Ask Susan Casden to name her favourite handbag of those being auctioned from her collection, and she will say the matte ébène salvator lizard retourné Kelly 25 with ruthenium hardware (below left). ‘I’m particularly fond of the supple lizard-skin bags,’ says the philanthropist and collector of couture, ‘and this is a rare version that has matching hardware.’
Another choice lot is the Hermès alligator trench coat (below right) designed by French fashion legend Jean Paul Gaultier. ‘The construction of the coat, with its beautiful custom silk lining, exemplifies the quality of the craftsmanship from the house of Hermès,’ she says.
As one of the most revered collectors of haute couture and handbags in the world, Casden knows — and appreciates — excellent artistry when she sees it.
‘The handbags I collect sit at the pinnacle of artisanship,’ says the American collector. ‘Rather than being outpourings of emotion the way a painting or a sonnet or a libretto might be, handbags are the tangible end products of restraint, dedication and quiet achievement.
‘I prefer to call a handbag a craftwork — the very finest example of craft.’
Casden started collecting in earnest in the early 2000s and has since assembled a substantial number of haute couture garments and handbags by the likes of Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Dior and Hermès. So strong, in fact, is her relationship with the latter that in 2007 the house named a handbag after her. The Susan, as it is known, is available to order, but only with Casden’s consent.
For Casden, collecting handbags presents a unique opportunity to explore what she describes as ‘an elusive paradox’. ‘On the one hand, the Hermès Birkin and Hermès Kelly are always changing,’ she says, citing the new colours, materials and sizes by way of example. ‘And on the other, they are constant. Those magnificent proportions replay themselves again and again — and now, from generation to generation.’
Although many of her pieces remain in climate-controlled storage, Casden does use a lot of the collection, usually rotating it with the seasons. So what shapes her vision?
‘I tend to stick to the classics, as I don’t like chasing trends,’ she responds. ‘I know what works for me and what my style is composed of, but I like to refine it, update it over time, as life and technology and social manners change.’
Nonetheless, she admits to keeping a finger on the pulse of the market. ‘All of a sudden, something that was once a “consumable” is now potentially an appreciating asset, and one that may indeed outperform haute horlogerie, or wine, and almost certainly antique cars,’ she says. ‘No one wants just a collection — we want a “collectable” collection. And whether we like it or not, the market validates our choices as collectors.’
Until 10 December, Christie’s Online is offering 53 extraordinary pieces from Casden’s collection — ‘the best of the best’, as head of sale Caitlin Donovan puts it. The handbags range from rare Hermès Birkins and Kellys to a one-of-a-kind Hello Kitty 30th Anniversary Minaudière, originally auctioned to aid UNICEF.
Also on offer are five haute couture garments, including a black Hermès crocodile vest (below left), a sable fur bomber jacket (below right) and a houndstooth blazer that comes with a limited-edition ébène Clémence Birkin.
‘Limited-edition and one-of-a kind pieces from Hermès are the pinnacle of a worthy collection,’ says Donovan. ‘These very special garments are hard to come by and rarely come to market. I look forward to seeing the bidding war that undoubtedly will ensue.’
In addition to the matte ébène salvator lizard retourné Kelly 25, standout lots include a rare, metallic silver chèvre leather Kelly pochette from 2005, and a 2002 Hermès shiny Rouge H porosus crocodile Birkin 35 with gold hardware.
Among the Chanel treasures are a black canvas graffiti backpack and a 2007 Métiers d’Art Paris-Monte Carlo runway blue enamel-and-stone Zodiac evening bag. Offered, too, are a burgundy crocodile Ondine bag (below left) and red lizard sac crochet PM (below right), both by Louis Vuitton and with gold hardware.
A portion of the proceeds from the sale of Casden’s collection will be donated to a museum.
Of this great philanthropic gesture, Casden says, ‘Amidst the challenges of 2020, we reflexively orient our attention to causes with the most urgent of needs. Many creative industries, however, have also been struggling, and “slow-fashion” is under increasing pressure from faster supply chains and compressed seasons.’
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