Over her lifetime, Southfield’s Sandy Schreier has amassed one of the country’s greatest collections of 20th century clothing and accessories. Here’s how she did it
By Nicole Frehsee Mazur
Collection photos courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Many women in Detroit have enviable closets, but none compare to Sandy Schreier’s. From evening gowns designed by Cristóbal Balenciaga to vintage Versace bags, the Southfield resident owns a 15,000-piece treasure trove of clothing and accessories — and she doesn’t wear a single one of them.
“People ask, ‘How do you resist trying these things on?’” says Schreier, who’s been collecting couture and ready-to-wear items since she was a kid. (She’s now in her 80s.) “All I know is I thought that everything looked so beautiful that I wouldn’t want to touch anything.”
Decades after she started her collection — most of which is kept under lock, key and acid-free paper in a metro Detroit warehouse — Schreier’s fastidiousness is paying off. Since November, 80 of her most prized pieces have been on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute in New York, the intricate, dramatic and sometimes-bedazzled stars of an exhibit titled “In Pursuit of Fashion: The Sandy Schreier Collection.” (The items are part of a 165-piece endowment she’s bequeathing to The Met.)
Schreier’s collection is celebrated the world over: The Met has called it “one of the greatest private collections of 20th-century fashion” and Schreier has been featured everywhere from the New York Times to Vogue. She says she owes everything to her hometown (even though, she notes dryly, no one recognizes her here). “I think I’ve become so well-known because I wasn’t in New York or London or Paris,” she says. “I was unique. Here I was, Sandy Schreier from Michigan, and I was making waves all over the world.”
Schreier’s wave-making started when she was just a toddler, accompanying her father to work at a Detroit fur salon. This was in the late 1930s and 1940s, and the shop was frequented by the wives of Detroit’s auto bigwigs — think Dodges, Fords and Chryslers. Schreier, who wasn’t yet 3 years old, would look at the pictures in the copies of Harper’s Bazaar in the dressing rooms. “Daddy’s clientele would see this little Shirley Temple look alike looking at the magazines and it fascinated them,” she recalls with a laugh.
The women, some of whom had their clothes custom-made by designers like Christian Dior and Cristóbal Balenciaga, would cast off their clothes once the season was over. “They had nothing to do with their unworn or once-worn couture, so they thought they’d give it to this little girl to play dress up,” says Schreier. “I was in the right place at the right time.”
As Schreier got older, she’d scour estate sales and antique shops for rare finds. She amassed a fashion collection before it was, well, fashionable — had she not taken these items, she says, they likely would have been tossed. “My parents were not exactly happy with having all these old clothes in their home,” she says. “They often said that they contained germs and we were all going to die of ‘old clothes disease.’” (She also collected autographed photos of her era’s biggest Hollywood stars, even striking up a brief correspondence with Arthur Miller. Schreier’s maiden name was Miller, and she asked the playwright if she could claim him as a relative to get into the University of Michigan, his alma mater. He said no.)
Schreier’s introduction to the fashion world beyond Michigan came after college (she ended up getting into the University of Michigan on her own merits). In the early 1960s, she modeled for hair stylist Vidal Sassoon, a job that took her to London. She became friends with a group of rising European designers and soon expanded her circle to New York fashion legends like Andy Warhol and actress/model Twiggy, who gifted Schreier one of her favorite pieces — the metal mesh dress that she wore in an iconic 1967 Richard Avedon photo. (Many of Schreier’s items were gifts from celebrities, socialites and designers that she befriended.)
As a young mother, Schreier — who had four children in less than five years — also frequently traveled to New York to do TV appearances about movie costumes, a subject on which she’d become an expert. (Her trial-attorney husband, Sherwin, would stay home with the kids.) “I would have a great big list of things to do, and I would go from one end of Manhattan to other,” she recalls. “Working and being creative kept me sane.”
Through it all, Schreier never stopped collecting. Over the decades, she has loaned pieces everywhere from the Louvre and Russia’s Hermitage Museum to the Detroit Institute of Arts. She says her long-term plan was always to “take it with me when I die,” but she abandoned that idea after Sherwin passed away in 2014 after 58 years of marriage. “I thought we were going to live forever,” she says, wistfully. “But [his death] brought me back to the reality that life is short.”
Schreier had been working with The Met for years, and she decided the museum would make a worthy home for some of her most-loved pieces, which she likens to her “children” — especially since her actual children (and seven grandchildren) aren’t interested in inheriting them. “It sank in that [my things] did belong there, indeed.”
“We couldn’t be more thrilled that so many pieces from Sandy’s collection that have enhanced our exhibitions over the years are now finding their home at The Met,” says Andrew Bolton, a curator at the museum. “They will expand and enrich so many areas of our collection, and allow us to tell a much more nuanced story of the history of fashion.”
When Schreier isn’t attending fashion galas in New York or escaping the Detroit winter in Miami, she’s back in Southfield, in her most-cherished spot: “At home, in bed. Because I’m tired.” (You may also find her at Beverly Hills Grill, Phoenicia or Assaggi Bistro, her favorite local restaurants.)
As for her personal closet — you know, the one she actually wears things from — it’s stocked with pieces from Dries Van Noten, Alexander McQueen, Isaac Mizrahi and more (many of the designers she wears are personal friends). “I like layers,” she says. “I love clothes and accessories so much that I pile on a lot at one time. Hopefully I don’t come out looking like a bag lady.”
And despite her gift to The Met, Schreier is still on the hunt for one-of-a-kind fashion finds. “I’ve tried to cut back because I’ve promoted myself out of the market,” she says. “Now that I’ve had so much publicity, everyone thinks that what they have is worth a million dollars.” But, she adds, “I started doing this when I was 2 ½ years old. It’s really difficult to stop.”
As of press time, Schreier is scheduled to appear at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield on October 18 to discuss her fashion collection and her life.