On the wall facing the scene hung William Kentridge’s Drawing for Felix in Exile, the singular red circular line on the desolate charcoal landscape taking on new meaning from its juxtaposition with ensembles that appear to be the antidote to bleakness.The dresses (among them an iridescent green sequined catsuit fit for a disco diva) are part of the 50-piece collection that goes under the hammer in Johannesburg on May 16.
Levin is a local fashion legend, South Africa’s original haute couturier who, in more than three fashion decades, dressed local glamour princesses, presidents’ wives and Hollywood’s leading ladies from the 1960s to the early 1990s.
The details of each elegant item are intricate and quite beautiful to look at, regardless of personal style. The sequins and rhinestones, delicately embellished hand-stitched tulle and intricate cutouts in sumptuous fabrics recall a golden age of fashion, when Italian and French fabric houses influenced designer’s choices, fashion was about the perfect fit, and one dressed appropriately for dinner.
The dapper designer suggested the sale to Strauss & Co’s Stefan Welz following the landmark auction of actress Elizabeth Taylor’s jewellery and clothing in December by Christie’s in New York. It raised a record-setting $156-million.
Lot number 2 627 was a full-length white feather evening cape created by Levin for the star in 1975. Its estimated price was set between $4 000 and $6 000, but it fetched $30 000.
The softly-spoken Levin says during Taylor’s trip to South Africa in 1975 he heard her being interviewed by the SABC’s Bea Reed.
Reed asked if there was anything special from Africa she would like to take back with her. “She said: ‘Ooh I would love a full-length feather cape.’ I had heard it and I knew Bea so I rang up and said: Bea, if she really wants it I would happily make it for her ... because it’s such a fun thing to do.”
He exhibits the same modesty with the auction collection — the starting prices are about R1 500, hardly real money for couture — even for South African designers fresh out of fashion school. The dresses are immaculate (in sizes 10 and 12) — having been lovingly stored for many years.
“It’s like a resurrection,” he says, when I ask what it feels like to view it all in this way.
Among the standout pieces is a cream Italian wool dress — for Levin “a highlight in construction and a mathematical nightmare” — with its finely hand-stitched and fully lined cutout pieces. In all, the collection is the dress-up fantasy — of most girls (and even some boys) — brought to life.