In the Spotlight: Vintage Couture and Real Estate

By Ksenia Galouchko

When Harlem socialite and real estate broker Lana Turner faced the challenge of selling a house in a charming but little-known part of Harlem, she couldn’t imagine that her love for vintage clothes would attract crowds of potential customers. It took two designer friends, hundreds of vintage outfits, and a passion for fashion history to create the show “Finding Style in Time.”

“It never occurred to me that I would display my clothes until there was this conjunction between selling the house, knowing that Fashion Week was coming, that I had the clothes and the good fortune of knowing people who could put these clothes together,” says Turner.

58 dresses along with dozens of gloves, hats and shoes now decorate the four stories of the late 19th century house at 56 Hamilton Terrace. Each dress in the exhibit has a story behind it, and Turner treats her garments as “friends with personality.”  While showing the house to visitors she talks about an 1890s white gown that she rescued from garbage and brought back to life with Oxiclean, and a 1950s black Valentino dress that was “hiding” in a Jewish thrift store.

“The fact that I can own a dress or a jacket from the 1950s in the most pristine condition attests quite highly to the workmanship of people who sew and design these vintage clothes. Not only were beautiful fabrics used, but also the designs were beautiful. The fact that these things can still be worn is amazing,” says Turner.

Each room at the show has its own theme: among others there is the Little Black Dress room that is a tribute to Christian Dior’s New Look style, the wedding dress room (Turner owns seven wedding gowns but has never been married, because “it was not something [she] wanted”), the 1950s travel garments room and the lingerie-decorated bathroom.

With the help of stylists Randal Jacobs and David Melton each piece from Turner’s extensive vintage collection (the show displays only 10 per cent of her vintage wardrobe) makes the 18-foot-wide house with its 19th century brownstone stoop and interior decorative woodwork come alive.

“Her collection is worthy of the Met: Lana has Chanel, Vera Wang, Dior…She never hid her clothes, she wears them all the time,” says Jacobs. “When I first met her, she was wearing these beautiful black gloves—it turned out she had 600 pairs at home.”

“Her apartment is not huge but she keeps everything so organized: all her dresses are wrapped in silk twine and her bookcases are filled with purses. She keeps her opera coats in her kitchen cellar,” says Melton.

And while Turner may own big brand outfits, at the end of the day she is the main designer of her clothes. A swing dancer, Turner alters many of her dresses to match the 1950s knee-length skirt style. In her hands a long white silk skirt turns into a playful puffy one, ready to be twirled on the dance floor.

“You change the dresses to suit yourself, not the other way round,” says Turner.

“Style is not just about what you’re wearing. It’s also about what you’re doing. Style is a way of life.”

Although Turner’s vontage collection was never before part of an exhibition, the fashionista lets the world admire her outfits on a daily basis. Once, inspired by Victorian love letters, which just like her oldest dress were found in the garbage, Turner hosted a love-letter reading party where all guests had to come dressed in vintage. After the reading was over, Turner and her guests paraded down Harlem’s St. Nicholas Avenue in their vintage couture.

Turner’s biggest style secret lies in her spontaneity.

“I never travel to other cities especially for a vintage clothes auction or to go to a thrift store. I am not someone who buys something for an event, I am someone who likes the adventure of buying. I like to stumble across things,” says Turner.

And just like the rest of her spontaneous fashion decisions, “Finding Style in Time” places Turner in the spotlight. But this time, Turner is sharing public attention with a stylish house that was turned into a home by a touch of vintage couture.


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