In 1955, at the age of 10, Chris Levin accompanied his parents (who were by that time very much aware of his passion for fashion design) to visit Christian Dior’s Haute couture show, which he says ‘had a great impact on me and that’s why you’ll see a lot of my dresses are probably quite romantic.’
After studying at a fashion academy in the Western Cape, Levin began working out of his flat in 1966, sending his stunningly good looking, model sister out to premiers and first nights in his outfits, where she was soon spotted by friends and acquaintances, and it was not long before people began to talk, as Chris says, it was ‘like throwing the pebble in the pond’ and in no time the ‘Levin look’ was something to aspire to.
Levin’s fashion career sky-rocketed in the 1970s, with leading ladies in South African society looking to him for assistance in maintaining the ‘code’, as Levin puts it, that permeated their lives. In the 1970s, fashion consisted of more than just clothes, your style was on display in the way you furnished your home and entertained. Levin’s career went from strength to strength, styling South Africa’s elite and powerful, with an ethos that ‘clothing should always pay tribute to the woman’.
The story that led to this first-ever auction however does not lie only in the man and his career; it lies in a cape and one of the most beautiful women in the world. In 1975, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton travelled in South Africa on the way to their wedding in Botswana. Levin heard through an acquaintance who had interviewed Taylor at the SABC that she was looking for a full-length feather cape and he immediately agreed to make one for her. Upon the acquisition of an all-white Ostrich plume from Oudtshoorn, he set out on the lengthy process of stripping each feather and sewing them layer by layer onto the cape, resulting in an exquisite piece which Elizabeth Taylor would keep for the rest of her life.
After making the cape and several other garments for Elizabeth Taylor, Levin relegated the cape to the back of his memory until December 2011. It was then that he received an email from an ex-employee, now living in Washington State in the USA, telling him that there had been an article in their local newspaper featuring him and the cape he had made for the star. Upon further research, Levin found that Christie’s had auctioned the cape, along with other garments, jewellery and accessories owned by Elizabeth Taylor. The auction had travelled worldwide, with the cape shown in the Christie’s catalogue next to pieces by Christian Dior, Chanel and Valentino, and had been estimated to go for between $4000 and $6000. The coat did spectacularly well at the New York auction, bringing in an astonishing $30 000, consigning it to fashion halls of fame with the likes of Christian Dior, Valentino and Yves Saint Laurent.
The report back of the successful auction sparked a realisation in Levin, who then looked at his treasure trove of vintage couture and approached Strauss & Co.’s Stephan Welz. Levin has handpicked several items that were created for South Africa’s elite or held back at fashion shows.
‘I think people still love beautiful clothes, and women still like to dream about beautiful clothes, it’s just the nature of things,’ says Levin. To wear couture is a fantasy shared by many women; the fine materials, the expert craftsmanship, the uniqueness of the outfit and the name on the label all join together into a heady mix reminiscent of Cinderella at the Ball. Levin and Strauss & Co. have brought couture within reach with this auction, as bidding starts between R1000 and R5000 (depending on the condition of the garment), with Levin’s collection ranging from ‘timeless classics with a twist’ to the risqué, made with only the finest textiles, silks and embroideries hand-picked from Como, St. Gallen in Switzerland and Premier Vision in Paris.
This auction of elegant vintage couture taking place on 16 May 2013, with some pieces appearing to have been made for today’s trends, will bring forth an interesting new dimension to the South African fashion industry.