The last thing that Sandy Schreier wants Met visitors to walk away from “In Pursuit of Fashion” is “‘Oh, some rich woman, who bought a lot of pretty clothes. That isn’t what this is about.”
While there is no denying the abundance of beauty — 80 of her 165 promised gifts are part of the Costume Institute’s new exhibition — the collector insisted there is more to the story. The galleries are high glamour with pristine pieces from Valentina, Madeleine Vionnet, the Boué Soeurs, Gabrielle Chanel, Jean Dessès, Gilbert Adrian, Christian Dior, Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo, Maria Monaci Gallenga, Charles James and Lucien Lelong among other designer forces. And the Detroit-based Schreier has a battalion of other resources with 15,000 couture pieces in her collection.
“This is my life’s work and my passion. It’s been a joyous ride and I’m not finished.” Schreier said. “I want them to know about me and how this all happened. I was always preserving this for the eventuality that it would wind up preferably here at the Met or at a very great fine arts museum.”
However faintly funereal her mention of “the eventuality” may have sounded, Schreier was all energy and optimism. “This is a lifetime dream from the time I was two and a half. And here we are,” she said, standing near the show’s entrance. “It’s not everyone who gets to realize their dream, is it? I mean when you wake up in the morning, your dream disappears. When I woke up this morning, my dream was happening.”
The reality of that was not all sunshine and daisies. Asked if it was bittersweet to part with some of her trove, Schreier welled up. “I’m suffering a lot — separation anxiety,” she said.” “Nancy [Chilton of The Costume Institute] has been there for me. When the truck pulled away, it was really hard. I have thousands and thousands in my collection, but amongst the 165 that I have given to the Met, they are some of my favorites and they mean a lot to me.”
With one of the country’s leading collection of 20th-century high fashion, Schreier has been a reliable lender to the Costume Institute and other museum exhibitions. While there is no shortage of people who love fashion, film and art, Schreier has carved inroads in each as a fashion historian, film commentator, accessories designer for her friend Yves Saint Laurent at one point, author of two books about Hollywood costumes and a longtime fashion-is-art advocate.
Years ago when she would travel with her late husband Sherwin, a trial attorney who often needed to take depositions in other cities, she would contact the leading fine arts museum in advance. “I would drive the directors’ secretaries crazy, saying it was urgent that I speak to them. I would tell them that I was coming in on a certain date and I had to talk to them about the art of couture. They had no idea what I was talking about,” she said. “My husband used to say that I could sell ice to the Eskimos. I got in to see probably 90 percent of the directors. I talked to so many directors over time that my husband called me ‘the director collector.’ I tried to persuade them that fashion was an art form and it belongs in every fine arts museum. So here we are.”
How she started to acquire world-class couture as a toddler is a story in itself. In fact, practically every story she told at the walk-through had a back story. Her New York-born father was the prodigy of Russeks’ owner David Nemerov (father to famed photographer Diane Arbus.) “Of course, their big thing was furs. My dad was working in the mailroom and Mr. Nemerov thought he looked really good-looking and trained him to be a furrier so he could entice women to buy gorgeous fur coats. When they opened a branch store in Detroit, he was sent there, he met my mom and just stayed. When my mom gave birth to my second sister, he decided to let her have a little R&R and he started taking me to the store with him.”
As a child at Russeks, she was exposed to fur, couture, wedding gowns, millinery and jewelry “real and costume,” she said, adding that she was most enthralled by the fashion magazines in every dressing room. “Daddy’s customers were all the automotive titans’ wives. They were enticed with me, because I looked like Shirley Temple. At the age of two and a half or three, I was sitting there not looking at ‘Mother Goose,’ but swooning over [Edward] Molyneux and [Jean] Patou. They started sending me gifts of seldom-worn or never been worn clothing, thinking I was going to play dress up. I never did. I always said to my parents, ‘Don’t touch.’”
They told her to wear the dresses for Halloween, but to no avail. “There was something in my DNA. I knew they were too good to jeopardize their longevity.” she said. “I wouldn’t be here today if I had worn them as Halloween costumes.”
