Like many collectors, artist and designer Adrienne bon Haes discovered her passion early on. “I sewed my first Barbie dress when I was six, and designed and made my first pantsuit at 13. I cut up my stepfather’s business suits to make my own clothes.” And then, about 17 years ago (and much to the relief of family members), she let others do the handiwork. “I bought my first Chinese embroidered silk jacket at an antique show for $22. I couldn’t believe it. It was fantastic—an explosion of colorful chrysanthemums. I love the details of Chinese garments—super-fine embroideries, mandarin collars, frog closures.” Other cultures beckoned. From the Ottoman Empire of Turkey came a wedding dress embroidered in silver threads dipped in a gold wash. From Burma, a dress made for Buddhist temple ceremonies. From India, richly embroidered silks from a royal family’s wardrobe.

Bon Haes doesn’t just stash these exquisite finds away: “It’s the bulk of my wardrobe. I buy things mainly with the intention of wearing them. I pair them with simple basics to give them a modern, wearable feel.” When she’s not donning her collection, she keeps pieces stored in her closet, arranged by country of origin. “I used to hang everything, but the weight of some of the embroideries on these fragile silks was causing stress, so many pieces had to be taken down and folded, which is a pity since you cannot see them in their full glory. But they still make a very colorful display.” She packs away “extra-precious” items in boxes wrapped in acid-free tissue and also makes sachets from cloves to ward off moths.

Bon Haes will do just about anything to get something “extra-precious.” That Buddhist ceremonial dress, for instance. “I found it in the back seat of an old car for sale in front of an antique shop in Rangoon. It was buried under 15 pounds of caked red-clay mud and held together with rusty safety pins, green from corrosion, seams split and with gaping holes from water rot. I had to hold back my excitement in the negotiations. I knew what it was. I spent three weeks removing the clay from the paillettes with a toothbrush.” But in the end, she has a piece of history, of another culture, of sheer beauty: “It’s an absolute fantasy of a piece, with flame-shaped elements sewn in composite silver metal paillettes, stitched onto the same terracotta-colored cotton milled for monks. Something Greta Garbo would have worn in Mata Hari.”

Or Adrienne bon Haes, enjoying her collection in Miami…

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