Since its origins in the late 1990s, the investor Nicola Erni has built one of the world’s most prominent collections of fashion photography. Populated by iconic looks from every decade starting with the 1930s, the collection features notable works from the likes of Richard Avedon, Paolo Roversi, and more.

“Fashion and photography have always been a passion for Nicola,” said Stefan Puttaert, CEO of the Erni Collection. Erni’s collection started from 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, to house the works. The collection showcases a history of fashion photography as a medium, but also reflects Erni’s personal style. “Not only did she love flipping through fashion magazines in her teenage years, she started to design her very first clothes,” Puttaert added.

So, what advice does he have for aspiring collectors of fashion photography? Artsy spoke to Puttaert for his top tips.

A golden rule of collecting any medium remains true for fashion photography: Follow your own eye and intuition. “Nicola Erni acquires works according to what speaks to her heart and gives her goose bumps,” Puttaert told Artsy. “Collect according to what speaks to your heart and keep your eyes wide open, go with the flow.”

Erni, for example, is particularly interested in how fashion photography is a product of both art and commerciality—representing a 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 Erni finds fascinating.

After more than two decades of collecting fashion photography, Erni’s passion for the medium remains undimmed. She is always on the lookout for up-and-coming names to add to her collection and discovers them everywhere from magazines to museums.

For example, Erni discovered the work of Australian photographer Emma Summerton in Vogue a few years ago. They became good friends, and Erni purchased several of her works. One of the main strengths of the Erni Collection is that it’s constantly looking toward 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 exceptionally good work sharing fashion photography in the past several years as well, highlighting “Icons of Style: A Century of Fashion Photography” at the Getty in 2018; “Vogue Paris 1920–2020” at Palais Galliera in Paris in 2021; and monographic exhibitions such as “Steven Meisel 1993 A Year in Photography” in A Coruña, Spain, right now.

Fashion history exhibitions can also be a great source of inspiration, too. “Shocking! The Surreal World of Elsa Schiaparelli” at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, and La Galerie Dior, which covers Dior’s history, are other notable examples, Puttaert said.

When a work speaks to Erni, she finds it rewarding to gain insight from artists about their inspiration, philosophy, materials and technique, said Puttaert. He advises other collectors to do the same.

“When possible, it is important for her to meet the photographers and discover their art before acquiring works by them,” Puttaert said. “The same procedure happens with contemporary art, where Nicola loves to visit artists in their studios, [and] view their work in original institutional exhibitions, galleries, and auctions before deciding whether to buy a piece or not.”

Whether you’re interested in Bill Cunningham’s iconic street-style photographs or a classic Richard Avedon or Irving Penn editorial, there is a market for you. Erni’s collection features works from high-fashion editorials and paparazzi photography to portrait photography and street style. Building a collection that encompasses multiple genres involves understanding them individually, as well as the sum of their parts.

“It is up to each collector whether [they decide] to diversify and go beyond one particular genre,” Puttaert said. A current exhibition of Erni’s collection at the Norton Museum in Palm Beach, Florida, includes work from across different time periods and genres. “Expanding a collection in that optic can bring fascinating relations between different genre fields.”

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