Pechuga Corset Restoration 101 from Mangy to Marvelous
On the Off Chance:
Last year in April (when the world’s mood was decidedly calmer and Corona was still just a beer) I got a DM one evening. It was a colleague in the business and she had a very interesting question.
I was in Paris at the time, on a buying trip for Pechuga, and I remember I had had a bit too much wine that night. I didn’t see the name of the person who had DM’ed all I saw was a mangled corset.
“Oh, that looks fake.”
As a rule of thumb when I come across something that doesn’t sit right- I immediately have to brush it off as a fake. It’s hard to authenticate an item when you’re presented with only pictures. Feeling something, studying the make, the stitching on garments, or the plating and weight (if it’s a jewelry piece, for example) will never take the place of an image. Especially if the image is that of mangled corset on the floor.
Pechuga the Autodidact
I learn everyday. As I work and source pieces I’m simultaneously doing research. Just because I haven’t seen something before doesn’t mean it didn’t exist or that it wasn’t made, does the authentication of something become harder when the edition is 1/1? Sure. But this is why research is so important.
Two months went by after I was presented with the image of the corset above- in my mind it was still a bad fake. I was going through some pictures one night in June doing research for Vivienne Westwood menswear and I stumbled upon an image of this : a Vivienne Westwood men’s suit from Spring / Summer 1991, “Cut N’ Slash” from the 2016 “Reigning Men” exhibit at the LACMA. (Side note I helped source a pair of shoes for this exhibit).
And then I went down a rabbit hole of printed floral appliqué until I found as many references of this printed floral colorway on anything Vivienne Westwood related. That’s when I found this: another coat from VW "Cut N’ Slash" SS91.
Men's Coat from "Cut N' Slash" SS91, Vivienne Westwood
But another image of a men’s coat wasn’t enough - I needed to know if the floral printed appliqué was ever represented on womenswear. When lo and behold! The image that I had been waiting for.
Photo Montage of Vivienne Westwood SS91 "Cut N' Slash" Show
I work backwards a lot when I’m doing research and I didn’t study fashion design or art history (I studied economics and foreign languages in college) so a lot of what I encounter is really brand new to me (not to mention the fact that I was still in elementary school when all these shows came out). Through different sources I was able to narrow down the piece I was presented to Westwood’s “Cut N’ Slash” collection. Granted it’s not rocket science what I do for a living but it does take a level of skill (and maybe more obsession) to go through endless amounts of images, videos, and books.
After doing a fair amount of research one night at around 9:00 pm I shot my shot.
The seller and I affectionally called this piece a “Frankencorset” because my initial thought (based on the photos) was that the stomacher (the front of the corset) had the fabric sewn on from another garment and stitched onto a plain satin corset (it only took 2 months to prove myself wrong). To my surprise when I DM’ed the seller asking if the piece was still available she said it was still with her (no one wanted to buy a mangled corset, go figure). When I saw the corset in person I audibly gasped. It was misshapen, the side panels were torn and stained, the straps had signs of fraying, and there was boning coming out from the bottom.
Putting in the Work
I’ve worked on another Vivienne Westwood corset prior to this one. I believe the last one I restored was from “On Liberty” AW95, a gorgeous white lace piece that my corset maker, Jesse, and I totally reworked and restored. This SS91 piece was going to be another challenge so I got on the phone again with Jesse and we started scheming. Here’s what went down.
Bubble baths...but make it fashion
There’s always a risk when you’re handling a piece, especially one that’s almost 30 years old. Dealing with stains is a bitch (for lack of a better word). Dealing with 30 year old stains? Now that’s a bitch and a half. My main concern with the corset I was handling was the stomacher- fortunately for me the stomacher didn’t have any major stains, the side panels and the back were the real issues but something told me that there was hope. The floral design was printed on silk and embroidered onto silk satin, I figured that if there was any color bleeding then it would’ve happened during the course of 30 years, right? So what could possibly go wrong from here? I delicately hand washed the piece and it gets ruined further? You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.
To my surprise the majority of stains were lifted. I used a liquid detergent diluted in cold water and let the piece air dry flat on a white towel turning it every hour. Now that the piece was as clean as it could’ve possibly been I noticed the side paneling and the stomacher took on a different luster. This piece used to be gorgeous! Seeing it sort of come back to life compelled me to continue with the project (yeah not gonna lie I almost gave up) and then we really got down to business.
Putting in the Work
The Fabric Shopping
Silk satin vs. silk chiffon
Jesse and I made a date to go to Downtown LA and source materials for our project. In the sourcing process we took into consideration several factors. What size did we want this to be? I looked at my sales though and based on that 4/6 US (Italian 40/42) was the best selling size for me in Vivienne Westwood corsets. So we went with that. Fabric composition was then chosen, in order to conform to the body we needed something with stretch but that was going to also retain its shape, we went with silk stretch satin. Color. Did we want to pull a wild card and pick a color that matched the floral print embroidery? Or did we want to stay true to the color of the original piece? I’m a purist. So we went with a champagne color, I wanted this SS91 piece to remain as true to its form as possible. She was getting a face lift after 30 years fitting that it was all being done in Los Angeles.
