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i collect, therefore i am?

Fashion breeds hoarders. But thankfully for dedicated fashion collector Alex Fury, the cyclical nature of fashion guarantees that if you keep things long enough, they will always fall back into style.

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"Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour's." Exodus 20:17 (KJV)

To covet is a sin. But fashion is all about coveting – the yearning to possess, the urge to acquire. Fashion is about creating the “must have”. That’s a lazy, Grazia-fied term for what is, essentially, an act of wanton lust. Actually, lust is the sin – the commandment is to not covet. We think of lust as sexual – coveting that ass. But really, it’s lust for everything. Lust, in Latin, is luxuria. Brings us straight back to high fashion.

Fashion turns us all into sinners. The urge to acquire, to covet, to hoard, is seemingly universal. It’s not new. Tutankhamun was buried with over 400 pieces of clothing, including 100 sandals. Etiquette demanded that Marie Antoinette change clothes a minimum of three times a day, and that she should never be seen in the same dress twice. Each week, eighteen new pairs of gloves and four new pairs of shoes were ordered for her, some worn once.

The difference between then and now? These weren’t collections, per se. They were working wardrobes. Marie Antoinette’s clothes were worn and discarded, passed to her ladies-in-waiting, not shed and shedded. There was no archive of the thousands of gowns acquired during her reign – after all, if we’re talking three a day from coronation until the fall of the Bastille, that amounts to over 16,000. Today, the lines between wardrobe and plain fashion hoard have ceased to exist.

I speak from experience. In my house, there is a room of roughly 200 square feet. It’s surrendered entirely to clothing. Racks upon racks of the stuff, shrouded in plastic, mothballed, bags stuffed inside other bags, shoes boxed. It sounds excessive. Frankly, I know it is. Britain’s Biggest Hoarders terrifies me. It’s not the terror that a mountain of maggot-infested newspapers and skeletal umbrellas could be lurking behind the door of one of my otherwise-nondescript neighbours’ doors, it’s the fear that I could end up like that myself, albeit with things that cost far, far more.

I’m not the only one. Fashion breeds hoarders. The speed of the fashion cycle encourages the purchase of more and more clothes, but the cyclical nature guarantees that, if you keep something for long enough, it will fall back into style.

The stylist and editor-in-chief of LOVE magazine, Katie Grand, has an archive of several thousand garments, tightly packed and alphabetised – A for Alaïa (including her snakeskin wedding dress), B for Balenciaga. Z is for Zoran, because Grand’s wardrobe mixes vintage with current season pieces. She’s also kept every garment she’s ever had since the age of fifteen. Last year, a two-tier system was introduced, because the rails were collapsing under their own weight.

Grand’s wardrobe is, well, Grand. But it’s not a folly – nor is it a tomb, like Tutankhamun’s. Grand’s archive is regularly ransacked for choice pieces to be shipped off to the designers she works with, the same way other designers ransack the vintage rails of Keni Valenti, or Resurrection in New York, or Steve Phillips’ Rellik in west London. The difference, of course, is that Grand probably has worn this stuff. It isn’t an abstract garment, it’s a living entity, added to and taken from as styles fall in and out of fashion.

The late, great, Anna Piaggi was much the same. Piaggi had museum-worthy pieces from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, all of which she wore, sometimes to death. She wore her priceless turn-of-the-century Mariano Fortuny Delphos dresses as scarves, teaming them with contemporary fashions by Karl Lagerfeld, or even McDonald’s uniforms. When a fraction of her wardrobe – some 40 rolling rails of clothing, plus innumerable hat boxes to house her signature Stephen Jones titfers – was displayed at the Victoria and Albert museum in 2006, Anna provided an inventory of its contents: 265 pairs of shoes, 932 hats, 2,865 dresses, 1 exercise bike and 31 feather boas. Piaggi was undisciplined, impulsive, extravagant. She genuinely didn’t give a fuck what people thought. Her wardrobe was for herself, and herself alone. She didn’t worry about preservation, conservation or the legacy she was leaving behind. She lived in her clothes.

"Anna Dello Russo has a climate-controlled adjoining apartment to house her collection. It’s kept a few degrees cooler than the rest of her home."

Contrast that with Anna Dello Russo, often seen as the inheritor of her mantle. Dello Russo doesn’t buy vintage; she likes her clothes fresh. She generally wears them once, like Marie Antoinette, after which she consigns them to her wardrobe. Which is the understatement of the century: most of these collectors have rooms, Dello Russo has a climate-controlled adjoining apartment to house her collection. It’s kept a few degrees cooler than the rest of her home. It’s always been that way for Dello Russo. She’s always been an obsessive – even in the 90s, when she was clad in boyish black, her covetousness was as extreme as the dozens of Balmain dresses she scoops up today. “Totally fashion victim,” she states, happily, of that time. “Thousands and thousands of 'elmut Lang suits.”

Daphne Guinness hasn’t resorted to a second home for housing her clothes, but she does have a collection scattered to the wind: her homes in Paris, New York and London all have much space devoted to her clothing. Often, it encroaches on everyday life. When I visit Guinness’s Mayfair flat, the hallways are rammed with rails of clothing. There’s a Christian Lacroix couture ball-gown, pale pink gossamer embroidered with silver tinsel and tightly corseted. Guinness confesses she has never worn it. Rifling through the alphabetised rails – each garment catalogued with a number, the result of FIT’s 2011 exhibition of over a hundred pieces from Guinness’s collection – a number of pieces still have their original hang-tags. There are few repetitions: Guinness does own a raft of catsuits from Alexander McQueen. One is on display on a mannequin: “I remember Lee saying to me, ‘Why do you need fifteen catsuits?!’” she recalls, laughing. There are ranks of the identical heel-less platform shoes that have become Guinness’s trademark. They’re specially made for her by Massaro in Paris.

