The most unique haute couture
and textile collection ever to exist comes to Basel!
THE GAZE Editor Hazel Clarke meets the two men behind the incredible Kamer-Ruf Collection who are sharing centuries of fashion history through their passion.
The art of being unique
‘Unique’ is an often overused word to describe something that is very special or distinctive although not necessarily ‘the only one’. But when nothing else like it exists, nor has ever existed, nor will ever, when it’s totally mind-blowing, unequalled and unrepeatable, and when it’s the first and last, then you know you are at the true essence of the word. Such is the case with the Kamer-Ruf Collection!
So what is so special? The collection shows the complete development of fashion since the 18th Century to the First World War and the evolution of textiles over the last six centuries, a mind boggling achievement to say the least. And I had the absolute privilege of interviewing the two giants of European historical haute couture collections, Martin Kamer and Wolfgang Ruf, masterminds behind this incredible feat and not least, two absolute gentlemen.
Che Bella Figura!
Art curator friends Cyril Kazis and Thessy Schoenholzer-Nichols had been raving about the collection for some time and together with curator Bernhard Duss, were in the midsts of planning 'Che Bella Figura!', an exhibition of key pieces from the collection at Kazis’s gallery (Praxis Art, Bäumleingasse 9, 4051, Basel) showing 8-30 June.
My exclusive interview with Martin, eighty-two, and Wolfgang seventy-four, takes place near Lucern, Switzerland, in May 2023 on the same day as King Charles’s coronation, signalling perhaps the majestic tone of the moment!
I am amazed to hear how these erstwhile ‘enemies’ became allies, and together formed an unlikely but powerful partnership in the world of European historical haute couture and textiles. It's an association that would be strong and enduring, offering the world a colourful and totally authentic record of the lifestyle of Europe’s elite classes. I am certainly curious to hear the stories about how they met, how they came to accumulate such a collection, what their motivations were, and why they eventually united in one path. But first things first, I’m eager to see the collection and understand it in detail.
In total there are seven hundred men’s, women’s and children’s fashion garments and eight hundred accessories, starting from 1700 to the 1920s in addition to one thousand four hundred European textiles, dating from the 15th Century to modern day. The clothes and textiles are in mint condition, the fabrics are the entire width of the loom including selvages and are full length to the ‘repeat’. There is also not a single decade missed.
Six centuries of weaving
I spend an hour with Wolfgang discovering the textiles, during which he gives me an encyclopaedic tour of six centuries of weaving and fabric design. As he opens each drawer to reveal layers of brightly coloured textiles delicately packed in tissue paper, I hear tales of textiles used in the gowns of Catherine II, Empress of Russia, and Marie Antoinette, last queen of France. He tells me stories of textiles surviving the French Revolution and fabrics used in the refurbishment of Napoleon’s castle in Fontainebleau, France.
The artfulness of weavers
Five-hundred year old silken fabrics have a dazzling brilliance as if they came off the loom yesterday. An aubergine-coloured Renaissance velvet, is sumptuous and soft to the touch. With its brocaded gold, the workmanship is astounding and testament to the painstaking dedication, artfulness and mastery of the weavers during that epoch.
Clothes mimic society
We gain an insight into the lives, the loves, the frills and the fancies of the privileged echelons of European society. We come face-to-face with the fabrics that graced the interiors of their grand residences. We learn of the famous dressmakers of the time who brought glamour to the elite's already charmed lives and the population of weavers without whom none of this could happen.
To cap it all, the 20th Century textile collection is no less sensational as it features fabrics designed by some of the world’s most prominent modern artists such as Salvador Dali, Picasso, Chagall and Andy Warhol, and iconic architects such as the American Frank Lloyd Wright, and textile designer Marian Mahler who escaped from her native Austria in the 1930s to London and became by the 1950s and 60s one of the three most important textile designers in England and notably the other two were also women.
The stories come further to life when Martin shows me around the two collectors’ treasure trove of finery, regalia and personal adornments that filled the wardrobes of the aristocratic classes. I am not allowed to use the word costumes as he rightly insists, the clothes were made to wear in real life. We start off by seeing intricately embroidered mens’s jackets and waistcoats, with every stitch, stone and button beautifully sewn by hand. He shows me a three-piece gentlemen’s outfit worn at court as decreed by Napoleon. I discover what ladies wore for cycling in 1890 when this physical pursuit was afforded to them. He shows me a 'hunting pink' jacket with duck-skin breeches that protected aristocratic gentlemen from brambles when out hunting, and dried quickly when wet from the rain.
