the show that opens in December.
“I decided to work with Cameron to make Kaisik’s work available,” says Kailey Wong. “I am a Buddhist and I don’t believe in attachment. His work has so much chi — they’re alive. That’s why I need to share his work. The chi has to be shared.”