This past April, Sotheby’s New York held its highest-valued design sale ever when the collection of late D.C. doyenne Michelle Smith hit the auction block—bringing in a record $45 million. Now, Chicago-based Hindman Auctions is following up with the philanthropist’s incredible assemblage of haute couture, designer clothing, and accessories.
On September 21, A Life in Couture: The Collection of Michelle Smith will present one of the most significant private collections of contemporary haute couture in recent history. Comprising over 300 lots, the sale highlights remarkable work by Balenciaga, Dior, Ralph Rucci, J. Mendel, Emilio Pucci, Halston, and Stephen Burrows among others.
Prior to her passing late last year, Smith, a Washington, D.C. native and daughter of real estate mogul Robert H. Smith—the visionary who developed the “futuristic” Crystal City neighborhood—not only helmed her family’s foundation, but served on the boards of organizations like the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Whitney Museum of Art, the Kennedy Center, and the National Gallery of Art.
“Michelle Smith surrounded herself with carefully selected and significant works of art, and her wardrobe is no exception,” says Timothy Long, Director of Couture & Luxury Accessories. “Her conscious and deliberate choices are reflected not only in the collection of contemporary fashion, but also in the preservation of clothes related to key moments in her life, dating back to the 1960s.”
The work of four different creative directors working at the House of Dior, from 1979 to 2019, is reflected in the collection, beginning with Smith’s haute couture wedding dress designed by Marc Bohan. The white nylon net silk embroidered gown, with its scalloped neckline and organza skirt (est. $500-$700), is strikingly similar to the dress Bohan designed for Princess Caroline of Monaco for her 1978 wedding to Philippe Junot. Reportedly—days before the royal nuptials—details of the dress were leaked to the press, so Bohan had to quickly make modifications to the design. Smith’s version, worn the following year, likely incorporates many of the original details for the earlier model.
Other pieces from the Dior workshop include wool and crepe haute couture looks from John Galliano’s tenure (est. $1,000-$2,000), and ensembles produced under both Bill Gaytten and Raf Simons (est. $600-$800). Seminal looks crafted under the watchful eye of current creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri include an haute couture “domino” pattern wool coat (est. $4,000-$6,000) from spring/summer 2018, and a black two-piece taffeta palazzo pant ensemble (est. $500-$700) from spring 2019, inspired by the famous Bar suit from Dior’s New Look collection in 1947.
More than a dozen intricate and visually sophisticated jackets and tops by Ralph Rucci—dating from approximately 2008 to 2014—anchor Smith’s aesthetic during this period. From a hand-braided woven-leather jacket (est. $2,000-$4,000) and two-piece silk printed top ensemble (est. $600-$800) to a paisley coat with Mongolian lamb fur trim (est. $500-$700) and net encased ostrich feather jacket (est. $1,000-$2,000), each piece is a technical masterpiece from the hands of Rucci’s earlier atelier. “It’s a technical and conceptual marvel,” Long says of the ostrich feather jacket. “Both organic and heavily structured, the jacket is a prime example of why he became the second American invited to present at Haute Couture.”
Additionally, a selection of luxurious custom furs from J. Mendel and its fifth-generation creative director Gilles Mendel—ideal for East Coast winters—include a Barguzine sable stroller coat (est. $2,000-$3,000), a gold-tipped Russian sable hooded jacket (est. $3,000-$5,000), and natural scan-glow mink vest (est. $1,000-$2,000).
“Alongside promoting and supporting the arts, she had, over the years, worked closely with contemporary designers to create the largest private collection of contemporary haute couture I have ever seen in my career as a fashion historian,” adds Long. “She also collected historic garments, denoting her knowledge of the history and significance of fashion in the modern world.”
Previously, Hindman has auctioned the wardrobes of Academy Award-winning actress Olivia de Havilland, Valentino devotee Adele Bergreen, socialite and onetime model Betsy Pickering Kaiser, and the Ebony Fashion Fair, among others. Previews for the upcoming sale are by appointment only.
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