Archival Fashion: What the fuck is it?
Unless you've been living under a rock, you've probably heard someone, somewhere, use the word “Archival” when describing their latest pick up or grail. Whether you read this word with excitement or an eyeroll, there is no denying the fascination with archival clothing within the menswear community at large is growing fast. With figureheads like David Casavant and the Grailed.com team championing and popularizing archival clothing, there is little reason to think this trend (and I hesitate to call it a trend) in menswear isn't going anywhere soon.
“But what does “Archival” even mean?” You might ask. Well, in a way that’s the point, but if you want to get literal, a piece of clothing can be defined as “Archival” if it is of a certain age or from a certain collection. The exact age/collection requirement depends on the label or the designer in question, and the rules in this world are more like guidelines; completely dependent on the community of collectors and fashion stans.
Perhaps the best way to understand “Archival Clothing” is to understand why it's so special, why it's been getting so much attention, and demanding such insane price tags. Archival clothing is all about experiencing a time in fashion when things were a little more exclusive. An era of short runs, runway samples, small factories and interns making things by hand and the (im)perfection that comes with that. A time before fit pics and streetstyle, and in some cases, before internet. Before fast fashion, bloggers and all those things that made Fashion with a capital F as democratic as it is today. The allure behind the archive is that there is just as much mystery as there is information.
Sure, anyone can go online and try their best to make out the details on a specific blazer from Raf Simons’ A/W 1998 collection in those grainy ass videos, or scour tumblr for old Issey Miyake magazine advertisements, but those pieces only comprise a fraction of, and in some cases aren’t even included in, the items that actually got made that year. The fact is, there are probably very, very few people out there that can accurately assess what pieces are out there by these legendary designers, let alone how many there are or where to find them. You might fancy yourself a fan of Helmut Lang’s work, but you’re still liable to run into a piece online that you've never seen before.
Beyond the intrigue of the unknown, archival pieces are coveted for the sheer level of design that went into their conception. I won’t get into a debate about fashion from the past vs the new stuff (in terms of “quality” or whatever), but there is no denying that the 70s, 80s and 90s had their fair share of master tailors, visionaries and runway superstars. Before you had droves of teens fawning over Rick Owens and Raf Simons (thanks A$AP), Yves Saint Laurent, Giorgio Armani and Helmut Lang had their chance to change the game. When you extend your gaze to include an entire decade (or two) rather than just looking at the latest thing at Barney’s, you’ll experience the best clothing that fashion has to offer. Of course names like Raf Simons, Helmut Lang, Yohji Yamamoto and Margiela come to mind right away, but you shouldn’t count out designers in the menswear old guard that may have fallen out of the usual pantheon; Designers like Dolce & Gabbana, Jean Paul Gaultier, Issey Miyake and John Galliano, to name a few. Just look at this Parachute Jacket by Dolce and Gabbana from a day when their menswear was setting shit on fire instead of consisting of garbage polos and 2 for 1 deals at Marshalls. These designers are household names for a reason, and these pieces are a monument to their skill.
The world of archival fashion will introduce you to designs that might not even be possible today. I’ll run the risk of sounding like a fucking lame and point out that fashion has become increasingly corporate as of late. Not that that’s necessarily good or bad, but it does mean designers are encouraged to design in ways that can be made mass, that can be produced cheaply and easily (relatively speaking) and thus things like hand painted Margielas are a thing of the past. The level of detail in some pieces is staggering, from harness straps that let you wear your Lang coat like a backpack, to blood stained Dior Jeans, to a lock of hair included in McQueen labels. Shareholders and production pipelines just don’t really allow for this sort of meticulousness anymore, and is at least part of the reason Jil Sander, Ann Demeulemeester and Helmut Lang eventually abandoned their label. Collecting pieces from this era give us a chance to experience the artistic freedom that those designers enjoyed. For example, there are more variations of Lang’s legendary AW 1999 Astro Biker than than you’d ever find of a piece being released today (and they were all released in one year, at that). There are the more common versions that anyone even slightly versed in the archival fashion world would recognize, and then there are those that might very well be 1 of 5, if not one of a kind. I’ve seen them made from cotton, silk, painted leather, and whatever that ballistic shit is (to name a few). They come in jacket and parka length, and in a variety of colors and levels of detail; from hyper minimal to tricked the fuck out. I have no doubt that I have yet to see them all, and that alone is exciting.
You’ll often see pieces hailed as “a part of fashion history” (another eye-roller for some), and you do really get that sense in some of these pieces. This wool coat, for example, from Hedi Slimane’s A/W 2003 “Luster” collection for Dior Homme is the great great granddad of countless knockoffs that have been made by countless brands since then, including the ones that Hedi now makes at Saint Laurent. But this collection, and this coat, also helped move men's fashion away from its fascination with the muscular towards the razor thin silhouette that you can thank for all those ripped jean crotches; and I wouldn't trade mine for the world (sorry for the not so subtle flex). As a collector myself, I can certainly attest to the clothes living up to at least some of the hype. If you’re a serious fashion nerd, then there’s a real sense that clothes are like artifacts of their age. I liken the feeling to that of an art collector, but the experience of “building an archive” is whatever you decide to make it.
That isn't to say that the golden age of fashion is behind us. There are plenty of extremely talented designers in the industry today, that are sending garments down the runway that will be important to the world of fashion for years to come. Designers like Dries Van Noten, Craig Green, Juun J, and Thom Browne are busy changing the way we see menswear, and legends like Rick Owens, Raf Simons and Yohji Yamamoto are still at it, too. So don’t stop looking forward, don’t stop getting hype off that new shit, and don’t sell your favorite jawnz just to get ahold of whatever Grailed.com posted on their Instagram last week. Just like the rest of fashion, what is considered “Archival” is always changing. Who knows, maybe that stupid shark shirt will be in a museum one day.