My internship at Kerry Taylor Auctions all started with a foot-in-mouth statement.
“What department are you interested in?” asked the Sotheby’s employee to whom I’d just handed my resume.
“Fashion,” I responded emphatically.
“We don’t have a fashion department,” he smirked.
Back at the dorm, I found out that the fashion department listed on the Sotheby’s site was actually an affiliate, Kerry Taylor Auctions. A few calls, e-mails, and weeks later, I secured an internship there, during which I was lucky enough to work with Kerry herself, and get an hors d’oeuvre-sized taste of the feast of fabulous fashion that fills her life on a daily basis.
From her sitzfleisch in building her own auction house, to the scads of interesting clothing she’s seen come through her doors, Kerry’s story is definitely worth sharing!
Your work involves a pretty specific niche. Can you sum up what exactly you do?
I am a specialist auctioneer of costume and textiles. My job is to find the best possible pieces and sell for the highest market prices on behalf of my clients. I earn a commission on the lots I sell, so it is in both our interests to do as well as possible.
What made you decide to strike out on your own, and what have been the most challenging and exciting parts of doing so?
In 2003, Sotheby’s restructured and axed most of its non-core fine art departments. After 23 years I was out on my ear, a single parent with two sons to bring up. I have always had entrepreneurial flair — presumably why I did so well at Sotheby’s in the first place. I decided that I would set up my own company, as I didn’t want my career to be at the whim or say so of some middle management figure in the future. I suppose the hardest thing was coming to terms with the loss of a job which had been so much a part of my life — a bit like your family disowning you, I suppose.
I can’t imagine a kid saying they’d like to be an auctioneer when they grow up; what did you want to be when you grew up?
A fashion designer.
How did you get into the auction business?
There was a mix-up by my college, who put me down to do a degree in painting rather than fashion, so I took a year out and got a job on reception at Sotheby’s, where I rapidly rose through the ranks and found my niche.
I know this is a tough one, but what’s the coolest thing you’ve ever sold in auction?
So many and so hard to choose, but [it would have to be the] suit King James wore to marry Mary of Modena in 1673, Audrey Hepburn’s black lace dress from How to Steal a Million, [or] Princess Diana’s black taffeta Emanuel gown of 1981. I like clothes that tell a story [in addition to] being beautiful.
Who’s your favorite designer?
This is the hardest question because I have admiration and fondness for so many — Dior’s glamorous femininity, Chanel’s effortless elegance, Balenciaga’s clean sculptural lines, Balmain’s eye for detail and lavishly embroidered gowns… If I had to take just one to my desert island, it would probably have to be Madeleine Vionnet, whose dresses are not only sublimely beautiful but astonishingly complex and clever in their construction — pure genius.
What about your favorite period of fashion?
The ’50s, where frivolity, luxury, and sheer craftsmanship came to the fore in a reaction to the privations of the Second World War. Glamour and femininity returned with a vengeance, and yes, it was deeply uncomfortable and corseted, but wow, what a look!
Can you tell us about one item or type of clothing whose existence most people are ignorant of?
The busk, [a piece] usually made of wood or whalebone that you stuffed down the front of your corset to create a straight silhouette. Or, the coif, a triangular panel of fabric worn on your forehead in conjunction with a cap in the 16th and 17th centuries.
It seems like you know EVERYTHING about fashion. How much work did that take?
I don’t! The more you learn, the more you realize how much more there is to know. One of my heroes is a lady called Avril Hart, now retired from the V&A Museum, and what she doesn’t know about menswear probably isn’t worth knowing. Santina Levey is another ex-V&A [historian] specializing in lace and embroidery, and I feel so ignorant in comparison. I have a good grasp across all the datelines and areas of study after 30 or so years, but I learn something new very day.
Do you have any advice to share with young women seeking their dream job?
Yes. Don’t sit wait there waiting for someone to offer you the job you want — go and create it for yourself. If I did it, then you can. It’s not easy — nothing worth having in life is — but if you’re prepared to work hard and are passionate about something that you believe in, then go for it!