Nike, Chanel, Hermès: internet-based vintage fashion auctions are bidding for Chinese collectors and younger clients
When Katie McNaughton opened a vintage boutique in London, she didn't realise that her job would one day have more in common with an art dealer at Sotheby's or a wine trader at Christie's than with your average shop owner.
And yet - because the appetite for vintage pieces has grown so much that people are now investing in clothes, bags and shoes that they hope to sell at auction - luxury consumers are employing her to give them advice.
"A vintage Chanel bag is like a savings account," says McNaughton. "Chanel bags went up in value by 12 per cent last year and may well continue to increase."
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Last year, HermEs handbags, Nike trainers, Chanel shoes and Patek Philippe watches were at the centre of important sales at Sotheby's, Christie's and Phillips - all auction houses that are using fashion as a way to acquire a new, younger generation of customers. The numbers are impressive: in December last year Christie's Hong Kong made headlines when it set the world auction record for a handbag when a HermEs Himalaya Kelly sold for US$437,330 (HK$3,375,000) to a young Chinese client.
It feels like a new development in the fashion industry, even if the links have been in place for a while. Christie's is owned by Kering chairman Francois-Henri Pinault (Kering owns Gucci, Saint Laurent, Balenciaga and other luxury brands) and Phillips was formerly under the control of LVMH president Bernard Arnault.
But the pandemic has made internet-based fashion auctions more popular than ever - last year, for example, the number of Chinese clients bidding online for luxury fashion tripled.
"Customers now want both a beautiful online experience and to be taken to the product as quickly as possible," says Josh Pullan, managing director of Sotheby's global luxury division. "For Sotheby's, online is now the preferred platform for the majority of bidding."
Handbags remain the most popular fashion item to buy and sell at auction - and are the accessory McNaughton now specialises in. She advises clients around the world hoping to buy investment pieces that they will one day make a high return on.
"If you're looking for a safe and secure way to invest money then it's better to go for classic bags from big heritage bands like Chanel or HermEs, as they do create staple styles season upon season - but if you want to make proper money then look for brands that aren't particularly trendy but likely experience a massive surge," says McNaughton.
"One example is Bottega Veneta bags, which were simply not shifting as the brand was considered mumsy, but then they did a big marketing campaign and now the minute we get one in, it flies out.
"The same was true for the Dior saddle bag, which so many people bought in the 90s and which nobody could resell, but which suddenly became popular again at auction. My prediction for next year? Fendi Baguettes."
Some of this surge in popularity for vintage bags is to do with the sustainability issue, but also the fact that designers regularly look back at their archives to create new collections, ensuring old silhouettes remain as popular as ever. During a pandemic year without much social contact, customers are also looking for personal buys, and for pieces with meaningful histories and an important provenance.
Buying a preloved piece at auction provides that.
To tell these provenance stories, auction houses have enlisted the help of KOLs (key opinion leaders) from China.
Christie's publicised an upcoming online handbag sale for HermEs and Chanel through a popular KOL on Little Red Book, as did Sotheby's for a jewellery sale - in each case, they told some of the backstory of the item on their books; although few KOLs have the reach of Mr Bags - aka Tao Liang, one of the top handbag and jewellery influencers in the world.
Liang has more than seven million followers across his social media platforms and recently posted videos of himself preparing for auction, bidding on three different bags and eventually winning a pale grey HermEs Birkin bag for more than US$10,000. Other clients are likely to follow suit, turning their online auction bid into a social media story to follow, and even monetise.
Other than handbags, watches and jewellery, the most popular fashion items at auction are usually streetwear pieces. It makes sense: clients are already used to the random 'drops' of goods, and are happy to pay double or even triple the price on platforms like eBay if they miss the sale.
Auction houses are taking this culture to the logical next step by helping young Chinese collectors invest in trainers, skateboards, sweatshirts and caps from important drops over the last decade.
Many of these millennial bidders are also art lovers and are buying shoes and handbags in the same way they shop for paintings and sculptures - carefully, with one eye on the aesthetics and one on the investment and the future resale value. Fendi Baguettes and Nike trainers included.
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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.
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