Charlotte Smith believes every dress tells a story.
Standing in her walk-in closet at her home in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, the former art and antiques dealer, who grew up on the US east coast, proudly holds up a dress by Greek-British designer Mary Katrantzou from 2012.
The red and black dress is one of about 100 pieces Smith, 57, keeps at home. But there are more than 8000 other pieces, housed at a most unfashionable address – a storage facility in Sydney’s western suburbs.
The Darnell Collection, as it is now known, has been hailed by international textile experts as one of the 10 most significant fashion archives in the world. But the fact the collection is in Australia at all comes down to a chance meeting in the English countryside nearly two decades ago.
Doris Darnell, Smith’s godmother, was a devout Quaker, a religion that traditionally shuns material possessions. But she had an insatiable appetite for vintage fashion, especially the stories behind the clothes.
In the late 1930s, while Darnell worked as a librarian in Philadelphia in the US, women would offer her their most treasured pieces, including Victorian-era wedding gowns and 19th-century couture.
“I would dress up in the clothes and Doris would regale me with stories. When I was a teenager I would model in her ‘living’ fashion parades,” Smith says.
After she finished her schooling, Smith worked in art galleries in New York – Mary Tyler Moore was a client – before moving overseas, first to Monte Carlo, then London.
In 1999, while living in Wiltshire, England, Smith fell in love with a NSW National Parks ranger, Kim de Govrik, who she would follow to Australia to begin a new life, far away from the glamour of the art world.
“I had no idea where Australia was. When you live in the countryside in England it’s still very chic,” Smith recalls. “I insisted on wearing my designer shoes but the rest of my fashion sense went down the tube.”
That was until 2004, when Darnell wrote to Smith, telling her she was leaving her half the fashion archive, including the book that faithfully recorded the story behind each piece.
“I remember this frozen moment in time thinking ‘what am I going to do with it?’,” Smith says.
A dress can become a thread that forever links us to a particular enchanted evening.
Charlotte Smith, fashion historian
But getting the 3500 pieces to Australia was no easy task. Darnell, then 85, and her husband Howard, then 88, hand-wrapped and recorded each item, wary of Australia’s strict quarantine regulations.
There was an ivory fan and leopard-skin coats. “Everything that would make Australian [customs] have a heart attack,” recalls Smith.
Seventy boxes weighing 1200 kilograms were shipped by air, thanks to a grant Darnell, who died in 2009, received from the Allen Hilles Fund. If the garments had come by sea, they would have been fumigated, potentially causing damage to the delicate fabrics.
Smith gave up her Blackheath antiques business to focus on the collection full time. In the past 13 years, she has expanded it to nearly 9000 items, more than 120 of which are featured in a new book, One Enchanted Evening: A Wardrobe Full of Memories.
It includes a Bill Blass gown that was used in the film American Hustle, and two gowns owned by Lady Lucille Duff-Gorton, who survived the sinking of the Titanic.
“A dress can become a thread that forever links us to a particular enchanted evening … They stay [in storage] long after they have gone out of style, waiting to be pulled out so their stories can be told again and again,” Smith writes in the foreword.
While the collection, which spans 300 years of fashion, is mostly American and European in origin, Smith has added work by Australian designers, including the late Ruth Tarvydas, Easton Pearson and Akira Isogawa.
“[The collection] now represents 36 countries … I want to add as my legacy, as the current custodian, an Indigenous element to it. Fashion is becoming so homogenous, we are losing that brilliance that fashion can offer,” she says.
Smith continues to add to the collection, mainly through bequests. “I don’t have the money to go out and buy the big stuff anymore because vintage stuff has skyrocketed [in price]. If I buy something, I like to be anonymous.”
If money was no object, top of her list would be a Fortuny pleated gown from the early 1900s, or a Charles James “clover” dress, which Smith estimates could fetch up to $US1 million ($1.29 million).
The collection, and Smith, will also feature on an upcoming episode of the US cable show Strange Inheritance. At the taping in New York last month the show’s textiles expert, Karen Augusta, told Smith the Darnell Collection was one of the 10 most significant private fashion archives in the world, with an estimated value in the tens of millions of dollars.
Still, Smith’s motivation is not money but to create Australia’s first dedicated fashion museum.
She is in negotiations to launch the project in a rural location in NSW or Victoria, with fashion luminaries Kirstie Clements and Akira Isogawa expected to join the inaugural board. The museum will operate for profit, in part to fund the Darnell Foundation, which will support emerging Australian designers through a series of scholarships.
After 13 years as custodian of the Darnell Collection, Smith feels it needs a more permanent – and public – home.
“I was chosen for this collection, there had to be something I can do with it that makes a difference,” she says.
One Enchanted Evening by Charlotte Smith, illustrated by Grant Cowan (Affirm Press) is available from October 31.