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In Fashion, the Beauty (and Challenge) of Looking Back

By Alexander Fury

Photographed at the Palais Galliera fashion museum in Paris, a 1939 dress by Jeanne Lanvin (pictured above), and a pre-autumn 2017 look designed by former artistic director Bouchra Jarrar (right) in the same Bois Joli pattern. The museum is home to 60,000 articles of clothing and accessories, including Lanvin's archives, whose storage is kept at a chilly 64.4 degrees Fahrenheit (18 degrees Celsius).
 
Annabel Elston/ Enrico Pompili/ Valentina Cameranesi
Photographed at the Palais Galliera fashion museum in Paris, a 1939 dress by Jeanne Lanvin (pictured above), and a pre-autumn 2017 look designed by former artistic director Bouchra Jarrar (right) in the same Bois Joli pattern. The museum is home to 60,000 articles of clothing and accessories, including Lanvin's archives, whose storage is kept at a chilly 64.4 degrees Fahrenheit (18 degrees Celsius).

The archives of Balenciaga, the 100-year-old fashion house, are held in a raw concrete warehouse space in Paris. There are 6,000 items in total — sculptural silk ball gowns and cocoon-shaped coats and a tobacco-brown chenille-embroidered lace coat once owned by Wallis, Duchess of Windsor — all shrouded in calico garment bags. Especially delicate pieces are wrapped in acid-free tissue paper to protect against dust and moths and are laid to rest in cardboard boxes referred to in the business as ‘‘coffins’’. Balenciaga’s haute couture maison, formerly located on the Avenue George V, was a chapel dedicated to the worship of fashion as art; here, in its cavernous catalogue of designs past, the atmosphere is of a crypt — or even a shrine.

When I visited the archive in the spring of 2017, the debut Fall 2016 collection of Balenciaga’s latest artistic director, Demna Gvasalia, had just arrived. The conservation team, led by archive manager Gaspard de Massé, was unfolding the clothes while wearing white cotton gloves. (Acids from human skin erode the textiles.) These contemporary pieces, whose likenesses had barely departed store racks, are treated with as much reverence as a one-off couture gown by Cristóbal Balenciaga himself, who founded the house in 1917. In this space, these humble garments are transmogrified -— from contemporary clothing to preserved specimens. The archive team discusses how to stabilise specific pieces: for instance, by running threads from waist to hem to support dresses with unusually curved skirts, which threaten to buckle and distort if they’re not held in place. Those that can be laid flat, are — in one coffin, billows of tissue cosset one of Gvasalia’s evening dresses, a silver strapless style in a sequin-embroidered fabric created by the Swiss textile company Jakob Schlaepfer. Matching boots are stored in another room devoted to modern accessories. The Sisyphean task of the conservation team is to ensure Balenciaga’s clothing — past, present and future — survives, even as time conspires against it.

Annabel Elston/ Enrico Pompili/ Valentina CameranesiA keynote look from Christian Dior's debut collection for Spring 1947 was a day suit, Bar (left), a silhouette that has become a house classic. Maria Grazia Chiuri, Dior's artistic director for women's wear, interpreted the look as a vest and pleated trousers for her Autumn 2017 ready-to-wear collection, captured in the Dior Heritage archives off the Avenue Montaigne. Established in 1987 to coincide with an exhibition celebrating the brand's 40th anniversary, the Dior archive comprises some 9,840 pieces.
A keynote look from Christian Dior's debut collection for Spring 1947 was a day suit, Bar (left), a silhouette that has become a house classic. Maria Grazia Chiuri, Dior's artistic director for women's wear, interpreted the look as a vest and pleated trousers for her Autumn 2017 ready-to-wear collection, captured in the Dior Heritage archives off the Avenue Montaigne. Established in 1987 to coincide with an exhibition celebrating the brand's 40th anniversary, the Dior archive comprises some 9,840 pieces.

