by Anne Bruno
Photographs by Dagny Piasecki
Hair & Makeup by Meesh Rios
“Look at the detailed construction inside, where you can see exactly how it was stitched together,” Nikki Joza Hickman says, delicately fingering the hand-sewn and expertly notched seams inside a 1953 Christian Dior bengaline dress, still surprisingly white after 64 years.
Made of textured cotton and silk with a large bow of the same fabric placed midway to the ballerina-length hem, the dress’s impossibly tiny waist, deep V-neck, and full skirt create an ultra-feminine silhouette. It’s a style and shape immediately reminiscent of Hollywood’s heyday of black and white films showcasing the talents (acting and otherwise) of young starlets like Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn or the ads created by the early Mad Men of the late 1940s and ‘50s.
The dress is clearly special. But, despite its nostalgic appeal, would anyone really spend a significant amount of money on a dress she knows from the start she’ll never wear because it’s not her size? Most women would not say yes to this dress. But for a collector like Hickman, the answer is a resounding, “Absolutely, this is an incredible find!”
“This Dior is one I really wanted to own, not because I could ever get into it,” Hickman says laughing, “but because it played such an important role in fashion history.” The typically not-so-serious Hickman explains with convincing authority: “When Dior created this style for his own label, it became known as the New Look and it was a huge deal. Everything changed after that.”
Hickman knows her stuff: in fact, Dior’s New Look stands as one of fashion’s game-changing moments. After the Second World War, women’s fashion took a drastic turn as Christian Dior decided it was time to bring femininity back to the fore. Using yards of previously rationed fabric, the house of Dior created full and flowing dresses with delicately sloped shoulders, and adorned the new creations with pretty details like the bow on Hickman’s perfect example of the period. Dior set the course for lasting change that other designers would quickly follow.
For Hickman, as with most collectors bewitched by a passion — be it art, stamps or another personal fancy living large in a space beyond logic and reason — the story behind a prized piece often represents its first, and almost magically strong, allure. That’s the case with both the vintage pieces in her collection and the ones by the new, emerging designers Hickman likes to discover before their names and work become regulars in the pages of Vogue and Women’s Wear Daily. She knows the relative value of what she buys, and her personal history of spending money very carefully has proven useful.
Born in South Africa, Hickman, her parents and her younger brother immigrated to the United States to start a new life one week before Hickman’s ninth birthday. (She became a U.S. citizen shortly after graduating college.) She has vivid memories of being a young girl and her mother taking her to stores like J. C. Penney or the Gap to buy a new outfit. “It didn’t happen very often because my parents were working so hard to get us settled here and build their small business. So when we got to go shopping, it was special,” she says. “I always loved trying things on and getting to pick out something new.”
Hickman put herself through UT Austin working full-time on a semiconductor processing assembly line, graduating with a business degree in 1999. When she wasn’t donning her white cleanroom suit at Motorola, in class, or studying, she’d window shop on the Drag, lingering in front of ByGeorge. There wasn’t much there she could buy at the time, but her plan was for that to change.
Several years out of college she was looking online for something unusual to wear to a big event. “I bought something on eBay by Zac Posen and I was blown away by how gorgeous and well-made it was,” she says. “That’s when I really started appreciating what’s behind a dress like that, the influences, the individuals who contribute to the finished product, everything that goes into a garment that’s not mass-produced. That’s how the whole thing started.”
Knowing that someone else’s hands took time and care to create what she’s wearing adds another layer of meaning and is one reason Hickman is so attracted to dresses that are one-of-a-kind. “Choosing to wear a dress covered in hand-painted feathers or a piece of vintage jewelry, I feel like I’m honoring that place in time and whoever touched it before it got to me. These pieces meant something to someone else; the person who made it and, if it’s vintage, whoever wore and cherished it,” Hickman says.
In addition to the ‘53 Dior, Hickman’s closet boasts a deep wine-colored micro-pleated linen dress of the same era from legendary Irish designer Sybil Connolly, best known for dressing Jackie Kennedy; from the 1960s, an oh-so-mod short Paco Rabanne covered in hand-sewn shiny plastic and wood discs, and a Jeanne Lanvin couture cocktail dress of white brocade with a structured interior corset. Several beauties represent the ‘70s, including an elegantly simple black hammered silk Halston sheath and two Chanels, one featured in the iconic brand’s 1978 advertising campaign.
