The Man Who Amassed 10,000 Vintage Scarves (and Wrote a Book About It)
This article is part of our Design special section on how looks, materials and even creators evolve.
LONDON — When Benoit Pierre Emery bought a silk Christian Dior scarf from the 1970s for about $30 on eBay in 2001, little did he realize it would be the seed of a collection that would grow to more than 10,000 pieces over two decades and lead to a book to be published later this year.
A self-professed lover of graphic design, Mr. Emery, 52, is a graduate of the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs in Paris and has a master’s degree in printmaking from the Royal College of Art in London. His coming book, “Carré. A Vintage Scarf Collection,” catalogs nearly 4,500 of his pieces, emphasizing their compositions rather than their roles as fashion accessories.
Covering the post-World War II period to the 1980s, the book represents famed fashion houses — including fine silks from Balenciaga, Hermès, Lanvin and Saint Laurent — but many other scarves are unsigned.
The project, he said in a video interview from Paris, where he now works as a creative director for tableware at Hermès, is a tribute to these scarves’ many anonymous artists: “It’s a bit of fashion, a bit of design, but I see it more like a book about paintings, in a sense. There are direct references to very famous arts movements in the collection but you always have some gaps, some area that hasn’t been explored, like some island that remains to be discovered.”
One volume will show scarves in full-page reproductions; another will display them in grids; a third is an index. The scarves are organized by what he called “typologies of shapes, patterns, themes, colors, etc.”
The Dior that started it all had a white background and dark red stripes that caught his eye. “It represented a woman’s face composed of concentric circles,” he said.
Mr. Emery has also designed scarves for Hermès. His did his first in 2005, for the 10th anniversary of the company’s 24 Faubourg perfume, whose name refers to the address of Hermès’s Paris flagship.
Two years earlier, he had created his own scarf brand, which he named after himself: “Each design was made of white dots on a monochrome color. The line had a very short life, to be honest. I was not the best salesperson.”
When designing a scarf square (or carré), Mr. Emery said, “I try to get my mind’s first impulse, a first note, into a sketch. Then I take this little note and start to create the full piece of music, in a sense.
“You have to keep in mind how it will be perceived on a flat surface, like a painting, and also how it will look when it’s going to be worn, how it will look when it’s folded. Sometimes the most important parts are the angles you get when you fold your scarf, the parts you are going to see the most.”
Mr. Emery said that moving from designing scarves to tableware of all shapes and sizes was a natural evolution but nonetheless required new ways of thinking.
And sometimes he borrowed motifs found in his scarves.
“I had designed the scarf ‘Mosaïque au 24’ for Hermès and presented the idea of adapting the scarf design onto porcelain,” he said. (The motif was influenced by the geometric mosaic floor tiles in the flagship store.)
“It was a fun adventure,” he said. “But it was a very long process. When you do a scarf, you only express yourself on a single piece of fabric. With tableware, I discovered that it was a way to express one idea onto different shapes, different objects: It’s more like creating a puzzle with pieces that interact with each other.”
Some of his scarves in the book “are very pure and simple,” he said. “When worn, they are not that spectacular. I like to appreciate them flat.”
He also said he hoped his book would show how different graphic designs could interact in what he called “the secret dialogue between pieces by different creators and from distant eras.”
Assembling his collection in the first place was “like a treasure hunt,” he said. He trolled “vintage shops, auctions, online, flea markets, a bit everywhere really. At one point I was in touch with so many dealers all over the world.”
Some are sourced from more unusual places.
“One of the very rare pieces I own” — a scarf he said was designed by the photographer Bert Stern using one of his famed images of a topless Marilyn Monroe behind a sheer scarf — “was purchased in New York in, I think, 2014,” he said. “The scarf was hung in a bar and its very poor condition is due to the sun, which has dulled its color, and to the cigarettes of customers which have impregnated the silk. It’s almost a shred but the piece is unique and still beautiful.”
The Marilyn scarf is not in the book. “It was too fragile to be photographed,” he said. “I hope we can save it somehow and maybe frame it to protect it.”
His collection largely resides in a special storage unit. Each scarf is wrapped in a plastic acid-free pouch and placed in groups of eight or 10 into cardboard boxes that are then put into in larger lacquer boxes. “You have to be careful of temperature and humidity,” he said.
The ones chosen for the book had to be removed from storage and photographed flat to emphasize their designs and to show any creases or other signs of age, highlighting their histories as artifacts. The process took a year and a half, he said, including setting up a database with details of each scarf.
“While most prestigious brands only use silk, some brands from the ’60s and ’70s were using cheaper material, like rayon,” he said. “Some of the most beautiful graphic designs are made with very bad quality material.”
Among these is his favorite, a black-and-white piece he found in Switzerland. Its designer remains a mystery.
“It looks like an explosion,” he said. “The material is super shiny, terrible. Probably an acetate. The edges are very bad, not regular at all, but the design is fantastic. When I saw it I thought, this material is so repulsive but the design is so strong, you cannot escape from it.”
What he loves about his collection, he said, “is that while certain pieces are badly printed on simple material — even with edges that are machine-stitched — it doesn’t matter because at the end, if the design is strong, I’m still fascinated.”
That fascination became “quite an addiction at one point,” he said, adding that he had slowed his purchasing over the past few years.
Does he ever sell them?
“No,” he said. “I cannot let them go. I’m too attached. But that’s the idea of the book — to share the treasure. There’s no point to keep it for myself.”