Yesterday I had the pleasure of meeting Charlotte Smith, author of Dreaming of Chanel and custodian of the Darnell collection. Her previous work inDreaming of Dior has been a raging success in showing Australian and international readers just how special the collection really is.
In my little chat with her she shared some insights into her life living with one of the worlds most pre-eminant vintage fashion collections.
Why do you think out of all the family members Doris chose you as ‘custodian’?
Initially I had no idea why she chose me. She was close to Chesley Larson whose dresses are featured in Dreaming of Dior. I would have thought that of all the family members it would be her who would get it. Dorris was still very much alive when I inherited it, and her passion was in keeping this collection together. Her family was slightly worried about the responsibility of keeping it together, as there are literally thousands of pieces and was almost relieved that I wanted to keep it on.
It’s connected the family and I now keep in contact with Dorris’s grandchildren. They are so thrilled that it has become an international collection.
There are moments when I’m under so much pressure to keep it going, but its so far down the road now that its looks after itself.
What has been the most surprising thing for you personally since inheriting the collection?
I’d say that when I first inherited the collection I didn’t know what to do with it. I battled against peer and family pressure to sell it. I followed my heart though because knew that I had something special.
What I’ve learnt over the last 7 years is that when you are really passionate about something and you want it to happen, it will. That’s been the most surprising thing. I can now stand up in front on a crowd of 400 people and deliver a speech, where I used to be quite shy.
I do these book signing’s for example, 260 people came in Brisbane recently and afterwards they all wanted it signed. Without looking like I was incredibly pleased with myself I had to balance peoples expectations of the luxury and vision versus, well, it’s just little old me doing this!
Have you found that people are more interested in what you yourself are wearing now that you are custodian of the collection?
Oh yes, very much so! Today I went to a function at my daughter’s school. I didn’t wear anything vintage (I only wear my vintage for special occasions but not every day wear) but even when I dress like that people want to see me in vintage.
I make an effort to buy new designer in keeping with a couture image. How do people put petrol in their car wearing real couture?!
Do you wear the collection?
Not that much, I like to wear dresses that have no stories. Not only am I worried that I might ruin the dress by spilling a drink over it, the stories are so important to the collection that I don’t want to spoil the intimacy by wearing someone else’s special outfit.
I loved your story that after inheriting the collection you purchased your very own Chanel suit. Do you intend to keep adding to the Darnell collection?
Yes, oh my gosh yes! Yesterday I had 5 boxes delivered from my old land lord’s great aunt’s house that’s been cleaned out.
Instead of people giving me one piece I’m starting to get ‘mini collections.’ With the suit I felt it was very important to have something like that in the collection. I wanted one that was actually designed by Chanel, not after she died in 1971. Grant designed the cover image based on photos I’d shown him before I had even purchased the suit. I was so determined to have it!
This one just by chance was absolutely my size, I’ve only worn it three times but what I’ve found is that as its in the 1960s its got quite a long skirt. I tend to wear the jacket with skinny jeans, or the skirt with a t-shirt.
How do you say no to things?
I don’t! I never say no to anything. If you say no then you never know what else they might have that they decide, ‘oh well, she won’t want that!’
Eventually I’d like to set up a fashion resource centre for students. The marked garments are wonderful for students to study as they won’t be used but stored in boxes.
Why did you choose to have the books illustrated as opposed to photographed?
That was really because we wanted to make sure that the stories were as important as the clothes. Photographs incite detail for the reader, where as illustrations are imaginary and the reader could imagine themselves in the clothes.
I’m passionate about social history and I wanted the clothes to be seen in that context.
It was important for me to continue the fantasy and the dream. This collection is a nostalgic journey through fashion.