Paris is a city where history has always been hallowed — perhaps more so than the present — and where the oldest (and many of the largest) fashion empires are based. Rituals like Balenciaga’s are undertaken by fashion brands across the world, but the archives of Parisian houses are especially sacrosanct. Some are stored in actual museums — Lanvin’s archives reside at the Palais Galliera, the fashion museum formally known as the Musée de la mode de la Ville de Paris. Others seem to be: Off the Avenue Montaigne, in the archive of Christian Dior, a handful of dresses dating back to 1947 (Dior’s debut) are displayed in temperature-controlled vitrines, exhibiting the label’s heritage.

In an industry whose catalyst is relentless novelty and perpetual newness, this zealous reverence for bygone fashions seems incongruous. While these archives — cold and dark, with their shrouds and cardboard ‘‘coffins’’ — may resemble repositories for the dead, the pieces catalogued inside are anything but. Despite the near-religious fervour devoted to their preservation, past styles aren’t viewed by brands as relics, but rather as the foundation for future creations.

These days, the archive is the petri dish for designs of the future. History in the hands of these houses has become a valuable, marketable commodity to build upon, cultural capital that can’t be bought. This past winter, the Fall 2017 collections in Paris were distinguished by each house’s attention to their native silhouettes, tropes and trademarks. Saint Laurent’s Anthony Vaccarello veiled breasts with a panel of gauze in a velvet dress that originated in an identical style in Yves Saint Laurent’s Fall 1992 haute couture collection; Julien Dossena of Paco Rabanne used that label’s still-futuristic-looking metal mesh alongside chain-linked constructions directly drawn from 1967 designs; and Maria Grazia Chiuri riffed on Christian Dior’s penchant for navy blue, offering another iteration of the label’s signature curvaceous suit jacket. (It was named Bar in 1947, and still is today.) Finally, Demna Gvasalia’s Balenciaga women’s wear show made the ultimate statement — he rejected the contemporary entirely and closed with nine gowns that recreated looks, in their entirety, from ’30s and ’40s Balenciaga collections. Ghosts, resurrected.

Annabel Elston/ Enrico Pompili/ Valentina CameranesiPaco Rabanne introduced chain mail to fashion in the 1960s, with construction techniques of chain links and plates that rejected traditional seams. Here, that trademark material is used by artistic director Julien Dosenna in a gown for Autumn 2017 (right), with a piecing technique originally used on a shift from the house's collection circa Spring '67 (left).
Paco Rabanne introduced chain mail to fashion in the 1960s, with construction techniques of chain links and plates that rejected traditional seams. Here, that trademark material is used by artistic director Julien Dosenna in a gown for Autumn 2017 (right), with a piecing technique originally used on a shift from the house's collection circa Spring '67 (left).

It’s significant to note that the above designers are creating clothing under someone else’s name, for labels collectively dubbed ‘‘heritage brands’’. Purchasing their goods as a consumer — or as a luxury-goods conglomerate — is to buy into their history. These houses don’t plea for recognition; they have already earned it. Familiarity, in fashion, breeds not contempt, but contentment.
If customers are familiar with a name, they’re more likely to invest in it than in an obscure up-and-coming brand. Immediate recognition is the reason conglomerates overwhelmingly choose pre-existing fashion labels as vehicles for young talent instead of backing new ventures. 

Karl Lagerfeld was arguably the first to revive an age-old, old-age designer label when he was appointed artistic director of Chanel in 1982. Lagerfeld produced styles that immediately read as Chanel, trading on classic components of Gabrielle Chanel’s repertoire: bouclé tweed suiting, pearls, chains, camellias. ‘‘There would be no Chanel without the history of Chanel. I don’t have to do it consciously, I do it unconsciously,’’ says Lagerfeld, via email. It’s an interesting turn of phrase; perhaps he means to say that he doesn’t have to try to be Chanel because Chanel’s style is so expansive — she invented an entire wardrobe, from the little black dress to the chain-strapped purse to the two-tone shoe. ‘‘There are lots of things people think are native to the house which are born since I’m here,” Lagerfeld says. ‘‘My job is to make believe. There is no other way for a fashion house to survive.’’