She amassed hundreds of pieces from the gracious socialites, who shopped at Russeks. “In those days, there was no such thing as vintage clothes. At the early part of the 20th century, it was very fashionable to pass down your [Charles Frederick] Worth, your Callot [Soeurs] or Boué [Souers] to your relatives, best friend or your daughter. But between the wars, that was no longer fashionable. So, what were these socialites going to do with all these gowns that they never wore or only wore once? They thought, “Here’s this little girl who is swooning over Schiaparelli, Let’s give her something to play dress up with.”
But Schreier’s father was miffed about the gifting, not because of the inherent extravagance, but the germs. “He thought we would all die of old clothes disease,” she explained.
There was no chance of that, given the fastidious care of her collection. Visitors to “In Pursuit of Fashion: The Sandy Schreier Collection” will be able to attest to that, when the show opens to the public Wednesday. It runs through May 17. The influence of art and design undeniably helped to gild her eye. In high school, she and her future husband finagled a day trip. “His parents were rollovers. I think we borrowed their car. They made us promise we wouldn’t elope. We were 16 or 17. We did get married at 18,” Schreier said. “We drove here to The Met and walked in and out of the galleries. In those days, there was no Costume Institute. As I walked around looking at everything — I remember it like it yesterday — I remember turning to Sherwin and saying, ‘One day my collection is going to be right here at this museum.’ He said, “Sandy, you have the biggest fantasies I’ve ever heard, but you make them all come true.”
Seven years have passed since she and her late husband Sherwin first spoke with Met brass to discuss the prospect of an exhibition. Her conviction that fashion is art dates back decades. Post-Russeks, her father opened his fur salon, the Edward Miller Fur Salon, near the Detroit Institute of Arts. During their frequent visits, after seeing the paintings, sculpture and the paintings, she would ask where all the dresses were. “My dad laughed and said, ‘Museums don’t have dresses.’”
Her eight-year-old self was also surprised to learn the Detroit Public Library didn’t really have fashion books either aside from “Arms and Armor” and Peterson’s magazine. “There was no such thing until Carolyn Milbank’s ‘Couture: The Great Designers’ came out. That was 1986. I know that because I worked on that with her,” Schreier said.
Working with the “dream team” of Andrew Bolton, Jessica Regan, Mellissa Huber, and Glenn Petersen, multiple trips were made to Schreier’s Detroit home “to measure, photograph and examine about 1,500 pieces before culling the final edit, based on the Costume Institute’s collection — more specifically the gaps that needed to be filled in,” Regan said. “Throughout the process, it was really incredible to discover what Sandy had. We had no idea of the full scope until we started working closely with her. The range of everything is really extraordinary — we have pieces from the early 1920s all the way through McQueen and contemporary pieces. There are so many rare pieces that we just wouldn’t to find today.”
Thanks to Schreier’s gift, the museum has underrepresented names like the Boué Soeurs, Madeleine & Madeleine, and Jeanne Margaine-Lacroix. “I’m not a hoarder, but I love eye candy. Have you seen this eye candy yet?” she asked, motioning toward a 1923 Madeleine & Madeleine pink silk crepe de chine evening dress that was gift from “one of the Dodge women [Matilda Dodge Wilson.]” The garment’s ancient Egyptian-inspired motif resonated with Schreier who has spent many hours in Detroit’s Egyptian-inspired Art Deco buildings and movie theaters.
Passing by a Valentina black silk and velvet hat from the Forties, Schreier said “That belonged to Lillian Gish.”
In the high-rolling Eighties, she put her movie buff knowledge to good use in Hollywood, commentating on Nick Clooney’s Sunday evening show and other film-centered TV programs. “I just loved them so much, but I was never interested in collecting Hollywood costumes. As Edith Head said to me, ‘It’s not the difference between apples and oranges. It’s the difference between apples and giraffes.’”
During that West Coast run, she befriended costume designers Head, Jean Louis, Theadora Van Runkle and Helen Rose. She has troves of personal letters from them, as well as sketches and swatches. As for why they shared such simpatico, Schreier said Head once told her, “’Because you’re teaching me as much as I’m teaching you.’ She was asking me questions about couture which she knew nothing about.”