No these are not the same color
We then visited another shop to pick the exact same color thread to match the same color fabric we had just chosen and then we bought the boning. As for the zipper in the back we decided to keep the original (hey, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it).
2 yards of champagne, silk stretch satin, por favor
I’m a perfectionist (surprise) but I also let those around me (the experts) take control. Someone once told me: would you take your computer to a mechanic to get it fixed? Obviously not and now I apply that simple logic to everything I do. So I listened to Jesse and the sales assistant at the fabric store and together we all made the best judgment for the piece at hand. I’m still a business and ultimately it was going to be my job to sell this piece. However, there is a degree of creative freedom that I needed to hand over to Jesse and trust that he will do his best to make my vision come to life.
This is me having a vision…
The Panels and Pattern
In college I took a sewing lab class which consisted of me in the dungeon of my university’s costume department. I don’t know why we had a costuming department (it was called "The Enchanted Cellar") in an agricultural college (I went to UC Davis) but there I was 3 hours a week thinking I was going to be the next Valentino Garavani. Jesse, my corset maker, on the other hand knows all the technical sewing and pattern making procedures. This is what he went to school for.
I love watching Jesse work. He’s so patient and knowledgeable and seeing him makes me proud to know him. He’s Salvadoran like me and being around him feels like family. He has funny quips that he says when he’s not working but takes on a very serious demeanor when I ask him to explain to me what he’s working on next. With this SS91 piece he first started off by taking off the side panels with a seam ripper.
Boning & More
Now that we had the fabric and all the corset accoutrements Jesse sketched out the patterns and then started the preliminary steps in putting the SS91 piece back together again.
Let the boning begin
We had to rebone the back panels, stitch the side panels to the stomacher, rebone the stomacher, then hand-sew pieces that needed to be sewn, and then put the zipper back in place. Seeing as how I don’t know how to do any of those things I decided to pop open a bottle of chilled rosé and pour a glass for Jesse and myself and then let Jesse take the wheel. I saw a lot of steaming, I heard a lot machine sewing sounds, and then the occasional “ouch”.
As Jesse was taking the SS91 corset apart I noticed two very odd things. The corset had the label sewn inside of the strap, every single garment I’ve come across has always had a label sewn on the outside. A tiny square piece of fabric with a name is sometimes all you need to start a hunt. In this instance I always wondered why the label was hidden on this garment.
Side note: When I read Vivienne Westwood’s autobiography I remembered that around 1994/95 Westwood moved her manufacturing to Italy (there was a blip in time where some pieces were even made in China!) The label inside of the Vivienne Westwood SS91 piece we had said “Made in England”, this coincided with the time period and collection I narrowed it down to.
Omg what is that (as said in Cardi's voice)
Then as we really started taking the piece apart I noticed another thing. Tape! Masking tape on the ends of some of the boning. The piece must have been made in a hurry or it may have been made as a representation only. Was this a sample that I had in my hands? Again I referred back to Westwood’s autobiography and I remember reading that Westwood didn’t have much money in the early 90’s (she actually went bankrupt around this time) and pieces were being assembled backstage before hitting the runway. Could this have been one of those pieces? Could Westwood have touched this piece herself? Who knows. I build a story around every piece in my head with every piece I get and this SS91 piece seemed to be extra special.
The Final Product
No Pechuga restoration would be complete without finally going through the master himself, Johnny the tailor. The piece that I had waited off on buying and had done research on, the same piece that had been stripped down to its bare blocks, was almost, almost done.
Pre-pandemic, non socially distance sussing
There was just one last part that needed to be fixed that Jesse didn't feel comfortable in mending, there was a fraying that needed to be taken care of one one of the straps and Johnny was the guy to do it. Once this was done it was time to document the piece.
Jesse took the SS91 piece from this :
After three buying trips, two evenings of research, 48 hours of actual labor, and one visit to the tailor she was done! I photographed the piece, I allowed it to go out for one pull (it wasn't worn), and sold it a collector for $2,100 USD. Given that I had to pay to acquire the piece, purchase all the materials to restore it, pay Jesse for his labor, and finally pay Johnny I thought that this amount was a reasonable price to ask.
Ultimately I was very proud of the results, the finalized VW SS91 corset proves wonderful things can be achieved with the right team, trust, and a positive outlook. Moreover, there's nothing that compares to the feeling of seeing something you've envisioned come to life.
Until next time, mes amis.