He conjures up smoking coats and jackets from the 1860s that were ‘invented’ during the Crimean War when the British learnt to smoke cigarettes and colourful city gents’ smoking jackets worn after a hard day’s work in the City of London. These garments were paired with delicately embroidered smoking hats inspired by the Turkish fez to keep smoke off the hair or simply to follow fashion.
I am struck by how small some of the garments are but Martin assures me this is not because people were smaller then, but because as with today, annoyingly, the medium sizes are most popular and disappear first, leaving the smaller sizes behind!
We forage rail after rail of the finest gowns, open robes with petticoats, moving from decade to decade. We stop at a stunning lace patterned silk gown with fly fringe sleeves, adorned with flowers that match the pattern on the silk. Matching the fringe with the fabric’s pattern was a ‘must’ he tells me. The robe in question was made for a super gala that had big pannier (side hoops) and could be adjusted should the dress code for the ball be small hoops. Another magnificent evening dress has three dimensional stitching, sewn in different directions to create a relief and to pick up the candlelight of the inevitably sumptuous evening the lady was attending. He also shows me a silken dress in the style of 18th century European couture, designed in Europe but made in China with Chinese floral motifs. In addition there’s a stunning ‘chine’ dress, so called because it is reminiscent of Chinese water colours, a fabric that was a great favourite of Marie Antoinette.
For further information on the Kamer-Ruf Collection visit 'Che Bella Figura!' at PRAXIS Art, Bäumleingasse 9, 4051, Basel 8-30 June 2023.
This segues nicely to the story of the ‘chemise à la Reine’, a style of dress that is particularly plain and for that reason caused a scandal when worn by Marie Antoinette. The population of France, upon seeing a portrait of her in the garment thought she had been painted in her underwear, a notion that was considered not befitting of their queen. Despite being a leader of fashion, Marie Antoinette strained against fashion grandeur, Martin tells me, perhaps sensing the impending revolution, I muse. We’re at the tail end of the 18th century and Martin pulls out a dress that belonged to Duchess of Roxburghe. With this clear provenance, this is an extremely rare item.
As we arrive at 19th Century ladies fashion, we start to see the ‘Regency’ style as depicted in the works of Jane Austin. The gorgeous ivory-coloured dress that we are viewing dates around 1818. Decorated hems with frills were de rigour and this is a fine example. 'It's all about the frill.’ He says.
Part Two, below, of the interview with Martin Kamer and Wolfgang Ruff provides a glimpse into these quite different personalities, as they share further their incredible stories, motivations and future plans.
The Kamer-Ruf collection has been housed for the last eight years on two floors of a modern building in a town near Lucern. There’s a light and airy reception, with vast windows and stunning views overlooking the Swiss pre-Alps. We are well separated from the collection rooms, which ensures that the precious costumes and fabrics remain protected from any accidental spills or sunlight damage. It’s a congenial setting for our lunch and relaxed interview during which I discover how it all began.
Becoming a collector
What I learn from this interview is that the path to becoming a collector of historical haute couture and textiles can have many twists and turns. Whilst these two tycoons of high-end clothing and textile collections had very contrasting backgrounds and different initial motivations, their passion, business acumen and absolute commitment to quality have been their unifying force, and their ticket to success. So what’s their story?
Swapping costumes for clothes
One of the great independent costume designers of his time, working mainly in Italy, France and Germany with illustrious names in his list of clients, Swiss born Martin Kamer’s incredible theatrical pedigree goes without saying.
Having studied at Central St Martin’s known then as the London and Central School of Art and Crafts, Martin becomes an assistant at the Royal Shakespeare Company. With his ears to the ground, he learns about an opportunity to join Rudolf Nureyev’s team, assisting renowned costume designers Nicolas Georgiadis and Barry Kay. Thereon he becomes a consistent fixture in the Nureyev team.
“Nureyev always had me in the team, that’s how I started. It was the 60s, it was fun and anything was possible. I also knew Margot Fonteyn quite well as she danced with Nureyev so much.”
