Archives and Fashion: Manila is the New Black

Imagine if all collections were valued the way Condé Nast values its archives? An archival collection occupying real estate on the 15th floor of One World Trade Centre in Manhattan? Take that, dusty basement stereotypes! Of course, the difference is the marketability of the material. I don’t suppose anyone is interested in a t-shirt with local government meeting minutes printed on it. But sporting a crew neck with the first cover of Vogue from 1892? There’s money to be made there. Until recently, the Condé Nast archival team has prioritized preservation, however, the decline in print advertising sales has forced the company to explore new uses for its valuable archives.

The public servant in me takes issue with the fact that most of the world’s archival fashion collections are proprietary and not available to the public (take for instance the incredible Design Library, which houses patterns and textiles from the mid 18th century to the present, but exists as a business that licenses and sells to designers). Commercialism aside, I do still admire the fashion industry’s commitment to preserving the past.

Fashion is as much backwards looking as it is forwards. Much as I lament the return of certain fashion trends from the era of my childhood (no one pulled off the choker necklace in the ’90s and they aren’t pulling them off now), I am impressed by fashion’s commitment to preserving its history and using it as inspiration for the future. Top fashion houses are increasingly committing substantial resources to maintaining their archives. Yves St Laurent has maintained an archives since the beginning. Dior began its archives with a view to celebrating the house’s 40th anniversary. Tom Ford employs in-house archivists to catalogue and preserve his designs.

It helps that fashion archives serve as perfect marketing fodder. Take for instance, Burberry’s 2016 foray into film-making, which used the company’s archival records as inspiration to tell the story of its founder, Thomas Burberry.

 

 

The accompanying website shows how the cinematic scenes were inspired by the company’s archival collections.

Screenshot from https://ca.burberry.com/our-history/
Screenshot from https://ca.burberry.com/our-history/

 

No cardigans here!

To add to the list of enviable archival jobs (I’m looking at you Pixar archivist!), people like Julie Ann Orsini have made it their life’s work to preserve the archives of major fashion houses. Hers is a pretty enviable path that I’m sure looks immensely glamorous to archivists who are elbow deep in acid-free folders. She has found a fabulous niche career and has helped advise the likes of Tom Ford and Calvin Klein on how to preserve their valuable pieces. Julie has explained in an interview, that “no one [was] really doing this for designers — treating their archives the way people treat artist’s archives. When in fact, clothing and textiles are even more sensitive to the environment than canvases or sculptural art. So I was thinking there is so much history here that needs to be preserved.” She identified a potential career path and created The Wardrobe, a consulting firm that helps “clients with every aspect of collection management, from proper storage and maintenance, to collection research and dating, catalogue creation, and acquisitions and divestments.”

Fashion archiving in British Columbia – Interview with Taryn Day

Here in British Columbia, active-wear giant Lululemon wanted to keep a record of all of the garments it designed and produced. To this end, the company formed an archives department and over the past few years has employed an MAS graduate from the University of British Columbia. Lululemon’s Sample Librarian and Archivist Taryn Day was kind enough to answer a few questions about the work that she does and how she employs archival theory in this different context.

Can you describe your archives?

The lululemon T.O.P. archives represents the design and development history of lululemon in the form of physical garment samples and their individual parts (i.e. trims, fabric, etc.) from the beginning of the design cycle in 1998 until present day. T.O.P. stands for Top of Production – this means that all samples held in the archives are first off from the production line at the factory. This ensures that the samples we receive for the archives are whole and complete – and are representative of the finished garments hitting stores that season.

We have over 50,000 individual records in the archives space – which takes up approximately 2500sq. ft. I always love sharing the most interesting pieces in our archives – which were just newly acquired in the last 6 months. Lululemon designed the women’s and men’s team Canada beach volleyball kits for the 2016 Rio Olympics and we have the only additional set of uniforms not given to the athletes.

What makes your archives different from a more traditional repository?

