THE COLLECTORS PROJECT
Tatiana Sorokko Is the Queen of Vintage Couture
Tatiana Sorokko’s love affair with fashion was as improbable as it was deep. Despite an early focus on physics, her life changed when she became a model and began collecting couture.
Supermodel Tatiana Sorokko, who will be featured in the December issue of Harper’s Bazaar, has spent decades acquiring a collection of couture that spans the 1920s until today, chosen not to be encyclopedic but for its individuality. The collection is an appropriate reflection of Sorokko’s personal trajectory, which has been at once organic and unusual.
The daughter of physicists, Sorokko grew up in Arzamas-16, home of the first Soviet A-bomb, a “closed city.” It was at school that she developed a horror of uniforms. “There was a very strict code,” she tells The Daily Beast. “If you wear a different t-shirt you will be sent home.” And she often was for trying out an individual look. At 14, she gave herself her first perm. “I was out of school for a week,” she says.
Sorokko went to Moscow to study physics and was discovered there by Marilyn Gauthier, a leading Paris model agent. When she was 18, Sorokko moved to Paris. “I was shocked,” she says. “More uniforms. Everybody wants to look the same. They wear the Shoes of the Season and the Bag of the Season. I felt the West, compared to Soviet Russia should be different. Because for me it was all about having a personal style.”
But modeling was a job with benefits. “In Russia, we all made our clothes or attempted to. So I became very crafty. For me being in these couture houses was like being a kid in a candy store to see how it’s all put together. When I did the fittings for Yves Saint Laurent I could see how the idea comes to fruition, the complete outfit.”
A collector was born. A collector-to-be anyway.
Sorokko now has “a couple of hundred [pieces] of exceptional quality,” she says. “And as many more [that are] just wearable.” It’s a collection that stretches from such storied figures of the past as Jeanne Paquin and Mariano Fortuny via Balenciaga and Balmain to designer Azzedine Alaia. And it all began with a young model rooting through Paris flea markets to find something that made her feel good.
“It was unconscious in the beginning, finding certain things that nobody else had them,” she says. “I was buying the 1920s flapper dresses, because they looked so precious and fabulous. And were cheap at the time. Fifty, seventy-five dollars. Now it’s thousands.”
As her modeling career bloomed, Tatiana was signed by Elite Model Management and she continued to collect clothing, moving further into haute couture—the hauter the hotter—as her life changed. “I’m not buying just to put in a box. A lot of the things that I have I wear,” she says. And occasionally a designer would give the model something they had worn, upping her collection into the present day. “I have a few pieces from Vivienne Westwood who I worked with a lot. She gave me beautiful things. And I have a few Ungaro pieces. He gave me a dress that I wore at my wedding.” This was to Serge Sorokko, the art dealer, with whom she moved to San Francisco, where he has a gallery on Geary.
Just when did Tatiana actually set out to build a thoughtful collection? When did she start studying the great couturiers?
“That began when I retired from modeling, the end of the 90s, the beginning of 2000,” she says. “That was when I started getting couture, kind of from the other side of the runway.”
When Sorokko began collecting, interest in couture was for the most part limited to those who wore it, while popular attention was focused on street fashion, like miniskirts. Tatiana says there was one agent behind the sudden popularity of couture—the red carpet. The Oscars, the Emmies, whatever, the pre-show style strut became a kind of catwalk of the stars. “And now it’s a big trend for actresses to wear vintage clothes,” she says. So the klieg lights shifted to the glorious and not-so-distant past. “It’s a big challenge to all the Contemporary designers,” she says.
How many pieces does she now have in her collection?
She has a few ready-to-wear pieces, mostly Japanese—Comme des Garcons, Yamamoto, Junya Watanabe—from the late 80s and early 90s, when they were at their most innovative, but it’s couture that obsesses her. And in this area, prices have ballooned, along with popular attention. What is the most she has paid?
“I paid $10,000 for a Balenciaga [sari dress],” Sorokko says. “And probably the same thing for Schiaparelli. The Balenciaga was from the 60s and [Elizabeth] Taylor wore it for dinner at the Lido with Richard Burton. It’s a famous dress. And her own dress, exactly the same one, was sold last year after her death for 58,000 dollars.”
Sorokko has no interest in trophies as such, and she is no speculator. “One of the things Vivienne Westwood gave me I gave to the de Young museum in San Francisco for their permanent collection,” she says. “Because I love the idea that clothes will be shown for the longest time.”
She’s like one of those car collectors who drive their own cars. “It’s my personal look on 20th-century fashion, my style, and my understanding of it. I’m not collecting for collecting’s sake. I’m wearing the clothes, it’s a liveable life. My exhibition at the Moscow Fashion Museum and the Phoenix Art Museum was called, Extending the Runway: Tatiana Sorokko Style, because it was truly about the life that those clothes live. Now it is beyond the runway look. The garments were created at such-and-such a time and now they have a second life with me in my wardrobe.”
Not just any old haute couture either.
“The most difficult thing in fashion for a designer is creating a classic, a thing that doesn’t have the stigma of a certain period or time. And only a few designers were able to achieve that ... Cristobal Balenciaga, Madame Gres ... If you look at their 60s dresses, put them on now, and they look very contemporary. And Charles James. For me, he is the epitome. He is the architect, the person who is going to be studied and studied and studied again. In the first year of any design school they do a class on the petal dress because the construction is better than any architecture. That is what I am collecting, that is what I am trying to find. I am not looking for the period piece that defines an era. I’m looking for quality, craft. Something that will kill time.”
“Look around Contemporary fashion and you see labels. It’s Fall/Winter 2014. Wear it next season and people will know it’s a last season thing. They do not have forms that can go through time. So it’s a tricky thing to find those couture pieces that will grab relevance.”
Are there any designers in the U.S. operating at that level?
“Ralph Rucci is my one and only,” she says.
But Sorokko believes that popular attention is bringing fashion to a new place. “The Alexander McQueen show broke records,” she says of the 2011 Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
That got the museum world’s attention, I observed. The art world’s too.
“Absolutely. A few designers were able to approach the line and cross the line where it becomes art. But the interest is there and the intellectual curiosity is there. I almost feel we have reached the point where the general public will understand that there is something there. It beat the records of Picasso and Van Gogh, this exhibition.”
How does Tatiana see the future of haute fashion, I asked? Rather surprisingly it turns out.
“I see the future more in commercial terms, not couture, much as I love it. I think the future in fashion will be determined by technology in terms of the fabrics. Like thinner and translucent for summer and warmer for winter. Because with global warming, who knows? We may need layers for protection. But I do not see the future in terms of the couture that will come out of it. “
Tatiana Sorokko doesn’t feel that this diminishes the relevance of what she and other couture collectors are doing. Utterly the reverse.
“The making of couture clothes is changing so drastically that I feel like I am preserving its history,” she says. “For me I have always wanted to see something in my hand. I love to preserve. And, collecting couture, at least I see and know what I am preserving. And I am truly preserving something unique because those garments are like a dying breed. When those craftsmen who produce them go out of business those things disappear. So I am the custodian in my lifetime of exquisite things that are museum-worthy, that satisfy the passions and desires of the time.”