Martin recounts the story which saw Nureyev defect to the West whilst on a tour with the Bolshoi Ballet to Paris and London, after KGB attempts to force the greatest male ballet dancer of his time back to the Soviet Union. This was the first defection of a Soviet artist during the Cold War, an important episode that sewed the seeds of Martin’s fate in joining Nureyev’s team.
Martin continued to design costumes for ballet dancers for about fifteen years, working mostly with the Italian ballerina Carla Fracci, the “Fonteyn” of Italy and considered one of the greatest ballerinas of the 20th Century. Whilst none of her costumes are present in the collection as it is based on real clothes, Martin’s experiences in this moment certainly helped shape his path.
Early on, he developed the habit of collecting items and selling them to his own productions, seeking out variations in the detail of embroidery so that costumes did not look exactly the same on stage.”
“I was always interested in what people wore. I loved history and stories. I wanted to know what people in history looked like and what they were wearing.”
By age thirty, he tells me, whilst sewing fairy headdresses until 3.00am under a 40 watt bulb, and feeling he was not making enough money for his talents, he started to consider delving into dealing. His first real client was the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a costume museum in New York to which he sold one item.
From organs to textiles
Wolfgang Ruf’s backstory is very different. An avid collector of musical instruments since the age of fifteen, he regularly played the organ in church in hometown Baden Baden, Germany. Sharing his fascination for organs with a friend who also played the instrument, the two boys visit historical organs in the Alsace, studying and playing them as they went along. Life swept the two friends in different directions. Wolfgang studied economics at University as he was due to take over his father’s furniture business and the friend went to Paris following an art history route.
By 1982, and realising that his destiny was elsewhere, Wolfgang, then in his early thirties, was eager to break free from the constraints of the family furniture business. He knew he wanted to get into art collecting but not in musical instruments.
“That would be like selling my soul”
His friend who had since become Director of the esteemed Textile Museum in Lyon, at the very young age of thirty, suggested collecting historical textiles and costumes. There was seemingly no apparent ‘heir’ in this business once the trio of elderly ladies that included the distinguished Cora Ginsburg, who shared the market at the top level, were gone. Not knowing that Martin was looming over the horizon, this proposition for Wolfgang was as seductive as it was compelling.
“I had never seen a historic textile or costume before in my life even though from the age of thirteen or fourteen, I was always in museums. But as soon as I got the idea, I was hooked."
London based at the time, Martin bought many items from Portobello Road as well as Christie's, Sotheby’s and Bonham’s, and fairly swiftly things started to flourish.
Wolfgang initially was going to open a gallery with his art historian friend, but through a twist of fate, that partnership did not materialse and he ended up setting up on his own. Having good contacts with antique dealers in Italy and Spain due to his obsessive hunt for musical instruments, he drove across these two countries in search of historical textiles and clothing.
“Ninety-five percent of my contacts laughed and said textiles no! But one or two did have some”
With their individual passion for collecting, it was only a matter of time before paths would cross. This destiny was fulfilled in 1982 in the highly competitive atmosphere of an auction room. Stakes were high, they reminisce. There were seven hundred lots on offer, but only a handful were prised, and both men were determined to get them. The battle had commenced!
“For twenty years we were totally unhappy to meet because it was always at auctions.”
They eventually learn to live with the reciprocal competition and their relationship shifts to a healthy rivalry.
The turning point in their relationship came in the late 1990s when Wolfgang saw an opportunity to place a large collection with the Arts and Crafts Museum in Berlin, but did not have enough costumes. A two or three hundred year period collection requires everything to be chronological, they tell me, and should showcase a clear development of fashion across two or three prevalent styles in each epoch. It is indeed not a trivial undertaking to build a historical fashion collection.
During the 18th century, Martin tells me, changes were spread over longer periods of time but in the 19th century, the silhouette transformed every five years. All that had to be reflected in the collection.
“I gathered all my courage to ask Mr Kamer if he could imagine that we could work together”, said Wolfgang. "We subsequently met up in New York where Martin was exhibiting, and the collaboration was sealed."
For the Berlin Museum, they pooled their purchases making an incredible haul of several hundred costumes and held back dresses where they had multiple examples from a particular era and so doing were able to start the next collection, but this time together. It took a number years to finalise the contract with the museum in Berlin which was eventually signed in 2000.