Her TV appearances indirectly led to unsolicited fashion finds. Five years after Schreier mentioned in a magazine profile that a Rudi Gernreich topless swimsuit was on her wish list, a movie fan tracked her down to offer one that had belonged to her great aunt [following her written instructions with the years-old magazine.] It was in its original Bloomingdale’s box. “I was friends with Rudi. He made 200 of the topless bathing suits and Bloomingdale’s bought 100 of them,” Schreier said. “So now I’m looking for Poiret’s lampshade dress — The Met is, too,” she said of her second wish list item.
As for how she met Gernreich, she said, “I won the Peggy Moffitt lookalike contest. Vidal Sassoon cut my hair to look like Peggy Moffitt. I was in Life magazine, being the first one in the Midwest to have the Sassoon hairdo. Vidal thought I was really great and he invited me to London to meet some of his friends. At that point in the Sixties, I had four babies and my husband said, ‘Go. It sounds really exciting. I’ll take care of the kids.’”
In the U.K., Sassoon introduced her to Mary Quant, Thea Porter and Zandra Rhodes with whom Schreier remains very good friends. “So I like collecting people, too,” she said. Two of Rhodes’ vibrant dresses are in the show, as is a slinky metal mesh minidress from another friend — the British model Twiggy. The frock’s designer Roberto Rojas scouted out Schreier on the Internet and they became pals. Originally ankle-length, the dress was shortened considerably during a Vogue shoot that Richard Avedon was doing with the then-unproven Twiggy. Rojas did so, after Avedon told him, “’This girl is never going to make it. She looks awful.’ Roberto cut off the bottom of her dress and he cut off her hair at the same time. And the rest is history.”
A film-loving fan, who had seen Schreier on the “One O’Clock Movie” program, gifted her the chocolate brown velvet coat by Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo that is printed with metallic pigment. Later through her friend Elsie, who was later known as Countess Gozzi, Schreier learned that only two chocolate brown velvet dresses had ever been made.
Looking around the first gallery, Schreier said her favorites are like her children in that “it depends on the day of the week.” High on her list though is a black silk chiffon embroidered flapper dress with clear crystal and bugle beads, which appeared in People magazine’s first or second Best and Worst Dressed issue, she said, “It started in the Eighties or Nineties, and is now pared down to practically nothing now.”
“Every dress has a story. Let’s talk about Mrs. Firestone, shall we?” as she walked toward a selection of evening dresses that once belonged to Elizabeth Parke Firestone, who was married to an heir of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company. A pale blue silk satin “Du Barry” Christian Dior fall winter 1957-58 evening dress is paired with a 1958 House of Dior evening dress. After Firestone’s death, Schreier was recruited by Firestone’s daughter to appraise the collection, a task that required 20 trips to the family’s Newport estate. “There were thousands and thousands of couture gowns, and at least one to two dozen pairs of shoes for each and every gown. There were 5,221 pairs of couture shoes. I counted them,” Schreier said.
Schreier’s sense of humor can be seen in such items as an Isaac Mizrahi handbag-shaped hat, the Campbell Soup Company’s “Souper” dress, a mid-Eighties Karl Lagerfeld for Chloé embroidered sheath with a motif of a dress on a coat hanger. Moschino Cheap and Chic’s 1993 “Art is Love” dress is another riddle on display.
With what seems like a reference library’s instant memory, Schreier said she is still haunted by the pieces that she “left behind,” due to a missing button or other imperfection. As for the items she had second thoughts about relinquishing, that only happened after the Met-bound truck pulled away. Wafting her eyes, she said, “‘Yeah, I can’t talk about it. I like to do things in multiples — not husband-wise. I have four children. The first two of my kids are boys. After they were born, my husband said, ‘Good, our life is complete.’ I said, ‘Oh no, now we need two girls.’ And so it happened. The same thing happened with the clothes. The more I got, the more I wanted, the more fascinated I got with it.”
Accustomed to being asked what will happen to the thousands of dresses she has collected, Schreier said, “I would tell them, I was in Spain and I went to see the tomb of Queen Isabel and King Ferdinand in a big mausoleum. She died and took everything with her — all her art is in there. I am going to take all of it with me.”