"Portrait of a Collector"
As he likes to tell it, it
was love of fashion that drove him, Alexandre Vassiliev, to collect, in
little more than twenty years, five hundred costumes, three thousand
accessories and an important photographic archive. A third is
dedicated to Russia, his country of origin, the rest is divided among France,
England and Spain, but included are also Turkey and South America, places
where, he has lived. An old love, since Alexandre Vassiliev made his
first purchase when he was sixteen years old. At the time, the trade
in antiques hardly existed in Russia, and it was even dangerous for individuals to
keep souvenirs of the czarist period. Only museums had the possibility
of adding to their stocks. It took some courage for a young man to embark on such a quest.
Nevertheless, Alexandre Vassiliev did benefit from fortunate circumstances; he inherited
items of artistic value from his family and was encouraged by his father, who provided him
with the financial means to realize his dream. His paternal grandfather, an officer in
the Imperial Navy, was endowed with a beautiful tenor voice and sang in the salons of his
day. His father, a collector of portraits and photographs, was the Bolshoi's scenographer
and subsequently became president of the Russian Scenographers Union. In other words, he
enjoyed, a privileged life in Moscow. His mother, of Polish origin, is an actress. From
an early age, Alexandre Vassiliev haunted the corridors of the theatre and so developed the taste
for costuming and set design.
Thanks to his aunt, Irene, who introduced him to friends and relations, he picked up several
interesting pieces. Later, he pulled items from his great-aunt Olga's wardrobe. She
was married to a tenor in Diaghilev’s troupe.
Yet, his beginnings as a collector were difficult; in order to make himself known, the young
man even stuck notices with his telephone number to drain pipes. At that time, antique
clothes were, hard to come by in Russia, poverty leading many women to recycle any valuable
piece of fabric.
He acquired clothing and accessories for very little, between twenty-five and forty rubles, when
the average monthly salary was around one hundred and fifty
By mail, be also received decorative trims, fragments which had been religiously kept by
families, relics rich in memories. Before long, an article appeared in La Jeunesse, a
magazine with a circulation in the millions, confirming his fame, as he was the only one in
Moscow working, in this field.
In the course of his studies at the Moscow Theatre School, Alexandre Vassiliev collected a few
costumes cast off by the theatre following a break in the plumbing system. That is how
today he owns corsets worn on stage by the wife and the companion of Chekov and Gorki.
In 1982, at twenty-three, Alexandre Vassillev left Russia for France. His collection
remained with his parents. It is once again in his possession thanks to the perseverance
of diplomat friends who, on each of their trips, would bring, a few items back to him.
But he had to earn a living, so he took up his father's calling and dedicated himself to
designing for opera, drama and dance. A career that began in France has taken him not
only to most European countries but also to North America and South America, as well as to
Asia. In addition, he has taught the history of fashion and of stage design in France,
Belgium, Great Britain, Chile, Brazil, Japan, etc,
He continues to collect passionately, regularly frequenting flea markets and the auction
rooms. From the former Serbian ambassador to Russia he bought a beautiful set of
'kokochniks'. In Paris, he meets the last emigres and their descendants. In their
newspaper, 'La Pensee russe', he advertises in order to acquire new pieces and accessories. He
has acquired the wardrobe of Madam Samssonov whose trunks went unopened from the time she left
Russia after the Revolution until 1995. All her life, Madam Samssonov dreamed of returning to Russia.
From his encounters in Paris with emigres, artists, socialites, models, such as Erte, Lady Abdy,
Galia Tchnenov-Gorlenko, grew the idea of a book: Beauty in Exile, published in Moscow, by
Slovo, in 1998. In it are written down the reminiscences of Russians as well as Alexandre
Vassiliev's research into the fashion of that era.
His rich collection, which covers mostly from the Eighteenth Century to the 1930s, is now known by
the institutions to which he lends willingly (including museums in Paris, London, Hong Kong and
Santiago de Chile). But Alexandre Vassiliev collects as an artist, seeking at first, from
the gathering of objects, to recreate the atmosphere of a time or a place in order to understand
the source from which they sprung. And as a poet, he has turned his home into an evocation
of a Russian house whose charm captivates all of his visitors.
was written by Catherine Join-Dieterle, Director of the Musee de la Mode in Paris, translated by Donato Moreno.