Several lots in Christie’s Fashion auction earlier this week were sold by the amazingly interesting and eccentric BillyBoy*, who owns one of the largest private couture collections in Europe, if not the world. Born into a family of couture lovers (one of his great aunts bought the only known order for a Somalia leopard coat from Dior, designed by Yves Saint Laurent), he began collecting at early age and continued throughout his varied career as a jewellery (Surreal Bijoux) and clothing designer (Surreal Couture), avant-garde artist, author, and model. While he is currently organizing a personal museum for his collection, BillyBoy* decided to selectively trim it down a little – starting by selling off some original Christian Dior and YSL couture pieces. The most dramatic of these is ‘Lahore’, a blue velvet evening gown from Dior’s second collection in 1948. This remarkable gown, with Mughal inspired silver and pearl embroidery by Lesage, was also chosen by the Duchess of Windsor for her wardrobe, and sold for $98,848. A YSL ‘le smoking’ with velvet tailcoat, made for the model Bettina Graziani, sold for only $4,659.
A quote from BillyBoy* states, “Applying my fascination for history and documentation to garments made by designers I acquired my collection over a period of 40 years, mostly directly from first owners whom I knew well personally, such as Arletty and Bettina. I decided a long time ago that when I hit a certain age I would refine my collection, and I hit my fiftieth birthday a year ago now! I am currently living the dream of putting together my own museum and I always promised myself that when that time came, I would sell the pieces I was not going to exhibit myself so that other museums might enjoy them. It seems quite greedy and hording to keep every last piece!”
Below are scans from an article on Billy Boy (pre-asterisk) from 1988, when he was 28- I did rather an inadequate job scanning this last year, but I have copied some of the more choice sections and quotes. At the time he had accumulated a collection of over 10,000 Barbie dolls that were all kept in a vault- I’d love to see them now!
A good overview of his life and work can be found here.
With the Warholesque disregard for either consistency or veracity when it comes to his own life, Billy has obliged the press with a variety of colourful personae and a true professional’s understanding of the requirement of the photo opportunity. “I’m a media sensation,” he said. “The media like me because I cooperate. I’m eminently dress-upable.” He attributed his love of Barbie to that same quality. His repertoire of costumes is legend, from blonde bubble curls and mini skirts to ropes of pearls and black lipstick.
When I first met him in 1985, accompanying Warhol to London and staying at the Ritz, he had selected a classic, thigh-length Sonia Rykiel cashmere twinset with pearls, culottes to just above the knee, black Pop-sox to just below, a peair of Hermes leather sandals, a pony-skin pillbox hat and Ray-Bans. We visited a Queen concert at Wembley and its aftermath party, where Freddy Mercury jammed with Samantha Fox and Sigue Sigue Sputnik mingled with the dinner-jackets. Billy pronounced it all “very vulgar.” A well-known dealer of twentieth-century jewellery whispered, “Billy has the best collection. And he never sells.”
Since 1983, he has lived in Paris, a city, he says, where all his artistic inspiration is founded. Endlessly accomodating to cultural exiles, the city has now bequeathed him lodgings in the studio of one of its most famous impressionist painters, where his Memphis furniture and Warhol screenprint of Barbie sit happily with eighteenth-century chairs, a Giacometti lamp and Shocking Pink silk drapes.
His character reveals the mix of formative influences: immaculate manners bred of a well-to-do American family (“my mother was very Barbie”), the slightly camp naivity of a Warhol acolyte (“What do Andy and I do together? Shop!“), a cartoon quippyness (“I am Bugs Bunny”), all together with an acute business sense, the absolute dedication of a serious collector for the recording of historic fashion is of great importance. Every single piece of his collection is catalogued on computer with attendant magazine references – when it appears in Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar – and who wore it, be it Daisy Fellowes, Josephine Baker, Jackie Onassis or Twiggy.
A museum to house his collection would be his ideal way in the future to educate the public in matters of taste. Historic fashion, he says, must be cherished. Fashion is just a business today, “but the people who made these clothes dedicated a whole lifetime to confirm what I believe in.”
Billy has now rediscovered Flower Power. His latest external manifestation is, to quote him, “Edie Sedgwick meets Siddhartha,” a perfectly androgynous blend of sixties mythologies. The man who only has to dangle a Schiaparelli suit on a coathanger in front of his slight frame to become Schiaparelli before your eyes, only needs one of his many long-haired wigs and a daisy to flashback to ’67. “I think about LOVE all the time,” he drawls wistfully, “I think I’m lovesick.”
There is no TV in his apartment, no newspapers, the volume of Perestroika on the table was not a sign of his interest in politics, but another collectible symbol, like the empty Dali perfume bottles on the mantlepiece. He is a dedicated elitist who despises la vie mondaine, and a master of the art of self-invention. It’s a luxury not many of us can afford.
Article, in bold, by Liz Jobey with photos by Michel Haddi from Vogue UK, December 1988.