Co-building the collection
The intrepid duo continued to scan the auction houses, dealers and traders for good quality pieces in New York and London. Christie’s, Sothebys, William Phillips, Wolfgang tells me, still had special textiles costumes auctions. Whilst at Christie’s monthly fine costume auctions, the three American ladies continued to lap up “the cream of the crop” reminisces Martin. Out-bidding them was the only way forward.
At that time the banks were handing out credit and the duo built their collections. Wolfgang bought textiles. Martin stopped his costume design work with the last of his ballets in Lyon, and built and sold his first collection with haute couture from the 60’s and 70’s including pieces from Versace.
The pair’s fortunes soared when after a tricky and protracted series of negotiations for the sale of another collection of 18th and 19th Century clothing with the Los Angeles County Museum, they managed to capture the interest of the newly arrived museum Director and eventually clinched a sale.
For the past fifteen years, they tell me, with no more materials left on the market, the historical textile auctions have stopped, ending the prospect of anyone else building another collection to the standard and quality of these two collectors. The attics are well and truly empty!
After the sale with LA, Martin had had enough and wanted to stop. Wolfgang insisted he continue, paradoxically reflecting the three hundred and sixty degree turn in their relationship from the previous twenty years when Wolfgang would have been happy if Martin was not on the scene They both giggle at the irony.
Martin was eventually lured back in to the market and found himself buying up a collection of someone in France who was giving up the game. More opportunities to buy followed including another in France that had been on Wolfgang’s hot list for twenty years. It was a collection of approximately one thousand costumes but not all were in good condition. They ended up buying two hundred and fifty of the most perfect conditioned costumes, that helped to fill a gap in their collection.
This purchase provided the initial impetus to their current collection. It’s around 2008 to 2010, and the duo were buying whatever they could, as long as it was in mint condition. Seven hundred pieces eventually found their way into their current collection which features beautifully embroidered 18th century garments and sober outfits from the 19th century made
of the highest quality fabrics.
“I’m very proud of our collection and there are so many interesting men’s costumes. There was a particularly interesting men’s tartan suit that was fashionable three times in its lifetime. In was popular in the 1850’s, then in 1900 and then in the 1960’s.”
With the sale of a few collections, Wolfgang has been able to focus over the last thirty years on building a collection of one thousand four hundred textiles starting from the 15th Century. Such a collection, he tells me, has not been on the market for one hundred years and there will never be another one because there is no more material to be found.
“My intention was to have a textile collection as complete as possible and as beautiful as possible. We collected like museum curators."
"Almost all textile collections in museums, he continues, "are fragments and many are in bad condition. I have only bought perfect pieces that are in the full width of the loom to the selvages and with the repeat. Our collection includes the work of two hundred and fifty artists and designers."
“You can tell the political story, the cultural story, the social story and the economic story with costume. They have to be beautiful pieces but the story behind it is very important.”
I am keen to get their opinion on the role of haute couture in today’s world of fast fashion. Martin comments that there are still some wonderful designers whose work filters down to the high street. He explains that he recently visited an exhibition in Paris featuring the work of Alexander McQueen, an experience, he says, where fashion met art. "In the 1940s and 50s, he ponders further, "only the highest echelons of society were able to afford high fashion and display it. "These were the peacocks displaying their tails."
Future plans with the collection
I ask about their future plans for the collection. They tell me they would like to sell it and are looking for a buyer who might sponsor an existing museum.
"It’s also the chance to establish a new costume textile museum in one go and its nice to see in one place the connection between flat and made up textiles."
To publicise this historic sale the collection is being showcased during Art Basel at the Praxis Art Gallery Bäumleingasse 9 in Basel. The installation is pure drama. Wallpaper vividly printed with the textile patterns strikes a theatrical backdrop for the magnificent display of costumes and important textiles from centuries back. It‘s a fully immersive experience for all lucky visitors.
Despite selling this precious bounty, the two collectors are not ready to surrender their passion for collecting quite yet. They both have new projects waiting in the wings that are ready to go. Wolfgang will set up a centre of education in music based on his passion for musical instruments and Martin wishes to work on his Fashion library which he intends to make available as an educational resource.
The interview is over and I say my goodbyes to these two icons. I am gobsmacked by their energy, inspired by their tenacity and charmed by their charisma. I wish them the very best of luck for their future chapters.