While a shopaholic might spend hours at the mall filling shopping bags with the latest trends, a collector like Hickman peruses eBay, 1stdibs and online auction houses hunting for a coveted vintage piece of a certain era or designer.
Collecting is about being inspired and motivated to do more than just shop. While a shopaholic might spend hours at the mall filling shopping bags with the latest trends, a collector like Hickman peruses eBay, 1stdibs and online auction houses hunting for a coveted vintage piece of a certain era or designer. For emerging designers, she reviews look books on Moda Operandi, keeps up with insider new-arrival emails from shops like Sunroom, and attends trunk shows at ByGeorge (still a favorite). According to Hickman, collecting involves patience and discernment. Before a purchase, Hickman asks herself, what makes sense for me? What will I be happy with for a long time? What will hold its literal and figurative shape?
“For vintage pieces,” she explains, “I have a wish list and those are things I might look for over a period of years. That’s the only time I invest in something I know I won’t ever wear. For new things, when you see it, you know it. I love going through look books, but it’s only every once in a while you see something that really jumps off the page and speaks to you … when you know it’s the one. My rule is I really have to fall in love with something to buy it. Otherwise, I know it’ll be heading to the consignment store.”
Stepping into a well-made dress, Hickman says, zipping it up and feeling it around you, is transformational. “It makes you feel not so much like a different person, but like your most wonderful self. You hold yourself differently and it’s like you can feel all that’s gone into that dress from everyone who’s worked on it and then it comes out in you. It’s a hard sensation to describe, but it’s very real.”
Her collection of about 60 pieces, acquired over the last 15 years, is neatly arranged in a modestly sized but well organized closet. Balenciaga, Chloé, Chanel, Lanvin, Nina Ricci, Halston, Monique Lhuillier, Dolce & Gabbana, Oscar de la Renta, Prada, Zuhair Murad, Yves Saint Laurent, Valentino, Emilio Pucci, Madame Gres, Elie Saab, Brock Collection, Rosie Assoulin: all share the same space, none the exact same story.
Walking through the closet, Hickman carefully unzips a canvas garment bag here and lifts the cover of a tissue-lined archival box there to reveal irresistible details like the handwork of a finely scalloped hem or the cloisonné buttons on a Chanel. Pulling out a full-length Johanna Ortiz dress, Hickman says, “I love how the colors and bold floral print show you who she is and where she came from [Colombia].”
Sometimes, the provenance of a piece illustrates the career of a favorite actress such as the gray silk Nina Ricci gown that Marion Cotillard wore during awards season the year she won an Oscar. (Traces of the star’s de rigueur body bronzer still show along the top edges). Or, a designer’s inspiring backstory may be what seals a particular deal. With several Balenciagas in her collection, Hickman has always admired the Spanish couturier, a seamstress’ son who grew up in a fishing village. Cristóbal Balenciaga began apprenticing for a local tailor at age 12 and subsequently became the exceptional designer who could skillfully use a pair of scissors to do his own cutting.
While a straight line between Hickman’s career of 20 years in human resources (she’s currently a leader in Facebook’s Austin office) and her passion for fashion might not be obvious, what she enjoys most about her work mirrors what she likes about discovering up-and-coming creators of style.
“I genuinely enjoy supporting people in their development and growth efforts,” she says. “Whether it’s an emerging designer who’s creating a brand and trying to figure out what resonates with customers, or a colleague at work building new skills and experiences on their career journey – it’s the same. And, for people I haven’t met in person, I’ve always been inspired learning how someone became who they are today.”
Hickman says most of her friends know about her love of collecting uniquely stylish pieces, but confesses to having been reluctant to name designer names, afraid it might come across the wrong way. “It used to be that when someone asked me about what I was wearing at a special occasion, I felt kind of shy talking about it. But I’ve gotten more comfortable with it,” she says. “I realize people are genuinely curious and it’s my chance to help spread the word. The emerging designers I’ve met are so appreciative of that kind of support.”
Highlighting the talent of someone she believes in is, “incredibly gratifying,” Hickman says. “It makes wearing a beautiful dress that much more special!”
Read more from the Style Issue | September 2017