Lagerfeld’s wildly successful echoing of Chanel’s history has become the blueprint for labels across the world. Today, designers use archival styles to anchor their individual aesthetics to a brand’s past. You may not recognise Maria Grazia Chiuri’s name immediately, for instance, but you recognise the name and look of Dior in her designs for the house — the wasp-waisted Bar jacket, the wide-spread skirts. The same goes for Paco Rabanne: Julien Dossena is a designer name that resonates mostly among industry insiders, but everyone remembers the house’s chain-mail dresses from ‘‘Barbarella’’ — ‘‘or Jane Birkin, or Françoise Hardy,’’ adds Dossena. All of them, and in turn Paco Rabanne itself, have become synonymous with ’60s Space Age style. In a crowded and confused modern marketplace, immediate recognition — Coco! Bar! Barbarella! — is as good as gold. 

From a business perspective, this approach makes sense. But it raises larger creative and cultural questions: namely, who owns history? Does a designer operating under a label founded
by another have license to resurrect its forebear’s history for inspiration? It often results in little that is truly, genuinely new. But maybe, right now, we’re not craving something new, but something honest. Some labels will reissue designs with minimal changes, if any — Chanel, for instance, offers multiple versions of the 2.55, the quilted, chain-strapped bag originally designed by Gabrielle Chanel in 1955. Perhaps this is a reflection of a global appetite for vintage, for an authenticity that we believe can only be found in the past. 

Annabel Elston/ Enrico Pompili/ Valentina CameranesiOn the mirrored staircase leading to Chanel's couture salons at 31 Rue Cambon – designated a historic monument by the French Ministry of Culture – one of Gabrielle Chanel's signature black dresses, from Autumn 1954 haute couture (left), stands next to a look it inspired from Karl Lagerfeld's Autumn 2017 haute couture collection (right). Chanel's archive, in the northeastern suburbs of Paris in Pantin, employs around 15 people and contains more than 50,000 pieces.
On the mirrored staircase leading to Chanel's couture salons at 31 Rue Cambon – designated a historic monument by the French Ministry of Culture – one of Gabrielle Chanel's signature black dresses, from Autumn 1954 haute couture (left), stands next to a look it inspired from Karl Lagerfeld's Autumn 2017 haute couture collection (right). Chanel's archive, in the northeastern suburbs of Paris in Pantin, employs around 15 people and contains more than 50,000 pieces.

But maybe backward-glancing isn’t a product of the ideological or philosophical ramifications of our time — a quest for the genuine article — but rather a more practical matter of supply and demand, a need for speed. Fashion designers typically produce four collections a season (bolstered by multiple interim commercial collections), some designing for two or more different labels. (Gvasalia has Vetements, Lagerfeld his namesake line and the co-creative director role at Fendi.) Cribbing from an existing style sheet is an easy fix for an industry demanding ever more from its designers, a practice that’s been employed with increasing frequency since the early 1990s, when journalists began to freely throw around the term ‘‘revival’’ to describe various designers’ close recreations of vintage styles. In the same period, the market for vintage clothing exploded — another example of that thirst for authenticity and, perhaps, a rebellion against fashion’s built-in obsolescence.

But what are the ethics of referencing existing clothing so closely, even if the same label is stitched on the inside? The revival styles we are seeing now are often line-for-line recreations, not mere interpretations. It’s largely accepted that a fashion house can freely reference its own past; the name gives designers license, and the physical archives give them access to templates from which to work. ‘‘If you want to know a brand, you have to know the history,’’ Dior’s Chiuri says. ‘‘I really decided immediately, when I arrived here a year ago, that it is like I am a curator for [Dior’s] heritage. And on the other side, I try to give my point of view.’’

In truth, it’s a delicate balance. Ironically, the strength of a house’s archive (and its worth) can only be measured by the merits of its contemporary designer. Chiuri uses the term ‘‘curator’’, a word many designers invoke to describe the somewhat uneasy relationship between present and past in their work. Part of their role, at these kinds of brands, is to provide a new point of view on a well-established aesthetic — to reinvent (or at least modernise) the wheel. Designers are tasked with getting the press and consumers excited about something they might have seen many times before.

