The King of Vintage Couture

By Brigit Grant, November 29, 2012
Cameron Silver in his store on Melrose

Cameron Silver in his store on Melrose

There are times When I really love this job. Not because I have a head-start on the season’s trends and first dibs on face creams, but because of the fascinating people I meet. People such as Cameron Silver.

No, I hadn’t heard of him either, at least not until his book, Decades: A Century of Fashion, landed on my desk with a resounding thump. A3 in size and weighing approximately 2 lbs, Decades is the macher of coffee-table books, and though you may need a trolley to get it home, the reward for your effort lies within the 250 pages of stunning fashion images — many of which have not been seen before.

The book does not claim to be a definitive history of fashion. “It is my own history,” says the Los Angeles-born author, and he is really proud of it. But what is so special about Cameron Silver that Bloomsbury have agreed to publish this mighty tome of first-person fashion essays?

Quite a bit as it turns out and most of it is fascinating because he is such an eloquent storyteller. Dapper and refined with a smooth accent, the 43-year-old Silver is the sort of world traveller one hopes to sit next to on a long-haul flight. Midway across the Atlantic he would tell you about his theatre degree, then his career as a singer of 1930s German cabaret songs that allowed him to indulge his passion for scouring second-hand stores for vintage clothing between gigs.

“I snapped up YSL suits from the ’70s, Pucci ties from the ’60s, but wherever I went I found more interesting women’s clothes than men’s — and though I certainly wasn’t interested in wearing them, I found myself compelled to buy every single truly wonderful thing I came across.”

Though Silver cut a music album, it was the thrift shop splurges that paid off and resulted, in 1997, in him opening Decades, his incredibly glamorous vintage boutique on Melrose Avenue in LA. Today it is regarded as the home of historic couture for A-listers, celeb stylists and a number of princesses — “not all of whom are Jewish,” he jokes.

“My store actually got its big break when Nicole Kidman chose a Loris Azzaro couture gown to wear to the premiere of Moulin Rouge and the pictures of her in the dress appeared all over the world. After that, Grace Coddington [Vogue’s creative director] dedicated eight pages to vintage, which was risky but it signalled the start of mixing old and new for 21st-century women.”

Silver’s challish for fashion can be attributed to his mother, Margot, who, “when being social in the eighties”,dressed in Mugler, Sonia Rykiel and Valentino.

Cameron with Sex and The City's Kristin Davis and Burlesque star Dita Von Teese

Cameron with Sex and The City's Kristin Davis and Burlesque star Dita Von Teese

“For my barmitzvah she had a dress modelled after something worn by Princess Diana,” says Silver, whose very presence at catwalk shows these days is a seal of approval for the exhibiting designer. “I don’t think Chanel cares if I’m there or not because it is such a big machine, but the LVMH group is into me and I’ve done some things with Marc Jacobs at Vuitton.” “Some things” for Silver can range from hosting an exclusive party in Singapore next Tuesday to narrating Andy Warhol.

Currently, it’s the film, Versailles ’73, that he’s promoting. “It’s about the battle for fashion eminence between the French and Americans. Haven’t you heard about it?” he asks.

I am loathed to admit that I haven’t, just as I hadn’t heard about the French fashion socialites Jacqueline de Ribes and the late Baron de Rede who introduced Yves Saint Laurent to Paris society. Apparently. But those are the names you get when you ask the font of fashion knowledge to pull together a guest list for an imaginary Friday night dinner.

“I’m afraid it would mostly be dead designers,” says Silver, adding Halston to the list. “I’d also like the Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli to be there, but then I couldn’t invite Coco Chanel as they didn’t get along.”

As I said, he is a fashion expert and in recent years has noticed a real decline in the number of aspiring Jewish designers. “It was all about Donna Karan, Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein… but they are now the old guard,” he says.

“Alber Albaz at Lanvin is wonderful and I threw a dinner for him in LA, but there are not that many young ones. It’s also not the schmutter business it once was as it’s now all about conglomerates and there is so little manufacturing done in the US. There are lots of Jewish CEOs, but I fear the artistry has gone.”

Silver has plans to build his own conglomerate by revitalising old brands and investing in small designers who need cash. He will also have his own clothing line —“evening wear mainly as I’m not into basics. There’s a way I like a woman to dress,” he says.

In the New Year the US channel Bravo is launching a reality show built around Silver and his store and he is hopeful it will be good for business.

“When Decades first opened people came to buy. Now they want to borrow and where do I make money from that?” asks the man who once paid $4,000 for a Schiaparelli walking stick. “But it can work out as when I did Kristin Davis’s entire wardrobe for Sex and The City II — she bought all of it.

With “hold on to anything by Hermes” as his mantra, he says he doesn’t get emotional about the gowns he buys to sell at Decades, but during our time together he regaled me with stories about his finds.

“The incredible thing about vintage couture is that there is only one of something wonderful and I listen to every word my sellers tell me and sell their stories on with their dresses,” he says. “And that story continues, as new owners more often than not send pictures of themselves wearing whatever they bought.”

I’m not sure I have anything vintage of value to entice Cameron Silver to visit, but anyone this interesting will always be on my Friday night dinner wish-list.

‘Decades: A Century of Fashion’ is published by Bloomsbury at £22

Last updated: 11:36am, December 12 2012