Guinness is something of a collector of collections. She bought a 2009 Gareth Pugh show in its entirety, alongside huge swathes of the McQueen back-catalogue. Most famously, in 2010 she purchased the entirety of Isabella Blow’s wardrobe. “It’s a kind of hot potato because it's not for me to be the guardian of the flame,” says Guinness, carefully. “I think as a record of her and what she did for British fashion and art it is quite extraordinary. And I think she would be very, very happy with this.”

At pains, Daphne Guinness explains that the Isabella Blow archive is to be kept separate from her own wardrobe. That difference in terminology again. It’s also been catalogued and conserved, rather than restored. Namely, the cigarette-burnt holes and red wine stains have been stabilised, so they cannot further damage the fabrics.

Back in 1995, Dr. Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood, director of the Stichting Textile Research Centre at the University of Copenhagen, examined Tutankhamun’s loincloths from inside the tomb in Cairo. She noted stresses in the weave that indicated the garments had been worn. Isabella Blow’s wear and tear is more noticeable. The delicate lace gowns have been tugged at the seams during wear, fabric shredding slightly. Blow’s clothes were a wardrobe, not an archive. She lived in them. It was only after her death that they became museum exhibits.

That isn’t always the case. The flip-side to Piaggi and Blow are the collectors whose impulse is acquisition rather than adornment. John Galliano always said he wants clothes to be worn, not hung in moth balls waiting for that moment. Others disagree. And that’s truly covetous. The idea of obtaining and storing, of rails and boxes and drawers crammed with clothing, hidden from view – an Ebenezer Scrooge of fashion. Maybe that’s connected with the idea of seeing fashion as art, espoused by so many quarters who seem incapable of thinking of another way of expressing the importance of really great clothing. Fashion is an applied art. It’s created by artisans, not artists. And it’s made for the body, not for dead display.

"They want tiny sizes," is the emphatic statement of Clair Watson, the fashion director of 1stDibs.com, a website that curates a selection of items from dealers in antique furniture, art and vintage clothing, all available online. She's talking about fashion collectors, which she splits into two categories: the collectors who wear the stuff, and the ones who are simply thrilled by possession. And for those who want simply to own, rather than wear, both men and women, the smaller the better. "Maybe they're buying for their ideal woman?" she muses.

However, the choice word for clothing coveters these days is “archive”. Wardrobes, like those of Dello Russo or Grand, are often dubbed archives. They're seen as preserving something for posterity. Perhaps, one day, they'll end up in the vaults of a grand museum. They're certainly worthy of it.

"I have no intention whatsoever of wearing Price's boned velvet cocktail dresses or a schoolgirl outfit from John Galliano's autumn/winter 1997 "Suzy Sphinx" collection, but they're just as important as all the Prada I will wear. Perhaps more important."

This is all extremely cold. I’ve said what people collect, and how. But I haven’t dissected the most important element: why? Even with collectors rather than hoarders, it's the emotional connection with fashion that forces your hand – namely, forces it to your credit card. Personally, I combine hoarding and collecting. I have my own expansive wardrobe, and then a crated, tissue-wrapped archive of some of the best clothes created in the last 30 years. They're by the English designer Antony Price, and by John Galliano. I have no intention whatsoever of wearing Price's boned velvet cocktail dresses or a schoolgirl outfit from John Galliano's autumn/winter 1997 "Suzy Sphinx" collection, but they're just as important as all the Prada I will wear. Perhaps more important. For me, that Galliano suit is a direct link back to my teenage years, to being fourteen, seeing that show (grainy, small-screen, on The Clothes Show) and realising that this was what I wanted to do with my life. I would also have given blood to own this suit then. Now I can. That's often a consideration – I have stuff that's ten, twelve, fifteen years old, bought through eBay for a song. They're the ones that got away. Except, today, if you look hard enough, nothing really gets away.

Clothing is a talisman. It's a fetish, from the Portuguese feitiço. In the original meaning of the word there was none of that sexy stuff, even if you do get your kicks from frothing against a piece of pleather. The original meaning of fetish was about magical power applied to an inanimate object, which again is very fashion. And when we talk about people having a fetish for fashion – the kind of people, like me, who devote rooms to reams of the stuff – it's not really about getting turned-on by it, it's about the magical power those clothes have. It's shallow to say, but clothes can make you feel better. Really great clothes can make you feel great. Vivienne Westwood once said, "you have a much better life if you wear impressive clothes." Personally, I think owning them is enough too.

The talismanic power of fashion isn't just mumbo-jumbo for me to justify another shopping spree. Think of the celebrity auction, of simple items soaring above their mere material value, imbued as they are, somehow, with the aura of their former owner. Oddly, it's the opposite of Anna Dello Russo's dislike of vintage clothes ("they smell," she declared). It's the idea that, having been owned and lived their own life, clothes become somehow more precious. Especially if they were once wrapping the body of someone incredibly famous. Of course, no-one's under the impression that buying Marilyn Monroe's frocks will transform you into her – even if you can get into them – but it's a link to her legacy that's closer than anything else. You're touching fabric that touched her. There's something slightly magical about that, something worthy of coveting.

It's like Hannibal Lecter – a cannibal, sure, but also a pronounced aesthete – once said, “How do we begin to covet? We begin by coveting what we see every day.” That's why I collect really, really good fashion. Because it's the everyday made into something magical. If I can put it on my own back too, that's a bonus.