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Unique couture is a call to auction

Auction assistant Anna Barss-Bailey tries on some of the pieces before a Skinner couture sale in Bolton.
Auction assistant Anna Barss-Bailey tries on some of the pieces before a Skinner couture sale in Bolton. (Wiqan Ang for the Boston Globe)
Email|Print| Text size + By Christine Liu
Globe Correspondent / December 27, 2007

BOLTON - In an Oriental-rug-strewn space reminiscent of a pack-rat's bungalow, rack after rack of everything from Edwardian day dresses to Escada ensembles hung on padded satin hangers. One mannequin wore a striking Dior sashed frock; another, a Halston one-shouldered number. Vintage hats, accessories, and bags crowded tables, and unexpected treats like Hermès leather riding boots and an antique steamer trunk brimming with textiles punctuated the room.

Twice a year - in December and June - Skinner auction house holds a couture sale, and even an impending blizzard wasn't enough to keep some fashion-obsessed souls away. As always, it was a chance for bidders to snag precious labels - Christian Dior, Oscar de la Renta, Yves Saint Laurent - for (relatively) modest prices. Toss in Chanel and Louis Vuitton handbags and Yohji Yamamoto suits, and the couture auctions are a major draw for stealthy style fiends.

At this month's gathering, held here on Dec. 13, much of the designer apparel on the block came from a privileged, passionate couture collector in New York.

"She love[s] designer clothing, mostly from Bergdorf Goodman," explained Nicole Nicas Rovner, a specialist in Skinner's Discovery department. The collector would snatch up an item even if it wasn't the right size (but was the right label). Rovner pointed out gems such as a vintage couture faille tank gown, its white skirt petaled with organza, and a Pedro Rodriguez red and white beaded and sequined sheath. Obviously, the New York collector "has scads of [couture]."

A line of dealers, mostly male, scurried around the jewelry counter, inspecting pieces before the auction began. The fashions, meanwhile, attracted attention mostly from the women: Some looked to be casual buyers; others were take-no-prisoners types scribbling notes in their catalogs, their eyes roving for that must-find prize.

Anna Young, faint pink and purple streaks in her brown hair, poked through racks of vintage finds. At one point, she held a red taffeta and velvet gown up to her body and sashayed with a mix of mock drama and coy cupidity. Young, a Smith student whose mother is an antiques dealer, confessed that this was her "first proper-proper auction," but she roamed with a sharp eye, having worked at vintage mecca Screaming Mimi's in New York.

"There's a lot of amazing sequin work here," Young gushed. Luckily, she also knew how to spot easy repairs versus difficult ones, like stains or moth holes.

She was asked if the latter could perhaps be rewoven.

"Reweave Pucci polyester?" she exclaimed, incredulous.

Previewing the goods was pure joy for Young, but bidding was out of the question. "Oh God, I can't," Young said, laughing. "I'm a student! But if I had the opportunity or occasion to wear this stuff I would never walk into a normal store."

"I've been coming to Skinner for years," said a New Hampshire dealer who asked that her name not be used. A feisty, seasoned buyer, she canvassed everything from the historical Victorian pieces to a handpainted velveteen coat.

"I like kooky," she confessed, holding a black dress and examining a floral gown whose green velvet strap evoked Kermit the Frog's leg slung over the wearer's shoulder. "Humor is nice, a little tongue-in-cheek," she said, smiling. "In this day and age, we need a little comic relief."

As the auction kicked off at 2 p.m., Skinner employees in the preview area got a chance to look over the couture during an impromptu dress-up hour of sorts. As various items of apparel were donned and admired, phrases like "that fits you perfectly!" and "that needs a belt" are murmured. When an employee pulls on an elegant full-length fur coat, a collective "ahhhhh" escapes everyone's lips.

The auction proceeded defiantly through the storm, and bidders both absentee and real-time duked it out. The petaled organza dress surpassed its estimated price of $300-$500 and went for $646.25, while the dramatic one-shouldered Halston (estimate $200-$300) sold for $235. And yet, an emerald Dior gown (estimate of $200-$300) that had everyone swooning, went for a mere $117.50.

Who knows why? Fashion, as everyone knows, is always something of a gamble.

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