In march of this year, interviewed vintage clothing auctioneer Kerry Taylor, for a uni project. She was great to talk to and had so much insight into the world of vintage fashion. Here is her story.
She’s trawled through Audrey Hepburn’s wardrobe, will be doing the same with Princess Diana’s this summer and has her eye on Elizabeth Taylor. Here, auctioneer Kerry Taylor talks to Colleen Ross about vintage, high profile clients and being a woman in a man’s world.
Kerry Taylor likes discovering things. This for an auctioneer totally devoted to her field is not surprising. Sitting, surrounded by garments from centuries gone by - from Ossie Clark to Alexander McQueen, you name it she has it. Here, in her self- made auction house in Dulwich, 51- year- old Taylor, and her team are preparing for the first viewing of her latest sale, Dress Me up! Made up in part by celebrity owned garments being auctioned by high street chain, Topshop ‘they’re being sold in aid of help the aged for a charity event they were running at Christmas. They were renting out to young ladies who wanted to wear a piece owned by a star. We have a lovely Lanvin dress here worn by Kate Moss.’ Kerry explains.
As her success continues to mount, Kerry’s past clientele would make any auctioneer – man or woman – supremely jealous. In December last year, she was asked to handle a private collection of clothing, owned by Audrey Hepburn. ‘She was so elegant, and such a nice woman in her own right, she was as beautiful inside as she was outside’ she says fondly. The auction was a resounding success and saw a black, chantilly- lace Givenchy cocktail dress sell for an exponential, £60,000 – her most expensive sale yet. “I was actually disappointed, I wanted it to make more” she says “but yes it was a lot for a black dress.” So with movie star and style icon to add to her infinite list, which other high profile wardrobes has she had the liberty of raiding? ‘They say in the auction business you’re only as good as your last sale and I’ve had Lesley Caron, Princess Lillian, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and I’ve had Audrey Hepburn, where do I go now?’
Constantly thinking about work, Kerry happily admits to immersing herself into anything vintage related. ‘I love Mad Men!’ she exclaims (the US drama set in the sixties that is…) ‘I’m completely obsessed, the costumes and the corsetry is just wonderful’ she enthuses. ‘The fifties were sublime and very romantic, because of its glamour, and its ultra femininity,’ she explains, as her expertise and enthusiasm is unleashed. ‘You still had the most fantastic work rooms, salons and fabrics and a whole industry that still supported haute couture, which is gone now.’
After growing up in North Wales -‘on the top of a mountain’ - Kerry began her career working for Sotheby’s at the age of 19, a job people twice her age would give their right arm for and even more infuriatingly, she walked into it completely by chance. ‘I was meant to be doing fashion textile design,’ she recalls. ‘But my lecturer put me down for fine art and printing by mistake – I was devastated. But obviously they did me a big favour in the long run, because I joined Sotheby’s and just adored it, I loved all aspects , the furniture, paintings, everything. They were very good to me because I was quite young, but obviously very determined and I think it amused them - in the end they respected that.’
However, it wasn’t just her age that made Kerry an unusual candidate, it was her gender too, ‘there were very few female auctioneers in the 1980s, and it’s kind of a tough job.’ she says, ‘some of the [male] dealers who came down from all the big cities had quite a reputation for being difficult,’ as she goes on to recall her very first auction, ‘as soon as they saw this child up on the rostrum, they were really trying it on and making it difficult for me.’ But not to be disheartened, Kerry immediately put them in their place and they soon knew to behave themselves, ‘If I had let them continue to bully me, it would’ve been a nightmare.’ But, of course - as Kerry knows all too well – no two sales are the same, which her time at Sotheby’s would prove. ‘I’ve taken auctions for football memorabilia, where all the men, love the fact that I’m a woman,’ she smiles. In fact, she happily admits to taking advantage of her sexuality in aid of a sale and is entirely unapologetic about it too “if some man came in to my auction floundering, and said ‘can I stop the bidding’ at an incredibly low amount, I will cut to the chase and say I’m starting at £2,000.”
Irrespective of her age and gender, Kerry has all the main components of a good auctioneer. She’s feisty, incredibly confident and always has her eye on the job. So much so in fact, that in 2003 a change of events was about to occur, that not even she saw coming. Whilst on her way to see a client (on her bicycle as she so vividly remembers), she took a phone call that would determine her future as an auctioneer. ‘I got a call from my immediate manager telling me I was going to lose my job! They didn’t even sit me down in a chair,’ she recalls, still with disbelief. ‘It was then a question of what on earth do I do now? You know I was divorced with two children to educate. I was literally on my own. I think I locked myself in my bedroom for about a day and cried all day and all night.’
Despite being sacked and jobless, she certainly wasn’t looking for sympathy, ‘I just thought, they’re not going to beat me. So I found this building, got myself organised with an accountant, set up a company and off I went’ she says, proving she is a lot tougher than she would have people believe. But despite her first auction being a total triumph, Kerry felt too exhausted - or as she puts it, ‘as though I’d been run over by a truck’- to relish in her success, ‘It took me a long time to stop feeling terrified and to actually think this works, and people like it.’
Dressed down in corduroys and a jumper, this is the unassuming attire of a working woman, with only a splash of red lipstick and a slick bob to reveal that she is in fact a glamorous one too. Whether it’s to prove a point to her male counterparts or a devil may care attitude to the business, Kerry Taylor won’t let her own clothing distract from the task in hand – or anything else for that matter. Even this interview can’t pull her away, as a number of distractions outweigh her focus, ‘can you show them where the beginning is and give them a catalogue please,’ she says to one of her young interns, before apologising and – distractedly- carrying on.
As the only dealer specialising entirely in vintage fashion and textiles, Kerry has built up a fan base that could rival her ex-employer- Sotheby’s, whose auctions of the same kind only take place twice a year. 'Kerry's sales are as lot more relaxing, and a lot less serious than Sotheby's, which can be intimidating' says vintage buyer Steven Philip, 'fun is the keyword in Kerry's auctions.' The confidence now oozing out of her, Taylor begins to express her feisty and immodest nature, which she has no desire to suppress. ‘With the fashion crowd, I am very well known as an auctioneer,’ she says, ‘my sales are fast and furious, and I think we have a reputation for accuracy, honesty and efficiency.’
This may be why Kerry attracts so many influential people in fashion, film and indeed royalty as clients. This summer, Kerry will handle probably one of her most important sales yet – the clothing worn by Diana Princess of Wales. ‘They have come from David and Elizabeth Emanuel’s archive, as they designed the wedding dress and other dresses worn by Diana early in her marriage’ says Kate Mitchell, Kerry’s assistant. The collection will include an array of clothing, including the infamous low cut, black dress worn by Diana for her first public appearance after her engagement. ‘Diana was a wonderful person’ Kerry says, and has no qualms about labelling the princess as her own style icon.
Unsurprisingly, Kerry already has her eye on prospective clients, with Elizabeth Taylor as the ideal contender, ‘What a beautiful woman, the eyes have it as far as she’s concerned’ she says, leaning her head on her hand, as though in a distant daydream.