- Often for a piece to be “archival” it must be a notable or rare piece, or one drawn from a historically significant and celebrated collection. It’s an influential garment that defined not only the designer, but an era, while redefining fashion itself.
- For aficionados, collecting offers the thrill of the chase, the pride of showing off, the ability to own and keep something rare and unrepeatable, and the keepsake-power and personal resonance garments often accrue.
- Making and selling more stuff isn’t sustainable. Many archivists—like vintage and resale diehards—know this, and have shown the real value of pre-worn stuff.
Collecting goes way back, tapping into some fundamental aspect of human nature. But the notion of collecting in capital-f Fashion is a relatively recent phenomenon. Museums have for some time acquired objects of dress and, as individuals, of course, we have our favorite things we hold near and dear in our closets or on the exposed clothing racks in our cramped apartments, but houses themselves didn’t really even keep stock of their own stuff until as recently as the 1980s. For example, Dior only began keeping and cataloging their own product when preparing for their 1987 Musée des Arts Décoratifs retrospective. Now the brand’s private archive is a museum-level undertaking. Hamish Bowles—himself a fastidious collector—cites Yves Saint Laurent as being one of the earliest auto-archivists. “Everything you produced for the runway you wanted to sell,” Bowles explained to Business of Fashion in 2013 of the old idea. However, over the past few decades, designer houses have realized the importance of managing their legacy and having the real garment to go back to and learn from and reference. “[Archival pieces] are very, very useful to get a sense of your brand’s DNA.”
Julie Ann Clauss, whose consultancy The Wardrobe offers archival services to brands like Tom Ford and individual collectors, says that the world of fashion archiving has changed tremendously in the 14 years she’s been at it. “I truly believe that the Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty show at the Met in 2011 was the watershed moment for fashion archiving,” she reflected over email. It was then she felt that many brands realized that archives not only offered opportunities for inspiration and reference points for designers, but were also an “asset that can be leveraged and monetized.” She went on to explain that, “There are all kinds of creative opportunities for fashion designers (and entertainers) to easily use their archives for marketing and branding opportunities. The McQueen show illustrated the public’s appetite for fashion—at the time it was the Met’s most attended show in 40 years.” Technology has also changed things—the ability to digitally archive and share materials is constantly expanding. But at its core, as new as the fashion archive might be to many, it’s based on timeworn principles. “The way that I describe [archiving] in lay terms,” Clauss explained, “is that each of my clients has a mini museum.
While Clauss is happy to see that archiving is being taken more seriously, she also laments the term’s liberal adoption, almost to the point of losing meaning. “I eye-roll a little bit at the overuse of terms like ‘archive’ and ‘curate,’” Clauss said, noting that trained archivists like her and her colleagues spend years in school and on the job, building understandings of fashion and cultural history, museum studies, chemistry, design methods, and other conservation techniques both concrete and conceptual.
Now the word “archive” has become the kind of tag you’ll see on sites like Grailed and Depop. Sometimes this mean its culled from an archive from which someone is deaccessioning, but usually on resale sites or in mainstream fashion pubs, “archive” refers to some of the principal designers collectors seek: menswear innovators like Raf Simons, Helmut Lang, Rick Owens, Martin Margiela; early work from iconic Japanese designers like Comme des Garçons, Issey Miyake, and Yohji Yamamoto; and boundary-exploding luxury punks like Jean Paul Gaultier and Vivenne Westwood. Often for a piece to be “archival” it must be a notable or rare piece, or one drawn from a historically significant and celebrated collection. It’s an influential garment that defined not only the designer, but an era, while redefining fashion itself.
Archives often reach the public not only in museums and through editorials, but on loan to prominent performers and celebrities—photos of whom are the way many people primarily experience luxury fashion anyway. Perhaps one of the most noted contemporary vault-guardians is David Casavant, the New York-based stylist whose archive has been modeled by the likes of Rihanna, Paul McCartney, and Kanye West. His archive largely comprises Raf Simons and Helmut Lang, with garments going back to the 80s. As Casavant told office magazine, “Clothes can hold so many more memories and emotions than other things. You can’t walk around wearing a photo album.” These archival items carry not only the legacy of the designer, then, but also texture of personal experience, of previous wearers, of cultural moments the clothes helped define or else enlivened. Being worn again, in a fresh context, they function as witness and evidence of those meanings, but also help produce new ones, keeping history alive—and looking covetable and unattainable on the red carpet, too.