The records themselves. The TOP archives holds only garment records – we don’t have photographic, documentary or cartographic records.  Because we keep all of our records fully accessible (on hangers on racks) – the space we occupy is significantly larger than most archives even though we only have 17 years worth of records. We are also a fairly young company – only 17 years old – so our archives only dates back to 1999 which is rare! We also allow users to borrow records from the archives and bring them to meetings, workshops and design sessions. Though not ideal – it is imperative to our business to be able to reference these pieces so requiring them to remain in the archives would not be beneficial.

How are you able to use the archival theory you learned in the context of your archives?

I found it extremely easy to adapt archival theory to the context of the T.O.P. archives. Regardless of the physical appearance of the record – they still need to be arranged and described. My approach to arrangement and description centres largely on the needs of the user of the archives rather than the records themselves, however. For example – conceptually, a fonds for the T.O.P. archives would be a design unit by season (i.e. all samples that were designed and developed for the summer 2016 season). However, user needs dictate that the archives be arranged first by class (i.e. pants, crop, tanks) and then design unit season within that class. Retention schedules and appraisal are incredibly important as well due to space restrictions. I have developed retention schedules for all categories of sample in order to ensure that the T.O.P. samples reaching the archives are only the ones that need to be there. I was also able to quite easily apply diplomatics to the records and used that to illustrate the value of the T.O.P. archives to senior executives.

Who are your users? And how do they use the items preserved in your archives?

The archives is used for so many different reasons by a large cross functional group at the lululemon store support centre (SSC). It’s used for reference of styles that we’re going to re-create in an upcoming season, they’re used to show the progression and innovation of specific styles, they’re used for inspiration in creating the next great piece of athletic apparel. We also are used by our legal department in order to prove copyright and by our brand department in order to do promotional pieces about the history of lululemon. We truly couldn’t be innovative in our business without learning from our past successes and failures. I receive hundreds of requests per week for samples to be used and have several visits to the archives per day, sometimes of entire departments doing an inspiration meeting and needing to look into the past to innovate for the future. It’s also important to note that due to legal reasons we are only allowed internal visitors to the archives – only permanent employees are allowed to visit and borrow from the archives.

Do you do any type of outreach? If yes, what kinds of initiatives?

When I initially started 2 and a half years ago – the archives wasn’t being used to its potential. I made it a goal of mine to increase use of the archives through four key pillars: awareness, engagement, ease of use and excitement (more about each of these also included on the conference poster – see below). I frequently join cross-functional and departmental meetings to share what we are up to at the archives. I hold orientations and training for new employees who will be using the archives as a key part of their role, and I hold tours for groups who want to learn more about the archives but won’t necessarily be using the records for their work. I also consistently touch base with my archives super-users – who act as internal promoters of the archives within their teams. At lululemon, we encourage making big audacious goals that may seem unreachable, and one of my big goals right now is by 2018, every member of our Vancouver SSC knows about the archives, and by 2020, every member of our Vancouver SSC has visited the archives.

Anything else you would like to add about your job?

I have an incredible job and I love being able to share about it! It’s incredible to think that when the company first started – the founders had the foresight to keep one of everything that we have ever designed. A lot of clothing companies don’t keep a full archives – but we are lucky here at lululemon that we knew the importance of documenting the history of the brand right from the very beginning!

 

Taryn presented her work in the poster session at the ACA Annual Conference 2015 in Regina, Saskatchewan
Taryn presented her work in the poster session at the 2015 ACA Annual Conference in Regina, Saskatchewan (used with the author’s permission)

 

Here begins my archival t-shirt empire!

What if we all thought of our collections as having value like the great fashion houses view their priceless collections? How could our records inspire creativity to bridge the divide between past and present?

Also- how great would it be to work in an Archives on the 15th floor?  Imagine the views! So jealous. Ah well, I am off to screen print Coquitlam’s Letters Patent on a t-shirt. Who knows – maybe I’ll start a trend?  You heard it here first people.

 

Cover Images:

Left – “Summer” (Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 2851635)
Right – “Winter” (Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 2851737)

 

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