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For Brands Big and Small, Fashion Archives Can Be a Powerful Asset

Fashion brands, both emerging and established, have been investing significant resources in building and maintaining their archives. BoF investigates.
Fashion archivist Julie Ann Orsini at work in Jason Wu's studio | Source: Courtesy
By
  • Lauren Sherman

NEW YORK, United States — Julie Ann Orsini was a fashion history graduate student at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York when she "fell into" the world of fashion archiving. Her first major client was Tom Ford, where she worked in-house for three years before launching her own consulting firm specialising in fashion archiving.

Ford is a client and she still spends a good deal of her time maintaining and adding to his archive. Orsini has also worked with Jason Wu, Proenza Schouler and Ralph Rucci, as well as Lisa Perry, who keeps her valuable 1960s vintage collection alongside an archive of her own line of mod shift dresses in a climate-controlled room in the Manhattan penthouse she shares with her husband, Richard C Perry.

Fifteen years ago, Orsini’s job didn’t really exist. It wasn’t until the 1980s that fashion brands started to take the idea of archiving their collections seriously. Dior’s archive, for instance, was first created when the brand began preparing for its 40th anniversary exhibition, which took place at the Musée des Arts Decoratifs in Paris in 1987.

"The whole notion of collecting your archive is a fairly new one," said Hamish Bowles, international editor-at-large for American Vogue. "Everything you produced for the runway you wanted to sell. The couture houses would hold sales [of fashion collections from previous seasons] for their favourite clients. The idea was to get rid of everything."

Yves Saint Laurent was the first designer to realise the value of maintaining an archive and he kept his couture pieces from the very beginning. "He would fight with the clients who wanted the pieces. Thank god he did that," continued Bowles, who also maintains his own personal archive of about 3,500 pieces, including early works by John Galliano and pieces by Dior, Balenciaga, Chanel, Schiaparelli — even Charles Frederick Worth.

Today, maintaining the Dior archives — which contains approximately 4,000 garments, thousands of accessories, original sketches, and press releases dating back to the first collection — is a major operation. According to Soizic Pfaf, who manages the brand’s archives, Dior’s storage rooms follow the International Council of Museum’s strict guidelines on preservation: no daylight, humidity kept between 45 and 50 percent, temperature kept between 18 and 20 degrees Celsius. And indeed, for a major brand like Dior, archiving can be as extensive — and costly — as running a museum.

“Maintaining an archive can cost as little as $10,000 a year and can go into the six or seven figures,” Orsini said.  But for brands, both established and emerging, it’s increasingly seen to be an important investment, because building an archive can have real strategic value.

“Properly maintaining an archive ensures that [designers and brands] have their body of work on hand and in good condition should they wish to use it for exhibitions, books, reference, advertising, celebrity dressing,” Orsini said. “In essence, it can be tapped for any number of projects that bring awareness to the brand. It’s a very valuable asset.”

“It’s difficult, but ultimately it’s extremely important,” added Bowles. “When a brand becomes global and a designer is managing a huge team, [archives] are needed for referencing. They are very, very useful to get a sense of your brand’s DNA.”

Fortunately for Ralph Rucci, the American designer began archiving pieces from the very start. Rucci, who worked at Halston before launching his own collection in the early 1980s, believed from the beginning that it was important to create “an overview of his body of work,” said the designer’s sister and spokesperson, Rosina Rucci. His pieces have since been displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

Perry, who launched her namesake label in 2006, decided on day one to archive her collection — of both vintage and Lisa Perry ready-to-wear pieces — and right now stores about 250 garments in what used to be the guest room of her apartment. Almost every vintage piece dates from 1966 to 1969.

“My brand started because of my vintage collection, so it’s important for me to be able to see it and bring the archive catalogs to my design studio to share with my team,” said Perry, who still wears many of her vintage pieces, although the Andy Warhol Campbell’s Soup paper dress and other highly valuable dresses stay put.

While not every emerging brand will be able to justify the investment required to build and maintain an archive like Perry’s, there seems to be a growing case for doing so.

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