Fashion evolves much like nature. There are cycles of change, and evolution occurs over time. There is as much variety among designers as there are between types of flowers. Designers are able to maintain a recognizable brand identity because they draw on concepts and specialties that were developed in the past. A fashion archive allows designers to reference past creations. A well-done archive acts as a garment library, where designers can literally reference past ideas, construction techniques, and the use of fabrics in clothing.
Fashion archives are especially useful for design and styling inspiration. Most major design houses maintain an archive of all their designs. When I was in graduate school, I worked in the Calvin Klein archives. This archive was massive. There were so many garments, starting from the late 1960s to present day. Every runway ensemble, every sample, and just about anything that had been put into production was in the archive. There were thousands of pieces, all of which had to be put into an order.
It was a massive project, and there were several women from the graduate program working to make the archive organized and accessible to the design team. I can only imagine how massive the fashion archives for Lanvin or Chanel must be. These are couture houses that have been in operation for a much longer span of time.
Fashion archives are not limited to design houses. Many museums have garment and textile collections. These institutions try to collect iconic garments that highlight technical expertise or illustrate a narrative about the past. Museum exhibitions that showcase garments and textiles have been growing in popularity in recent years. Critics have argued that these shows place “fluff over fine art”, but crowds respond to these exhibits because they place history and creativity in tangible forms.
Working on The Stieg Collection really reinforces the importance of a fashion archive for me. I’m constantly amazed by the expert craftsmanship and quality of material. Since the collection spans from 1958 to 1968, the textile prints are colorful and use lots of floral motifs. It’s become impossible for me not to notice subtle details in clothing when I shop. Clothing today is very rarely made with this level of quality. I’ve also noticed that the collection has started to influence my own personal style. I’ve been gravitating towards dresses and shirts with colorful prints, like this sheath dress above. It looks a lot like the dress I’m wearing today, don’t you think?
All images (except the photo of me) are details from The Stieg Collection, courtesy of The Baum School of Art.