“This is an evening Russian. Lookit! I have the turban hat. This is the blouse. Look at the colorway. This is Russian sable. It looks like mink but it’s Russian sable,” Schreier continues, the beauty of each component washing over her like a dopamine hit. “The vest, the belt, and there is a turban hat that I didn’t take out of storage. And the belt is like, here you can see. I mean, look at these colors together. Isn’t it beautiful?”
Oh, yes, the Saint Laurent is magnificent, more breathtaking than photographs have ever really captured. It’s also quite valuable. At auction, based on similar sales, it could conceivably fetch about $60,000.
The “Russian” is part of a rarefied collection of 15,000 fashion-related objects Schreier has assembled over her lifetime: clothes, accessories, photographs, drawings. She has promised 165 of those items to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, a gift, says Andrew Bolton, the curator-in-charge, that will fill gaps in the institution’s sweeping narrative of fashion masterworks.
It is one of the largest private costume donations in recent history. Few collectors have the wherewithal to take on the hurdles of maintaining fashion, which can be easily damaged by light and fluctuations in temperature and humidity.
The uncommon exhibition stands apart because it isn’t predicated on an individual's personal style — as were 2005’s “Rara Avis: Selections From the Iris Barrel Apfel Collection” and 2006’s “Nan Kempner: American Chic.” Schreier collected clothes that appealed to her personally, but not because she intended to wear them. These are not clothes as diary.
Schreier applied a discerning and sophisticated eye to fashion the same way others have assembled a catalogue of modern art, historical etchings or antique furnishings.
“Early on, her collecting was intuitive; she had an immediate reaction to something. She was drawn to the artistry,” says Jessica Regan, who curated the Schreier exhibition. “Although [over the years] she still wanted to have that immediate connection, she’s broadened her interests. She began considering the way [designs] reflected an era. And she developed an incredible level of connoisseurship.”
For more than than 50 years, Schreier acquired the work of fashion masters: Saint Laurent, Cristóbal Balenciaga, Christian Dior, Chanel, Charles James, Adrian, Fortuny, Madeleine Vionnet, Elsa Schiaparelli. But she also has holdings from lesser-known couturiers such as the Boué Soeurs, who were active in Paris in the early part of the 20th century.
“I think it’s important for people to know how ahead of her time Sandy was when she started this decades ago,” Regan says. “It’s not that unusual now, but when Sandy was first buying to collect, there were relatively few museums that were concerned with collecting fashion. She’s ensured the preservation of objects that would have been discarded or lost.”
Indeed, Schreier has been collecting longer than the Costume Institute has been a formal department within the Met, which wasn’t until 1959. Her belief in fashion’s ability to rise to the level of aesthetic masterpiece and her certainty of its cultural significance preceded the era of groundbreaking fashion exhibitions at the Met, one of which, “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” drew larger audiences than the Mona Lisa and the “Treasures of Tutankhamun.”
Schreier recognized fashion’s potential decades before the crowds began to gather.
'Infatuated' with couture
Schreier, 83, is tall and slim with golden highlights in her halo of caramel brown curls. She exudes Midwestern-style warmth — friendly and polite but with a core of firm resolve. On a mild September day, she’s glamorously attired in a peach and blue abstract-printed pajama suit by Dries Van Noten; a cobalt blue Molly Goddard flower broach the size of a dinner plate; and a Missoni ring whose orange stone is the circumference of an Oreo. Schreier’s personal taste is influenced by her affection for the golden age of Hollywood costumes and the feathers and stardust of Motown’s Supremes. She likes jubilant dresses with more layers than a Napoleon, coats embroidered for a raj and jewelry that sparkles like gold bullion. More than anything, Schreier believes in fashion’s capacity to deliver joy.
“I love the Hollywood movies, but I’m infatuated with the art of fashion and the art of the French couture,” she says. “A costume doesn’t have the fabrication and the Lesage embroidery and beadwork.”
As a collector, Schreier was drawn to objects that wowed her.
“It had to have an internal charisma,” says Harold Koda, the former curator-in-charge at the Costume Institute. It had to “sing and dance.”
Schreier has always been a performer at heart — a star in search of a stage. But like a lot of women her generation, she transitioned directly from schoolgirl to wife. She was barely out of her teens when she married Sherwin Schreier, who became a successful trial lawyer and with whom she has four children.
Schreier has never had a job as much as she has had a professional avocation. Her love for haute couture and high fashion propelled her into a public life that has defined her as equal parts Zelig, Cinderella and bulldog-with-a-bone. She has met movie stars, dined at the Met gala and helped bully fashion into a serious curatorial pursuit.
She began collecting what she called “pretty dresses” as a child in Detroit — the indulged pet of the area socialites who frequented the local outpost of the New York luxury department store Russeks, where her father worked as the chief furrier.
“I looked like little Shirley Temple and I have pictures to prove it,” Schreier says. “I really did because my hair has always been curly and the staff made a big fuss over me. And I saw a Vogue magazine for the first time at Russeks. I went crazy berserk seeing the pictures in the magazines.
“When Daddy’s clientele, who were the automotive titans’ wives, saw me sitting on the floor looking at the pictures in fashion magazines, they said, ‘We’re going to send you some presents, honey.’ And they started sending their unworn couture or worn once or seldom worn couture for me as gifts thinking I would play dress up. But I never, ever, ever, ever wore anything from my collection.”
It is an exceptional and stubborn child who is gifted an assortment of haute couture and who refrains from wearing it, but instead treats it like a painting or piece of sculpture and sets it aside to admire and consider. But there is little that’s ordinary about Schreier.
