After travelling the globe for seven years in search of a coveted Birkin to add to her 200-plus bag collection, Jenniffer Proskiw finally tracked one down in San Diego. “I went to boutiques in Paris, New York, Capri, Venice, Saint Maarten, St. Barth’s, Argentina—they all said no,” recalls the Calgary-based realtor. “I called the Hermès store in San Diego and the salesperson said, ‘If you can be here in person, I may have something.’ I know it sounds silly, but I was so excited to get my hands on one, I was shaking. When you open it up and smell that leather, when you see the handiwork—it’s something you want to look after and love.”
Fashion collectors like Proskiw—who obsessively collect a specific type of clothing or accessory—are a rare but growing breed. You probably know a shopping addict or two, but serious collectors are interested in more than the high a spree provides; a deeper passion fuels their spending. Many don’t even wear their purchases, instead displaying them like precious works of art.
Proskiw has built an entire closet and library in her new home around that premise. She plans to display her favourite handbags, including a Judith Leiber pearl- and crystal-encrusted peacock clutch that’s never left its dust bag and a Christian Dior evening bag that once belonged to Elizabeth Taylor (she woke up at 6 a.m. to bid on it the day Taylor’s estate was auctioned off at Christie’s in New York). Proskiw also collects eyewear—nearly 200 pairs, including prescription Dolce & Gabbana ski goggles.
Statement-making pieces are precisely what inspire Carla Stitt’s collection of jewellery. Born in Montreal and based in Dallas, Stitt has been collecting since she was 15. Now 47, she has about 300 pieces. “I didn’t mean to start collecting. I was always into fashion, and the quickest way to update a wardrobe is through accessories,” she explains. “For me, clothing has always been the canvas—jewellery is the art.” When Stitt got engaged, her mother gave her $7,000 for a wedding dress, but she spent it on jewellery instead. “I was on my way to look at dresses when I popped into a jewellery store and spotted a $4,000 Konstantino bracelet that took my breath away,” she says. She ended up pairing the bracelet with a simple BCBG slip dress she found for $115—a decision she has never regretted.
What’s impressive about Stitt’s collection is its range—everything from $1 wood bangles to gold and ivory Noor Fares angel-wing earrings, vintage Chanel and gold-hammered architectural pieces by Hervé Van Der Straeten. And while she’ll occasionally shop on eBay or at auction, Stitt acquires most of her pieces by happenstance, often while travelling. Once, during a layover in Tarapur, India, she flagged down a cab after deplaning and headed straight to the local market. “I paid 30 rupees [around 50 cents] for an incredible ring made from lilac stone. It was massive, but I loved the ornate quality of metal,” she says wistfully.
New York-based Jennifer Zuccarini of Fleur du Mal, a line of lingerie and ready-to-wear, travels a dozen times a year to cities like Paris, L.A., London and Palm Springs. “Usually my first priority is getting to a vintage store or flea market,” she says. Zuccarini, the former design director at Victoria’s Secret and co-founder of Kiki de Montparnasse, collects vintage lingerie. The 38-year-old designer owns about 50 pieces; her favourites include a pair of high-waisted striped panties with fringe (“I’m sure it was a costume”), a ’20s beaded slip from a London flea market and a white lace YSL caftan found on eBay. “If you’re a vintage collector, you love the hunt,” says Zuccarini, who grew up in Toronto and shopped Queen Street’s Black Market as a teen. “When you find something that’s been personalized, like someone’s name embroidered—that is special.”
Faith Orfus, co-owner of Toronto’s Rac Boutique, recalls shopping vintage at 12 years old. “My sister took me to Kensington Market and I bought a pair of used Levi’s,” she says. That fuelled a full-on denim habit, with a collection of jeans (around 30 pairs), jackets, vests, shirts, overalls and skirts. For Orfus, collecting is more about curating than just accumulating. Like an art collector, she’s only interested in the few pieces she deems worthy of a place in her collection. “It’s an instinct,” she says. “I can tell right away if it resonates with me.” Her favourite example is a no-name Western-style shirt with pearlized buttons that she discovered in a vintage shop 20 years ago. Dubbed her lucky denim shirt, it has been all over the world with her.
Other collectors become enamoured with a particular label. Toronto-based Shirley Hanick boasts one of North America’s largest collections of Elsa Schiaparelli memorabilia. It was during a 1991 trip to the Miami Beach Antique Show that she spotted the perfume bottle that would change her life. “It was very Surrealist,” Hanick, 66, recalls of the mannequin-shaped bottle capped with flowers in place of a head. “I had no idea who this Schiaparelli person was, but the dazzle of shocking pink boxes and beautiful glass flowers atop the crystal bottles was almost as stunning as my first gaze at the Venus de Milo.” Hanick quickly became known as “the Schiap lady,” and by 1996, she was giving lectures at conventions.
Over the past 20-plus years, Hanick has acquired nearly 1,000 pieces by the famed designer, from perfume bottles and lipsticks to jewellery, bags and scarves, as well as a hand-written note from Schiaparelli herself. Her home is gallery-like, with many items housed in glass cabinets. “Schiaparelli had passion. She was constantly reinventing herself,” Hanick says. “She’s a great inspiration to me.”
For most collectors, it’s the chase that’s most exciting. “The more obscure, the more covetable [it is] to me,” says Orfus. Stitt recalls the time a freak ice storm in Dallas made it impossible for her to attend an auction to bid on a pair of antique cameo earrings she had been lusting after. “Cars were sliding into each other,” she says. She placed her bid over the phone and hired a car to have them delivered to her—a trek that took two hours. “It has nothing to do with worth,” she adds. “Once I get it into my head that I want something, I’ll do whatever it takes to get it.”