Investor Nicola Erni has built one of the world’s most important collections of fashion photography since its inception in the late 1990s. Filled with iconic looks from every decade from the 1930s, the collection features notable works by Richard Avedon, Paolo Roversi and more.
“Fashion and photography have always been passions for Nicola,” said Stefan Puttaert, CEO of Erni Collection. Erni’s collection began with a series of images from the 1960s and 1970s that reflected a time of cultural change in the worlds of art, filmmaking, fashion and music.
The collection continues to grow today, and in 2013 Erni opened a private museum in Steinhausen, Switzerland, where the works are housed. The collection represents the history of fashion photography as a medium, but also reflects Erni’s personal style. “In her teenage years, she not only enjoyed flipping through fashion magazines, but started designing her very first clothes,” added Puttaert.
What advice does she have for budding collectors of fashion photography? Artsy spoke to Puttaert about his top tips.
For fashion photography, the golden rule of collecting any medium applies: Follow your own eye and intuition. “Nicola Erni acquires works based on what speaks to her heart and gives her goosebumps,” Puttaert told Artsy. “Collect what speaks to your heart and keep your eyes open, go with the flow.”
Erni, for example, is particularly interested in how fashion photography is a product of both art and commercialism—representing the collaboration of key figures, Puttaert said, from designers and models to makeup artists and hairstylists to set designers and, of course, photographers. . It’s a process that fascinates Erni.
After more than two decades of collecting fashion photography, Erni’s passion for the medium remains undiminished. He is constantly looking for new names to add to his collection, discovering them everywhere from magazines to museums.
For example, Erni discovered the work of Australian photographer Emma Summerton in Fashion A few years ago. They became good friends and Erni bought several of her works. One of the main strengths of the Erni collection is that it constantly looks to the future. In addition to heavyweight names like Irving Penn and Mario Testino, it also features newer artists including Summerton, Hassan Hajjaj, Erik Madigan Heck, Nadine Ijewere, Tyler Mitchell and Harley Weir.
Puttaert noted that some museums have done an exceptionally good job of sharing fashion photography in the last few years as well, highlighting “Icons of Style: A Century of Fashion Photography” at the Getty in 2018; “Vogue Paris 1920–2020” at the Palais Galliera, Paris in 2021; and monographic exhibitions like “Steven Meisel 1993 A Year in Photographs” in A Coruña, Spain right now.
Fashion history exhibitions can also be a great source of inspiration. “Shocking! Other recent notable examples are the Surreal World of Elsa Schiaparelli” at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris and La Galerie Dior, which covers the history of the Dior company, Puttaert said.
When a piece comes to Erni, he finds it rewarding to get insight from the artists about their inspiration, philosophy, materials and technique, Puttaert said. He also advises other collectors.
“If possible, it’s important for her to meet photographers and discover their art before acquiring works from them,” Puttaert said. “The same process happens with contemporary art, where Nicola likes to visit artists in their studios, [and] view their work in original institutional exhibitions, galleries and auctions before deciding whether or not to buy a piece.”
Whether you’re interested in iconic street photography by Bill Cunningham or classic editorial by Richard Avedon or Irving Penn, there’s a market for you. Erni’s collection includes works ranging from high fashion editorials and paparazzi photography to portrait photography and street style. Building a collection that spans multiple genres requires understanding both individually and collectively of their parts.
“It’s up to each collector whether [they decide] to diversify and go beyond one particular genre,” Puttaert said. The current exhibit of Erni’s collection at the Norton Museum in Palm Beach, Florida includes works from a variety of time periods and genres. “Expanding the collection in this lens can bring about fascinating relationships between different genre areas.”