Fashion objects perish along with the memory of their creation. Commercial fashion archives work to preserve and consign these objects to positions of significance in fashion history, while functioning as an almanac of design influence and trajectory. Archivists research, collect and resell garments along with the narratives that give them meaning. This work allows archival fashion objects to become documents of their own histories without betraying the garment’s intended function, which is to be bought and worn. Like galleries and museums, fashion archivists take on an authorial position, filtering (re)presentations of fashion through their own researched perspective. The capacity the commercial archive has to arouse and elevate the status of the past collections of designers has driven the current demand for both archival garments and the ‘archival aesthetic.’

Commercial archivists, galleries and museums take varying positions of assumed authority in regard to the representation of fashion objects. Their practices are as much about presenting fashion objects according to a certain order as they are about preserving them. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2017 exhibition Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between presented the Comme des Garçons archive in a way that emphasised interstices in Kawakubo’s work in accord with the curatorial theme. Whereas the independent fashion archive ENDYMA—which holds a position of authority for having amassed the world’s largest Helmut Lang archive—presents Helmut Lang garments for sale online with detailed art-history-like descriptions. The extra details draw attention to the function that individual pieces have in Lang’s oeuvre. Fashion objects are synchronised in archives to reveal a unified ideal that a curator or archivist wants to promote.

The interpretation and experience of fashion objects is impacted by the way they are ordered and how they are presented. For instance, Carol Christian Poell’s Public Freedom (2001)—a video that presents models behind the prison-like bars of an animal shelter—enunciates the conceptual basis of Poell’s practice. In this iteration, his work engages the lexicon of contemporary performance, rather than that of the conventional runway. Fabric, sartorial lines, garment construction (effectively, the physical elements of his objects) are ancillary to Public Freedom, which stages crisis and constriction of the body. Public Freedom has a presence as a work in itself. This presentation lends itself to readings like: Human death is an present absence, while animal death is an absent presence; the models are contained like shelter animals awaiting euthanasia and the looping track of dogs barking off-screen is heard as a lament for the animal hides Poell has turned into leather. It is only through a deeper reading of Poell’s practice that the viewer can arrive at his garments which, seen through the video, are underscored by fabric experimentation and treatment, the way texture mutes and accentuates form and the way clothing negates the body.

The interface between fashion objects and their presentation (runway/video/archive) turns the actual garments into metaphorical ‘texts.’ The atmosphere that surrounds a garment or collection cannot always be experienced first-hand by consumers or archivists. A Kostas Murkudis T-shirt unwittingly purchased has less meaning than the same T-shirt purchased alongside detailed information about his role as a design assistant to Helmut Lang before he started his own label in 1996. This description alludes to the excitement that may have been present as the former Helmut Lang designer launched his own collection. The narratives of garments always exceed the objects themselves. It is through archivists collecting and presenting fashion objects alongside their narratives that they are imbued with significance; they become the protagonists in their own sartorial stories. In course, this influences the reception and sales of garments.

While archivists, curators and museums play similar roles in anthologising, surveying and re-presenting fashion history, the level of access they grant to the public varies, along with their ability to preserve garments. Clothing textiles have a limited lifespan, even in an environment ideal for their preservation. Institutions that have the resources to properly preserve garments also tend to provide the least access to these garments: Looking at a Raf Simons’ “Consumed” bomber or a Vivienne Westwood Seditionaries T-shirt behind glass in a controlled climate places the garment outside of its empirical function, which obviously is to be worn on the body. Whereas the commercial archivist that relies on selling or renting garments to the public for sustainability—honoring the functionality of the objects—cannot guarantee the preservation of garments that they pour immeasurable time into researching and restoring.

The value of fashion objects increases over time because they’re perishable. Value and timing are coactive influences on how and what garments are archived and preserved. For a garment to be worth collecting in a commercial archive it needs to have distance from the present. Ideally, it should have a historical significance that is seemingly at the threshold of being lost.

A perceptive archivist can gather objects that are yet to be legitimised as archival or collectable and legitimise them through the authority that their archive publicly holds. This requires concerted labor that is transferred onto the garments through detailed historical description, like those available on the independent commercial archive Arbitrage NYC.

The recirculation of fashion objects by archivists does more than simply sustain a business model; it provides an almanac of influence. Clothing production technology makes it increasingly easy to reproduce existing designs. The oft-dissected runway copies proliferated by Zara and H&M are good examples. Identifying emulation is complicated however, when designs from the past are reproduced. With the cultivation of archival style, these issues are further compounded by labels that riff on or re-release their own archival designs. For example, take the Raf Simons Spring/Summer 2018 collection, which uses iconic Peter Saville Joy Division/The New Order graphics in a similar way to his Fall/Winter 2003 collection. Helmut Lang Re-Edition’s reproduction of iconic Helmut Lang pieces fits in this category as well.

In this environment the archive becomes an index to design origins and simultaneously influences the reproduction of original designs. Publically accessible archives establish authority, tracing the trajectories of influence and emulation, like the lineage from Margiela’s Artisanal Reworked Jeans. That item alone has seen iterations from Takahiromiyashita The Soloist., Rebuild by Needles and Vetements. This arc demonstrates the influence of Margiela and fashion history on contemporary design (in other words, Margiela’s work has borne itself out to be “archival”). At the same time, these designers are also drawing on the popular influence of the archival aesthetic. The particular allure of the Margiela-style “Reworked” pieces is that they have an appearance of being distressed and aged that resonates with the archival aesthetic.

The aesthetic of the archive has become such a style in and of itself that designers seek to reproduce it in clothing that is released today. The most salient example of this is Helmut Lang Re-Edition, which attempts to directly compete with archival Helmut Lang pieces by producing ready-made ‘archive objects’, rather than producing garments that look distressed by age or allude to iconic pieces. These newly created items are practically 1-to-1 rebuilds of the notable archive clothing.

The way a fashion object is presented and preserved influences its reception. While the memory of a collection’s original atmosphere fades like the dyed fabric of the garments, it is this risk of disintegration that makes archived garments valuable. The difference between interacting with a fashion object in a gallery or museum and a commercial archive is that the archive markets the experiential nature of the object’s history by prioritizing its intended use over its preservation. Regardless of which approach you approve of, these avenues are mainly catering to fashion fans, historians and collectors.

But if a brand is busy diving into archives of its previously-successful design work to influence that produced in the present, the effect is two-fold. In one way, the effort gives new life to collections that may have been forgotten to the ceaseless cycle of seasonal collections. In an another, digging up past work can dilute the original intent, importance and context of the first work.

With that in mind, the question emerges: When brands are reproducing influential pieces for today’s consumer—knowing full well that pieces from the brand’s past might be as much as, if not more, relevant—does that devalue or contort the value of the OG garment?

Perhaps, it’s really just about the presentation.

Tags: carol-christian-poell, helmut-lang, raf-simons