It still sparks joy, but fashion collector says it’s time to cull
12th July 2019

Charlotte Smith isn't a sentimentalist but she's no Marie Kondo either.

The retired antiques dealer, who used to work in some of New York's most prestigious art galleries, is the custodian of one of Australia's – and the world's – most significant fashion collections. But the time has come to cull it to a more manageable size, from 8000 pieces to about 4000.

Charlotte Smith in the storage unit that houses her vast fashion collection. She hopes her sales will cut it down to half its present amount.Credit:Steven Siewert

"The collection gets bigger and bigger and it’s getting to the point there are boxes I have not opened for five years," says Smith, who divides the wares between her home in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, and a storage facility in the city's west.

For the past decade, Smith had dreams of opening a fashion museum to house the collection in regional Australia. She recruited star power to the board in the form of acclaimed designer Akira Isogawa and former Vogue editor Kirstie Clements. But it wasn't to be.

"I couldn’t get the government support financially or physically to help," she says. "I finally came to the conclusion that I have spent enough time and money on that and it was not meant to be. It was time to re-figure what I wanted to do as a career in the fashion world. I want to be more the face of the culture of fashion rather than the curator of a fashion museum."

To continue to fund the preservation of the collection, which ranges from the Victorian era to the modern day, Smith is holding sales in Sydney and Melbourne, to give collectors and enthusiasts (and perhaps the odd costume box custodian) an opportunity to buy a piece of fashion history at below-market prices.

For the sale, Smith partnered with the Australian Fashion Council and the Billy Blue College of Design, meaning that students will get first dibs on items before doors open to the public. Smith says items of significance will start at about $65 and go up to $1000.

"It’s about getting it out, keeping what I feel I can use, sharing it with people who will find it inspiring to own a piece of fashion history," she says.

Charlotte Smith holds a 1950s dress that will be part of the sale. Credit:Steven Siewert

US-born Smith, who moved to Australia from England for love in the late 1990s, inherited the original collection in 2004 from her aunt, Doris Darnell, and has added to it through bequests and items she bought at auctions and op shops.

In the late 1930s, Darnell, who died in 2009, worked as a librarian in Philadelphia, and women would offer her their most treasured pieces, including Victorian-era wedding gowns and 19th-century couture.

Many of the pieces come with detailed notes, and some of them made it into a 2017 book, One Enchanted Evening.

Smith is adamant that she will never sell pieces she was donated by people.

"Things gifted to the collection are not in the sale. They have a different story to tell in the collection. It’s predominantly pieces that came from my godmother, pieces I have bought for catwalk [parades] … it’s a real mix," she says.

The sale is on July 19-20 (Sydney) and July 26-27 (Melbourne) at the Billy Blue College of Design. For details, see

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