North Shore native Abigail Rutherford is surrounded by the finest names in fashion on a daily basis. As the Director of Vintage Couture and Accessories at Leslie Hindman Auctioneers, she organizes three auctions yearly of vintage couture and clothing, accessories, and costume jewelry.
Photograph by Jon Cancelino
A Balenciaga wool skirt suit, a Lanvin plaid silk georgette dress, a Roberto Cavalli suede jacket, a Moschino bathing suit, an Hermes crocodile Kelly bag, and a pair of Chanel Gripoix flower earrings—to some, these may be just be garments and accessories, but to Abigail Rutherford, these are pieces of art. These items, all included in Leslie Hindman Auctioneers’ last Vintage Couture and Accessories auction, serve as representative specimens of decades past. Abigail’s job as the Director of Vintage Couture and Accessories is to scour cities from coast to coast for consignments and unearth the history on such statement pieces for proper dating and cataloguing. The whole lot of fashionable goods is then placed on the auction block to be sold to clients ranging from retailers dressing Hollywood’s stars to one of the nation’s museums.
While growing up in Kenilworth, this wasn’t exactly what Abigail foresaw as her job—she didn’t even know such a position existed. Also, the preppy duds of North Shore teens did not really expose her to the couture clothes she now works with daily, but she always was an avid fashion magazine reader. Her interest in the history of fashion was sparked on a trip to Italy as a teenager. “I went to Rome and Florence with my parents and that did it,” she explains. “It inspired my understanding of the top tier of fashion. I always read Vogue, but [this trip] demystified everything. I started appreciating the whole history behind things versus just liking clothes.”
Majoring in art history at Lafayette College, she built a foundation in art, but nothing specific to fashion. Upon returning to Chicago, she began taking night school classes in design at a local trade school while working a desk job during the day. She was first introduced to the department at Leslie Hindman through attending one of their auctions. “It just clicked. This melded my two passions for the arts and the importance of fashion as a collectable art form,” she says. “I just think it’s such an overlooked category of an artistic expression, and Leslie Hindman is the perfect venue to get it in the public eye.”
Abigail took over the position more than three years ago. She organizes almost everything that goes into the auction house’s three regularly scheduled auctions in the spring, fall, and winter. She begins the process by speaking with people who are looking to sell, then will either request photos or travel to see their collection. She also takes it upon herself to get out there and find outstanding collections. Once she receives the consignments, she researches the history to date, catalogue, and place an auction estimate on them. This auction estimate varies from piece to piece, depending on the designer and its historic value. Many pieces will be auctioned off closer to wholesale value, but coveted items can sometimes sell near their original retail price. For example, Hermes’ famed Birkin bags usually sell at retail price because they are incredibly difficult to obtain. She also mentions that Chanel accessories sell well, especially the Chanel Gripoix, which were some of the original pieces of Chanel costume jewelry.
Her favorite part of the process follows. Once the catalogue of items is sent out, she receives an onslaught of calls from a medley of interested buyers. “You’re talking to all these different people—the museums are so different from the people that are buying for their stores or personal collections. The museums are buying for the posterity, and the stores are buying for the sexiness and the color. It’s really fun talking to all these different people that appreciate clothes for such a variety of reasons,” she explains. From there, four days are set aside for potential buyers to preview the clothing and accessories.
The next auction is scheduled for April 21 and will include a mix of some 18th and 19th century pieces from the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, along with 20th century pieces, which are more traditionally included. These auctions draw people from across the nation looking for vintage items. “We’re the only auction house in America right now. Our competitors doing vintage couture and accessories are in London and Paris,” Abigail points out. “We have such a cool niche here that New York and LA can’t call their own. It’s such an integral part of the fashion world, and it’s here in Chicago!”
For more information on the upcoming auction, visit www.lesliehindman.com.