Sandy Schreier: A Detroit Legend

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Sandy Schreier
Sandy SchreierCourtesy of Sandy Schreier

One of Detroit's living legends speaks to us about how she came to be the world's largest private collector of couture

Sandy Schreier is a born-and-raised Detroit legend. After starting a childhood collection (!) of couture from Schiaparelli to Chanel, gifted by women like the Fords and the Chryslers during the city’s automotive industry peak, she has maintained her obsession with fashion and collection throughout her life. Now, still living in Detroit, she is the world’s largest private collector of couture clothing. Her resume features some pretty incredible achievements: costume designing for The Supremes, accessories designing for Yves Saint Laurent, modeling for Mary Quant and Vidal Sassoon, styling Bette Midler’s tours, writing books on Hollywood fashion… So, in honour of our Detroit series, we asked her some questions about her bizarre and fascinating history.

On her father’s arrival in Detroit…
"Years ago, Diane Arbus’ father David Nemerov owned a store in downtown Manhattan. It was called Russeks and it was the place where people came to from all over the States to buy their couture if they didn’t go to Paris. In those days, outside of New York, Detroit was the fashion capital because there were all the wives from the automotive industry were here. So, David took my dad under his wing and made him the furrier at Detroit’s Russeks, but what was really funny is that my dad had no idea what he would become… all he knew is that he was invited for Sabbath dinner every Friday night. He thought they were trying to set him up with their really wild daughter, Diane! But when they opened a store in Detroit, they asked my dad if he wanted to go there and he met my mother and ended up staying."

On being gifted couture as a child…
"I was the oldest of three daughters and, when my mother had her second child, my dad would take me with him to work. This was back when there weren’t even books on fashion in the Detroit library but I would spend hours and hours looking through Vogue and Bazaar – they became my bibles. And the clientele there – the Fords, the Dodges, the Chryslers – thought I was adorable and would bring me their couture. After World War II, no one wanted to wear old clothes anymore, they were bored of austerity so they wanted brand new things and to spend money. They would only wear a piece once; they couldn’t wear anything twice, so they gave it to me! Back then, there was no interest in vintage clothes; my parents thought it was disgusting, that they’d be covered in germs and we’d all die of old clothes disease. I remember that they tried to make me wear a piece for Halloween one year and I was so upset, because it was art, I couldn’t wear it!"

On dressing like a mod in suburban Detroit…
"I always lived in surburban Detroit. One time, I came back from a job in London where I was modelling for Vidal Sassoon, and I had this crazy hairstyle and ten pairs of fake lashes. My mother just kept saying to me, 'you must dress appropriately, you look like a jerk!' One day, I was in the supermarket wearing fishnet stockings and this dress that Mary Quant had given me. A friend came up to me and told me 'you should be ashamed of yourself.' I thought it was hurtful that people looked at me like that but now if I look back I really think I was shocking, nobody looked like that then, I was like an alien!"

On designing accessories for Yves Saint Laurent...
"One time, I modelled for a fashion show for Burlington Industries and the president, Francine Coffey, got stuck in Detroit in a snowstorm so she came to stay with me and the family. Back then, I was making all kinds of accessories for Bloomingdales and Bendels and she saw them at the house and said, 'these are fantastic. Don’t tell anybody but Burlington Industries is bringing in a young, new, French designer and it’ll be his first time in America. His name is Yves Saint Laurent and I want you to design the accessories for him.' So I did them and the rest is history!"

On getting into Hollywood fashion...
"I think that things just got around about how I collected clothes and, one day, I was asked to talk about clothes in the movies. I said that I didn’t know enough about it, so they sent me to Hollywood to meet the costume designers and movie stars. They all became really good friends of mine… did you know that Lana Turner was the first movie star who had an agreement with the studio that she got to keep her clothes at the end of a film? She used to call me to chat every night but, because it was cheaper to call long-distance after 11pm her time – which was 2am my time – she would call really late. One night, my husband picked up the phone next to the bed and said ‘Miss Turner, you do realize that it’s 2.05am?’ I was like, 'that’s Lana Turner!! You can’t talk to her like that!!'"

This article is part of a series celebrating Detroit, in partnership with Shinola