The London-based Aro Archive collects in part to educate. The archive, which is wide ranging but has especially significant collections of Issey Miyake, Martin Margiela, and Yohji Yamamoto—who reportedly once requested the archive send him a rare coat he himself didn’t have. (He still doesn’t; Aro held on to it.) Visitors can take a look at their Hackney space, and items from the archive are pulled for photoshoots which reach a further public, too. When it comes to wearing the archive, Aro’s head of special projects Joseph Delaney said in Hypebeast this past spring that, “When you go to the V&A and there are these beautifully put together displays, you can’t touch that, and it serves its purpose. I feel like what we’re doing is the opposite, we’re offering a human element to it because you want to see it in the real world.” With London Fashion Week presentations, film screenings, as well as broader educational initiatives outside of fashion’s traditional hallowed halls, Aro Archive intends to use archival methods to create new access points for the public to fashion history.
Gaultier is another holy grail of the archival diehards. One of his most prominent collectors is Gonçalo Velosa, who began accumulating the iconoclastic couturier in the 1980s. “I am interested in the story behind the clothes, the life of their creators, the circumstances,” explained Velosa to Hero, noting that for him collecting began as a form of research. He also had to begin selling off pieces to acquire new ones, a process which has now blossomed into the shop House of Liza. (In 2019 he also partnered with Farfetch to sell archival Walter Van Beirendonck dating back to the 1990s.) And selling, though not in the strictest sense the keeping of an archive, is part of the broader ethos of keeping historical fashion alive for Velosa. “I definitely think the pieces should be worn. For me there’s nothing like seeing people on the street with a unique sense of style. Fashion has the power to convey so many messages.” Though he doesn’t want it all to wind up threadbare from too much love: “I also think it is important to preserve and conserve some of the most influential pieces so that future generations can have first-hand access to better understand the evolution of fashion and craftsmanship.” As is oft-repeated: You can’t understand the present without understanding how you got here.
So when it comes to clothes, why collect? For aficionados there’s the thrill of the chase, the pride of showing off, the ability to own and keep something rare and unrepeatable, and the keepsake-power and personal resonance garments often accrue. For designers there is the potential to look at the past for inspiration and manage their legacy, as well as new opportunities for making money off old clothes. For the public there’s a chance to have a transhistorical fashion education—whether hands-on, in the pages of magazines or books (Damiani released one with Cassavant in 2018, for example), or mediated by the screen, such as in films like those Aro has screened or on social media, like Clauss’s Instagram @thedigitalarchivist which shows in anti-Diet Prada tone how past styles echo into the now.
The archive resists the temporality of fashion’s seasons to say nothing of social-media-fueled high-velocity excess. As Cassavant put it in a 2019 Reddit AMA: “[Fashion] has become boring, as most fashion brands really have to have become merch brands to sell. I think on the contrary though that’s why the appreciation and market for vintage has become popular because it’s a way to discover unique clothes. I think the world of vintage fashion is now much more experimental and ahead of our time ironically than what is made in current fashion, so really current fashion is trying to play catch up.”
There’s also the environmental angle. There’s no way around it, making and selling more stuff isn’t sustainable. Many archivists—like vintage and resale diehards—know this. For Aro, for example, it’s not only that their sister store sells vintage that promotes sustainability. Runway shows, editorials, and outreach from the archive have shown the real value of pre-worn stuff. “We put on a Positive Fashion exhibition which was essentially about sustainability [through the use of pre-owned clothing], but a lot of people, particularly the public coming in, had a perception of sustainability that was so narrow and backward, that it was about upcycling and reworking,” Delaney told Hypebeast.
Archives and still-cutting-edge vintage challenge the overly-practical and underwhelming hippy-dippy, organic granola, and Etsycore aesthetics people often associate with “sustainable” clothing. This ecologically-minded notion is echoed by Clauss: “I love the attention people are paying to archives as a green idea—as a way of acting with social responsibility for the environment,” she explained. “Many people are thinking of their personal closets as their ‘archives,’ and I love how they have kind of come to represent the idea of investing in quality pieces that you truly love, and will last instead having a lot of throw away crap.”
“Archive” has shifted from describing just museum-level practice to personal closet and identity “curation”—a related word that too has felt a drift in meaning to the chagrin of many professionals. But this shift also comes with its own positives, such as an emphasis on reuse, an appreciation of history, and a commitment to taking care of the objects already in the world. The visibility of archival pieces in fashion media, on social, on stages, red carpets, and catwalks sends a message that valuing well-made, thoughtful clothes from the past that last is cool and can empower the expression of personal identity and taste. Similarly, the vintage or “archival” wearer often gets to feel less purchaser than participant, a devotee of fashion history, who is evidencing their personal knowledge and taste while also avoiding the worst of fashion environmental damage. In an era where time feels flattened, we could all do with adding a little care and context to the past.