But does looking back satisfy a designer’s artistic urge to create something new? ‘‘If you think too much about Mr. Saint Laurent, I think the weight is very heavy and you cannot do anything,’’ Anthony Vaccarello says. ‘‘It’s too ‘homage’, too old.’’ Vaccarello’s approach has been to collage elements from different Saint Laurent looks — his redux of that 1992 dress, for instance, collided the bodice with a miniskirt in the style Saint Laurent showed in the 1960s, rather than copying the full-length original. He remixes, instead of creating faithful reproductions. ‘‘It’s normal for me to live with a huge history because I was born in Rome,’’ Chiuri says. ‘‘I love the archives, I love history, I love memory, but I’m not nostalgic. I want to use that now.’’ Her collections do in fact reference particular Dior styles — her Fall 2017 couture collection alluded to specific Dior dresses from every year between the founding of the house in 1947 and 1957, the year Christian Dior died. At its best, archival reference like Chiuri’s intrinsically connects the new with the old, weaving a seamless story that can constantly evolve.

Annabel Elston/ Enrico Pompili/ Valentina CameranesiIn Balenciaga's archives, garments by the house's founder, Cristóbal Balenciaga, are shrouded in white calico garment bags to differentiate, at first glance, from the clothing created by his 21st-century successors – Nicolas Ghesquière, Alexander Wang and Demna Gvasalia – whose creations are encased in black. At right, a look from Gvasalia's Autumn 2017 collection references a floral print from the Spring 1964 haute couture collection. The original survives in the archive as a sheath dress and ruffled stole (left).
In Balenciaga's archives, garments by the house's founder, Cristóbal Balenciaga, are shrouded in white calico garment bags to differentiate, at first glance, from the clothing created by his 21st-century successors – Nicolas Ghesquière, Alexander Wang and Demna Gvasalia – whose creations are encased in black. At right, a look from Gvasalia's Autumn 2017 collection references a floral print from the Spring 1964 haute couture collection. The original survives in the archive as a sheath dress and ruffled stole (left).

This isn’t necessarily the case for all French heritage houses; the Balmain label, established in 1945, has been revived with only spurious connection to the historical style of founder Pierre Balmain, a lesser-known contemporary of Christian Dior. His look was conservative and decorative — the latter, perhaps, the only link to its contemporary incarnation helmed by Olivier Rousteing, whose trademark is his love of elaborate embellishment. Louis Vuitton had no background in clothing prior to the appointment of Marc Jacobs as its artistic director in 1997; as inspiration for his garments, Nicolas Ghesquière references Vuitton’s past as a luggage-maker — an idea the house will celebrate with an exhibition next month in N.Y.C. dedicated to its heritage — as well as the label’s excellence in leather goods and its abstract notions of functionality.

Respect for history is important, but when respect becomes reverence, it can prove paralysing. To chart fashion’s major shifts over the past century is to observe creators at odds with the past. The rejection of pre-existing styles is almost a prerequisite for creating something new and noteworthy. Even Dior’s 1947 debut, a collection firmly based in nostalgic notions of femininity rife with Victorian silhouettes and techniques, represented a break with the fashion that had immediately preceded it: the wartime style of short skirts and squared shoulders. Forever after, it came to be known as the New Look. The same is true of Gabrielle Chanel’s little black dress in the 1920s and the anarchic, aggressive styles of punk. They were all new, back then.

But those were moments that reset aesthetics, notions of luxury and beauty ideals. These happenings are few and far between, and it’s unreasonable to imagine that fashion will throw up many more. Nevertheless, history should not (and cannot) be abandoned. It can act as a Trojan horse, a disguise for radical upheavals, for fresh revolutions. Old tags can hide new tricks — or new looks, to borrow the parlance of Maison Dior. Take Demna Gvasalia: He described his Fall Balenciaga collection as an ‘‘homage’’, but he also likened it to a rite of passage. ‘‘I need to prove that I can come into a house and not just start blatantly building my story without knowing them,’’ he says, ‘‘them’’, meaning the archives. ‘‘I know that Cristóbal would probably roll his eyes at many of the things I do, but I feel the freedom now to do my own story.’’