Sitting in her showroom on the day she has agreed to will her extensive archives to Melbourne's RMIT university, 87-year-old fashion merchandising legend Mary Lipshut is feeling wistful. "There's a lot of nostalgia here," she says, gesturing to the walls covered in photographs of old friends like Gianni Versace, Tai Missoni and Frank Sinatra. Versace was a friend from the early 1970s right up until his murder in 1997.
"Gianni always appreciated the fact that I bought his things before he was known. His first collection for Callaghan was brilliant."Now, pieces from that collection are available for purchase from Lipshut's new online store, ML Vintage. The store showcases her collection of unsold stock from the 60s, 70s and 80s, when she was a pioneering fashion buyer for Myer and Georges.
Lipshut was the first to bring labels like Callaghan, Pucci, Missoni and Courreges into Australia, but she didn't always get a warm reception from department stores. "[They] were too frightened to buy ... they didn't want to take a risk. "I was forced to open my own boutiques because the first collection I ever bought from Missoni, you know what they said to me? 'Mary, you really don't know what you're doing, dear. You can never put emerald and lime together. They don't go.'
"That garment is now in the National Gallery of Victoria."Other pieces from Lipshut's collection have been purchased by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Smithsonian. The collection began when one of Lipshut's consignments for Myer was redirected to her warehouse after a disagreement with Myer's merchandising director. Another shipment, from Courreges in Paris, was pronounced unsellable on arrival when the French began testing nuclear bombs in the Pacific and Australia slapped a ban on all French imports.
Add a few uncollected laybys from her pioneering boutiques Tempo and Sportempo, and some advice from Italian Vogue commentator Anna Piaggi to preserve her growing inventory for when the world began clamouring for true vintage fashion, and ML Vintage was born. The collection of 4000 garments and accessories is now thought to be worth many hundreds of thousands of dollars, and potentially the only one of its kind in the world. A trip around the showroom – and the website – is a journey through several fashion cycles, and proof that everything old is always new again, eventually. Courreges was clearly a master of colour blocking, and Missoni's original maxi dresses and iconic stripes are just as popular today as they ever were.
70s chic ... Pucci skirt set, $4500, from ML Vintage. With one-shoulder Versace swimsuits listed at $500 a pop, and Pucci skirt sets selling for thousands, it's not for the faint of wallet. Lipshut has outfitted Dannii Minogue, Megan Gale and fashion insiders like stylist Polly Kerdel, and is excited to see her new online venture go live. "We're launching www.mlvintage.com to see Mary's life work find their rightful homes," says grandson and business partner Mark Lipshut.
"When the last piece sells, the lights go off and we go home!"As for RMIT, they'll be the recipients of a cache of newspaper clippings, hand-written stock orders, vintage colour charts, diary notes, and drawings by some of the 20th century's most successful designers. It's an archive that represents a fashion life well lived. "I never had time to throw anything out," says Lipshut. "It was the most elegant era ... I've really had this most wonderful life."