Fashioning a fundraiser from stables bursting at the seams

The call came from two sisters cleaning out their mother’s Sandringham house.

They had three suitcases full of clothes to donate — did the organisers of the National Trust’s vintage clothing sale want them?

Finding new homes for pre-loved clothes – National Trust vintage clothing sale volunteers Deborah Bannister, left, and Elizabeth Howcroft. Credit:Jason South

They certainly did, and Trust volunteer Elizabeth Howcroft was thrilled to discover two exquisite 1960s Chanel three-piece suits, made of wool with silk lining.

The outfits had pencilled numbers on the labels because they had been hand made and fitted in Paris.

The suits were sold at the Trust’s 2015 sale — one for $1800 and one for $1600.

The once-a-year sale started in a garage 12 years ago. Having outgrown its more recent home – the Trust-owned mansion Como House in South Yarra – it will be held this year at Abbotsford Convent on March 19 and 20.

Fashion mission: Good friends Deborah Bannister and Elizabeth Howcroft prepare for next month’s sale.Credit:Jason South

Last time it was held, in 2019, it raised $95,000 for the Trust.

Ms Howcroft said donors gave clothes for many reasons. Some, obviously, wanted to support the Trust’s work. Others felt a personal connection to the clothes and hoped they could enrich the life of others.

“Somehow, coming to us, they feel we’ll care for them and find them a nice home, and we endeavour to do that,” Ms Howcroft said.

Ms Howcroft and co-curator Deborah Bannister have formed a close friendship and a passion for fashion that the pandemic hasn’t quashed.

From little things – the sale grew from a garage sale in 2010.Credit:National Trust

“I find I get so involved with some of the pieces,” Ms Howcroft says. “You can tell from the pieces a lot about the wearer, or you make up a story in your head about them.”

“The things that are well-worn — a ball gown or a gorgeous dress — you think, ‘oh, they loved this’.”

The sale’s storage space — the former carriage house, chauffeur’s flat and stables at Rippon Lea Estate in Elsternwick, is bursting at the seams given the event hasn’t run for two years due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Among highlights for sale this year are:

  • A royal blue 1960s wool overcoat by French label Pampelone by Racine — $200.
  • A beige silk evening jacket with intricate white sequins by Collette Dinnigan — $50
  • A multi-coloured Hermes silk scarf, still in its box — $300.
  • A pair of brown high-heeled Christian Dior shoes by Roger Vivier, circa 1940s to 1960s — $100.
  • A baby pink, broderie anglaise party dress with flounced shoulders — $80.

Four or five times a year, the Trust volunteers are invited to choose clothes from the houses of deceased estates.

Ms Howcroft said several living donors travelled to Italy every year “to buy their whole wardrobe then they’ll come back and quite often give us what they bought last year — designer stuff like Valentino, Armani, Ferragamo, Dolce and Gabbana. Some of it’s still got the label on it.”

The vintage clothing sale in 2017 when it was held at Como House in South Yarra.Credit:National Trust

The first sale was in 2010 when Ms Howcroft and a now-retired Trust volunteer, Nance Houen, ran a garage sale from Ms Houen’s Canterbury house, which raised more than $10,000.

For the third sale in 2012, they used the ballroom at Como House and raised almost $30,000.

By 2019, the sale occupied all Como’s ground floor rooms, with a long queue before it opened, and so this year it will be in more cavernous digs at Abbotsford Convent’s former industrial school.

Pieces will range in price from a bundle of linen handkerchiefs for $5 to a $900 fur coat. Ms Bannister said she was “nervous but excited” about the sale returning after two years’ absence.

Ms Howcroft joked: “We want to get rid of it and start again for next year.”

The vintage sale has become a much-loved part of her life. “Especially in COVID — I was so relieved to have something to focus on during the lockdowns, even if it was sifting through stuff at home.”

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