By the time she was married, she had collected thousands of fashion objects. As a young newlywed, accompanying her husband on business trips, she would visit the local museums wherever she happened to be because she loved looking at the clothes in the paintings, because creativity inspired her and because she wanted fashion to be formally elevated.
“I became a pest and I would call museum directors. I’d find out their name and I’d call them on the phone,” Schreier says. “I would even go to small, little museums that were in old houses, and I would ask to speak to the director and say, ‘Have you ever thought about having high fashion?’ I didn’t know if the directors would know the word couture. So I called it ‘high fashion exhibitions.’ And I would say how important it was.”
In the 1970s, she and Sherwin took their first trip abroad — to London — where she discovered the Victoria and Albert Museum. “Fashion: An Anthology by Cecil Beaton” was on display. The influential society photographer had assembled an exhibition of haute couture.
“It was the first costume exhibit I had ever seen in my life,” Schreier recalls. “I didn’t know such a thing even existed. And I was so excited and I went berserk. I said, ‘Lookit! I own that. I own that. I own that.’ So much of what was in the exhibit, I already owned.”
Mary Ballard, a textile conservator at the Smithsonian Institution, previously worked at the Detroit Institute of Arts, where she met Schreier. Ballard advised her on how best to maintain her growing collection, and she was moved by Schreier’s sermons on the glory of fashion.
“[Sandy] was quite fond of Poiret and I looked at the seaming and the seaming was terrible, and she said, ‘That’s not important, it’s the quality of the artistry and the creative expression,’ ” Ballard says. “She’s a national treasure, but you could also call her a steamroller. It just depends on where on the receiving end you are.”
In the beginning, the collecting was easy and inexpensive. She found Fortunys in dusty vintage stores; she bought Lanvin and Balmain accessories in junk shops for a few cents. Wealthy women who were finished with frocks after a season or two offloaded them to Schreier. Clothing, all clothing, was considered disposable or recyclable. She still remembers the half-dozen lace Jeanne Paquin dresses she missed out on by a single day when they went up for auction in Detroit.
“Somebody bought them to make them into antimacassars,” Schreier says, her voice rising in outrage. “Do you know what those are? Those are little doilies, lace doilies that women would put on their husband’s chair behind their head so that whatever product they used in their hair wouldn’t get on the upholstery.
“The next morning, I went to the phone and called and asked for the name of whoever had purchased them. All five or six couture dresses were sold for something like 20 dollars. Not 20 dollars apiece. Twenty dollars for the lot. It was too late.”
Schreier is yelling now: “She had cut them all apart!”
By the 1980s, Schreier was no longer competing with know-nothing, do-it-yourself housewives. She was bidding against museums at top-tier auctions. She was paying for off-site temperature-controlled storage, acid-free paper and a level of insurance that might be assigned to an old master’s painting. Fashion had become an extremely expensive pastime.
“Sherwin said, ‘It’s time that you start to earn money so that if you want to have this habit, you can support your habit yourself,’ ” Schreier says. “And that’s when I started thinking of it more like a business.”
Schreier established herself as an expert on Hollywood costumes — her other fascination. She began on local television, branched out into books and was soon on the lecture circuit speaking to trade groups and civic organizations. She wasn’t talking about the intricacies of couture; she was talking about such costume legends as Edith Head, Theodora van Runkle and Dorothy Jeakins. She was telling stories about Hollywood stars she’d interviewed for her TV gigs or met because of her fashion hunting.
“Middle America never heard of Karl Lagerfeld to this day. Middle America never heard of anybody but Chanel,” Schreier says. “I thought, ‘I’ve got to be able to charge a goodly amount of money [for lectures],’ and in order to do that and have people really interested — are they interested in Jean Patou, or are they interested in what Barbra Streisand is wearing to the Oscars or what Nicole Kidman is wearing when she’s up running around with Tom Cruise? It was a very easy answer.”
Schreier went onstage and on tour in a starring role: Hollywood expert. And when she wasn’t performing, she was on the hunt.
“It was always about the next piece,” says the Met’s Andrew Bolton. “It’s just in her blood.”
A loving gift
Everything changed in the fall of 2014. Sherwin, her husband of almost 60 years, who had been ill, died. He was the funny, down-to-earth lawyer; she was the voluble dreamer. And even though he didn’t share her fascination with fashion or Hollywood, even though he rarely accompanied her to the fashion parties she loved, with all the double bussing and table-hopping, he was as much a part of the collection as Sandy herself.
They’d known each other since they were 13. He helped her live her fantasy. She unraveled the mysterious nature of beauty. To talk about him makes her cry. To not talk about him is impossible because he is much of the impetus for her gift to the Met.
“My magic mirror tells me I’m 29 and told me that Sherwin was 29 and we were both going to live forever,” Schreier says. “And when he died, it was an enormous shock.”
She had long expected to donate her collection to a museum. But now she was faced with an undeniable truth: her own mortality. She had been caring for her collection like it was her fifth child — and it needed a new caretaker. None of her children or grandchildren were interested in continuing her work.
“This has been a passion since she was a child; it’s been inseparable from her identity,” says Koda, who has known Schreier since the 1980s. Donating it, he adds — even part of it — “it’s literally like peeling away a part of her life.”
“In Pursuit of Fashion” opens to friends and family on the fifth anniversary of Sherwin Schreier’s funeral.
“I’m not a religious person, but it’s meant to be,” Schreier says. “We were working, I was working toward this. It was my lifetime fantasy and dream. And he’ll know that it’s coming true.”
In Pursuit of Fashion: The Sandy Schreier Collection Nov. 27-May 15 in the Anna Wintour Costume Center at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. metmuseum.org.
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