Every woman has a precious dress that can transport them back to an unforgettable evening when they felt a million dollars. Charlotte Smith – who is originally from America but based in Australia – owns thousands.
The curator of the Darnell Fashion Collection inherited a vintage clothing collection of more than 3,000 pieces from her godmother, Doris Darnell, around 15 years ago – and since then, she has been working tirelessly to create an incomparable wardrobe of close to 9,000 originals – it is valued at more than AUD $6 million.
Ms Smith – whose collection was recently heralded as one of the ten most significant fashion archives in the world – shared her incredible story with FEMAIL, which includes stints in London, Paris and New York, before she finally settled in Australia, where the entire Darnell Collection is now housed.
‘Clothing and dressing spectacularly has a huge impact,’ Ms Smith, 57, told Daily Mail Australia. ‘Fashion is about so much more than what you wear. I call myself a fashion anthropologist as it’s all linked – fashion, social history, religion and customs.’
The curator of the Darnell Fashion Collection, Charlotte Smith, inherited a vintage clothing collection of more than 3,000 pieces from her godmother, Doris Darnell, around 15 years ago – it comprises hundreds of designer items (pictured)
Ms Smith (pictured left in Anne Fogarty) – whose collection was recently heralded as one of the ten most significant fashion archives in the world – shared her incredible story with FEMAIL; she has now taken the collection to over 9,000 pieces
Her latest book, One Enchanted Evening, features sketches of some of the items she owns – including this show-stopping Oscar de la Renta gown (left) and the Balmain number (right)
The collection in total has not been valued, but is estimated to be around AUD $6 million; more than this – it comprises socially and historically significant pieces, including this bodice from the 1860s)
Ms Smith shared her life story with FEMAIL, as well as how she has managed to amass such incredible fashion (pictured: the ‘After Five’ exhibition at Newcastle Art Gallery, foreground is a black Balmain dress and red dress is Adolfo)
Speaking about her life story, Ms Smith confessed she had always been surrounded by clothes and beautiful things.
‘My godmother, Doris Darnell, had all of these beautiful, eye-catching outfits. She was a fashion collector,’ Ms Smith explained.
‘As a child, I spent lots of time with her. Even when we went shopping to the convenience store, she would dress for impact – perhaps in a colourful feather boa or something – and people would stop her on the street and say she looked fantastic.
‘She used to always send me pieces in the post – little trinkets and gifts, they always had incredible stories attached to them. I remember for my thirteenth birthday, she sent me a black lace silk skirt from the Edwardian era.
‘Everything she gave me was precious and an out-of-the-blue treasure.’
Ms Smith initially got into fashion curation when her godmother, Doris Darnell, left her with her entire collection of clothing (pictured left: Lanvin shirt and YSL harem pants; pictured right: Pagane dress)
When Ms Smith grew up, and found herself living in Paris, London and New York – where she worked in an art gallery – she was later told by a mutual friend of hers and Doris’s that her godmother wanted to bequeath her impressive fashion collection to Ms Smith:
‘She had told the mutual friend because she was too nervous to tell me,’ Ms Smith said. ‘She was nervous, I suppose, because there was no money attached to the collection, just 3,000-odd amazing pieces.
‘I guess I was also under pressure to do something morally with it – to develop it and curate it, rather than just sell it on.’
The talented curator moved the impressive collection to Australia, where she still lives, it took ten days to get through customs and months to unpack (pictured left: some items from the collection and pictured right: Ms Smith)
When Ms Smith (pictured left) said she first started unpacking all of the various pieces (right), it was like being ‘hit with little snippets of history’ – she calls herself a ‘fashion anthropologist’ as she loves looking into society as well as the history of fashion
Thankfully, the Quaker woman, Doris, had found the right sort of person to gift in Ms Smith, and she gave it to Ms Smith while Doris was still alive in 2003.
Meanwhile, Ms Smith had since moved to Australia with a partner and the father of her daughter – and so she had to fly the originals to Australia, in cardboard boxes:
‘It took nearly a year to get it all over,’ Ms Smith said. ‘About 1,200 kilograms inside cardboard boxes, which landed in Botany in 2007. It was an absolute nightmare to get lots of the things through Australian customs – a grizzly bear coat, whole birds of paradise and ivory fans. It took ten days to get through quarantine!’.
