Thrifting 101, Part 26: Designer Profile of Victor Costa

Some clothes just make you happy. Their polka dots or ruffles or sunny bright color or gleaming metal studs pull you away from whatever competing garment you were examining in a store. These happy clothes lead you to weave fantasies in which they are the star. In them, you envision yourself impressing friends, or twirling at a party, or wearing to a picnic, or eating chocolate chip ice cream. There is no depression, there is no gloom, there is no maudlin sad ill-fitting silhouette. No, these clothes are joyful. They make you smile. And they feed your soul.

Such is the case with the following dress:

In Elissa land, this is the Perfect Dress. It is pink. It is strapless. It is 1950's inspired. It has polka dots and a giant bow. And it is vintage. I came across this dress at the Goodwill, crammed in between two rather sad and lonely looking polyester house coats. I knew right away that this dress and I were meant to be. Flouncy, girlish, charming and fun, I plunked down $4 for it and hauled it home, grinning all the way.

Thanks to my research on vintage, I was able to identify the designer immediately. He's one of my favorites, a scoundrel well known in the vintage world for creating copycat clothes inspired by Christian Dior, Scassi, Lacroix, and Yves Saint Laurent, among others. So who is the designer? This week, in part 26 of Thrifting 101, I'll introduce you to Victor Costa.

Victor Costa

Victor Costa comes from humble beginnings in Houston's Fifth Ward. The middle child of a metalworker born in Sicily and his American wife, he lived with his family in three rooms behind his grandparents' grocery store. Victor got his first taste of fashion when he designed paper doll dresses at age 10 and sold them to his classmates for two cents apiece. Costa received his first sewing machine at the budding age of 11, beginning his storied career in fashion.

He went on to study at the Pratt Institute, New York, and later spent a year at the École of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture in Paris. At this time in the Paris fashion world, Christian Dior reigned, and Costa was deeply influenced by the 1950's sense of style and formality.

While Costa worked in Paris, New York's Seventh Avenue fashion business was built on copying Paris designs. Buyers and designers alike would flock to Paris to buy a model to "knock-off" or reinterpret. The years after World War II saw an escalation of Paris couture show photographs being published in newspapers, but with a significant lag time. When Costa returned from Paris to New York in 1958, he began working his way into the industry by selling his European-inspired sketches to established designers such as Oleg Cassini, Ceil Chapman, and others. He soon began creating bridal gowns for fashion house Murray Hamburger, and learned the value of detail when his one-of-a-kind hand-made crushed roses, which he attached to the back of his bridesmaids dresses, helped the dresses sell by the thousands.

Costa, who had a photographic memory and a quick hand at sketching, was able to translate what he saw on the Paris runways into successful designs for the Suzy Perette company during the 1960s. In interviews given during the nineteen eighties, he mentioned his early employment as "Going to Paris and picking a dress out of a collection and developing the equivalent of a Ford automobile. Those were the eyes I developed."

Costa worked for Perette, copying European designs and translating them for the American market from 1965 to 1973. In 1973  he moved to Dallas, bought a dress business, and quickly reestablished ties to New York's Seventh Avenue. He traveled to Europe frequently to attend the haute couture and prêt-á-porter fashion shows, and his masterful talent and ability to comprehend couture and ready-to-wear fashions became his trademark. Never content with only a quick sketch or photography, Costa often purchased the original couture design to study the construction and fabric. He chose many fabrics in Europe and the U.S., but preferred to do construction at his Dallas-based company.

By the early 1980's Costa became well knows as the the undisputed king of the fashion knock-off. He unabashedly pilfered the opulent $5,000 to $15,000 designs of top designers and translated them into inexpensive  duplicates. The $5,000 to $15,000 designs of top couturiers became dresses sold by Costa for $250 to $800.

Unsurprisingly, Costa became reviled by designers for his knock-off dresses."It's ridiculous; he copies exactly," sniffed the press relations director for Emanuel Ungaro, who refused to comment himself. "We don't want to give Costa any publicity," says the aide.

Costa's designs appeared regularly on such shows as Falcon Crest, Moonlighting and Dynasty and also found their way into movies. His garments were distributed to more than 450 specialty and department stores including Bloomingdale's, Bergdorf Goodman, Nordstrom, and Lord and Taylor. "I don't want to put down anyone who spends thousands on clothes,"  actress and former Miss America Mary Ann Mobley, a longtime Costa customer, told People Magazine in 1988.  "But if I'm going to spend $7,000, I'm going to buy land."

Business problems, including a lawsuit by a former employee and embezzlement by an officer in the company, forced Costa to close his Dallas-based company in 1995. He has, however, continued to offer his designs with the backing of several companies. He updated his line of suits and dresses offered in 2000 by including bare dresses and glitzy evening pants, and his attention to clothing construction now takes him to China to work with beaders and embroidery artisans. In May of this year, Costa designed a line of pieces to be sold exclusively on ShopNBC.

(Missed any previous parts of my Thrifting 101 series? Up to this point, the series has focused on tips for newbies and those dealing with the squick factor, advice regarding how to shop at a thrift store, thrifting for the clothing snob, recommendations for finding the best thrift and consignment stores, tips for determining what days are the best for thrifting, a post where I explained my love for thrifting, advice regarding thrift store etiquette, tips for cleaning vintage leather, a post of my favorite thrifting and vintage blogs, tips for identifying and cleaning thrifted jewelry, advice for storing vintage and thrifted garments, and tips for shopping for vintage online. I also discussed influential periods in fashion - the 1920's through the 1950's; the 1960's; the 1970's; the 1980's; and the 1990's, and my favorite books on thrifting and vintage. For other parts, please do a search for Thrifting 101! )


  1. Oh Elissa, what a great post on Victor Costa, thank you for sharing! I was reading an interesting thing in a sewing magazine about Davidow jackets and how the House of Chanel was selling Davidow the patterns to make 'sanctioned' knock-offs. This was back in the 1950s, I believe. Such a very interesting topic, I would like to read more on it. In the meantime I feel you just gave me a lesson in fashion history and girl, you know that is one of my favorite things! Anyhoo, I stopped by to congratulate you on making the list (once again!) for IFB Links a la Mode. I knew your post would get selected. I'm on the list with you this week for my review of the Daphne Guinness show. I wish you were here to see it (any chance you are coming back to NYC before January?), the clothes are amazing, couture pieces from 1995-2010, lots of Chanel, Valentino, Dior and McQueen.

  2. I have a few good vintage Victors!

  3. Holy crap he worked for Suzy Perette? And double holy crap, all his work is based on another designer? I would have never guessed, because the weird thing is in my head I can see a Victor signature look. Which reading this is kind of a little odd. That's really trippy. What a fantastic post!!

  4. My high school graduation dress was Victor Costa. Every girl in my class had to wear the same dress and they brought in a selection of dresses from him for us to vote on. :) And in the 90s my mom and I bought tons of fancy dresses at the Terry Costa outlet store, which had overstock of Victor Costa dresses. Good memories! :)

  5. Victor Costa really does make some amazing pieces. They feature him on QVC all the time!


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