"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.

This article was written by Catherine Join-Dieterle, Director of the Musee de la Mode in Paris, translated by Donato Moreno.

Click Here to view prime examples from Alexandre's famous collection of period dresses and pieces.

Alexandre with his own design of
a Louis XIII style jacket
which reflects his extensive knowledge of the history of fashion.

Included in the collection are hundreds of these beaded bags, many two hundred years old.

  Many of his designs, including this from "La Traviata" are based on pieces from his collection

Alexandre with two of his friends and supporters -
Princess Masha Magaloff and HRM the Duchess Sophie von Wurtemburg at the opening of one of his exhibitions.