When she eventually did sort it all out, Ms Smith confessed she felt ‘daunted’ and wasn’t quite sure what to do:
‘Between the Gucci, Chanel and YSL, alongside everything else, at first I was too scared to open the boxes. When I did, the first two dresses I pulled out were incredible. One was this cream chiffon number from the 1920s with panels of glass and reflective prisms.
‘It was like being hit with little snippets of history.’
These days, Ms Smith is either gifted with dresses and pieces from well wishers – or she bids for them anonymously in auctions around the world (pictured left: Rodarte Starry Night dress and right: YSL dress)
‘Doris had so much from the early 1700s, the 1920s and 30s and 50s, but her collection kind of stopped around the 1960s. I wanted to fill the holes and have made a point of adding things from the catwalks of yesterday,’ Ms Smith (pictured) explained
The collection is wide and varied, comprising this Ann Pakradooni dress (pictured left) and Leonard of Paris frock (pictured right)
The 57-year-old eventually moved everything into a garage, and spent three months unpacking it.
‘It took me two years to start collecting anything of my own, because I wanted to get to grips with everything Doris had given to me and its history and significance,’ Ms smith said.
Today, the collection has more than tripled in size – with people gifting her significant items and Ms Smith bidding for other pieces anonymously in auctions around the world.
‘Doris had so much from the early 1700s, the 1920s and 30s and 50s, but her collection kind of stopped around the 1960s. I wanted to fill the holes and have made a point of adding things from the catwalks of just yesterday,’ she explained.
Among her visions for the future, Ms Smith said she wants to establish a fashion museum in the Blue Mountains to display the collection (pictured left: a George Stavropoulos dress and right: a photoshoot with Olivia de Govrik, Olivia Gillespie and Neil Grigg in Sydney)
Among her Dior, Chanel, Prada, Pucci and Akira, Ms Smith has a few favourite pieces – including one Edwardian bodice and a full-length skirt from the 1900s:
‘It has a train and comes in lime green silk,’ she said. ‘The details are black velvet. It was around this time that people were able to make colours unnaturally for the first time, so you started seeing more magentas and bright greens – rather than shades which were created via natural resources.
‘Doris left a tag on this one with the story on it, and it’s just stuck with me. It belonged to a Quaker woman who would never wear something that was seen as the “latest look”. Instead of wearing the lime green outfit, she just hung it in her wardrobe – as something precious to look at. A little luxury.
‘It’s such an incredible story about social history, fashion and religion.’
Among the things that Ms Smith would love to own is something by Victoria Beckham, as well as a Fortuny pleated gown or a Charles James “clover” dress (pictured: Claudia Chan Shaw wearing Pucci at Dress for Success Sydney Gala)
Ms Smith has countless visions for the future, both philanthropic and fashion-related. She wants to establish a fashion museum in the Blue Mountains to display the collection, and create hubs all over Australia to inspire students and curators.
She also would love to get her hands on some more pieces, including something by Victoria Beckham, who she said she admires because she has ‘taken what she likes to wear and made a business out of it’.
Ms Smith would also love to buy a Fortuny pleated gown from the early 1900s, or a Charles James “clover” dress, which she estimates could fetch up to AUD $1.29 million.
Charlotte Smith has released a new book, One Enchanted Evening, about her collection; it is out now (pictured)
‘I love collecting items now,’ she said, confessing to owning a Bill Blass dress from the film, American Hustle, two gowns owned by Lady Lucille Duff-Gorton, who survived the sinking of the Titanic, and potentially a dress worn by a woman to a birthday party attended by Princess Grace.
‘I even had a Paco Rabanne dress looked at recently, which I had thought was from the 80s. An expert said it’s likely older and from 1968-71. The textiles expert, Karen Augusta, even said it could have been worn by Jane Fonda in Barbarella.’
Lastly, the ‘fashion anthropologist’ shared her advice for those interested in fashion collecting, curating and design.
‘You’ve got to be unafraid,’ she said. ‘You may have a vision, but you need to be prepared to move laterally if you can’t go directly. You might have to go another way.’
Ms Smith also said you need to ask for help. ‘You’ll reach out to people, and they will help,’ she argued – saying you can’t do it all alone.
On the design side, the 57-year-old recommended that if you can afford the best-quality materials, you should go for them.
‘They are the ones that last,’ she said. ‘Everything I own from history was likely cut from the best materials.’
Charlotte Smith has released a new book, One Enchanted Evening, A Wardrobe Full of Memories, in collaboration with the fashion illustrator, Grant Cowan, about her collection which spans over 300 years.
The book is available from all good bookstores now.