In fashion, as in anything else, everything old is new again. This is especially true right now, as the planet's most-followed individuals revert back to such once-eschewed, decades-old staples as tracksuits and inflated shoulders. The industry has been riding a nostalgia wave for several years, with no indication that the swell might subside anytime soon. And for many brands of price-points high and low, luxury and mass-market, this poses an interesting challenge: to create newness while reissuing pieces it designed 10, or 50, or more years ago. How do fashion houses package their past while also contemporizing it, looking to the future?
Archivists play a very large role in that, but they also work fluently with their brands' respective creative teams to inform on everything from house codes to pattern-making. Many, if not all, large houses have them, and quite a few smaller brands do, too. It's a full-time, hands-on role, either dedicated to one label in particular or spread out across a number of sister brands within a company. For a professional archivist, no one day is the same.
Olivia Mueller, Archivist at Gap, Inc., went to graduate school at Pratt Institute to receive a master's degree in Library Science with an advanced certificate in Archives — an academic perfect storm she put to use while in school, contracting in Gap, Inc.'s archives while still matriculating. When a full-time position opened up, she was hired for the role. This September will mark four years since she joined Gap, Inc.; it's what she calls her "dream job."
"Especially from a historical perspective, and especially for something like Gap — it's going to be 50 next year, and things have changed so much over the years, it's really important to have something that you can look back on," says Mueller over the phone from her New York City offices. "It's important for employee engagement, and aside from a design perspective, it's important to have these things for the company's history for people to reference."
Mueller explains that her day-to-day can be unpredictable, as well as often at the whims of those who put in archival requests from different corners of the company, largely from design and marketing. The way it works, she says, is that departments will either come to Mueller with a somewhat vague idea in mind, or they'll need to reference a hyper-specific detail and want to parse through the archive for inspiration. Gap, Inc.'s archive is set up accordingly: There's one section for items largely reserved for such broad creativity and another for "heritage" items, or those that represent the history of the company. ("It's kind of like a mini-museum," she says.) Here, you'll find key, iconic pieces that represent a moment in Gap, Inc.'s story, which spans nearly five decades since the American retailer was founded in San Francisco in 1969.
Ruud De Bruin, Design Director at G-Star Raw, isn't the Dutch house's dedicated archivist — he started at the label 12 years ago as a graphic designer. But, as he describes in a phone call from Amsterdam, he still works intimately closely with the brand's archives — "all our designers are kind of archivists," he says. And for good reason: The G-Star archive is remarkably large, comprised of 38,000 pieces of historic garments, including (but certainly not limited to) functional workwear, military garb and biker garments, as well as American police uniforms and space suits. In fact, it's one of the biggest archives in the world that's owned by a private company; it's also maintained by the son of the man who started it, so it's a family operation, too.
"Our main inspiration is always from the archive," says De Bruin. "When we start the season, part of my role is to look into the archive for specific garments that we want to reference."
While Gap, Inc.'s archive is grouped into two sections, G-Star's is organized by category — denim, the aforementioned military, biker and law enforcement items and the like. Everything is photographed both inside and out, the digital images of which live on an online platform that all G-Star designers can search, download and reference. Gap, Inc. has its own cataloging system, too. "Especially because I get requests from all over the company, somebody's not necessarily going to be able to come down and see the clothes, so it's really important to have the database where they can look at it and then find things based on the description that I put in," Mueller says. That commentary — which she inputs manually, along with a barcode — is crucial to the company's workflow.
The Gap, Inc. database features a similar system to G-Star's in that all of its "heritage" items are uploaded with an image and also linked to marketing materials — advertising campaigns, television spots, etc. — to which they relate. As an example, Mueller offers Missy Elliott's Gap commercial in 2003: If you were to search for an item that was featured in that commercial, the database would pull up the actual clip, as well as any related images. Mueller's work relies on an inventory system, in which she can loan out product to designers and later refer to a checkout log of items that have been borrowed.
With digital libraries being so meticulously catalogued, an archive's physical collection is ordered with even greater care. As such, it's vital that archivists, as well as the company at large, regulate who visits the space. Trips to the Gap, Inc. archive are by appointment-only, often needing to be made days in advance; during the actual visit, Mueller act as the guide, helping company employees find what they need. She recalls getting requests that are as explicit as, "'We need to see items with this type of collar,'" she says, or, "'I need to see if you have this specific item from the '90s.'"
G-Star's archive is under a similar safeguard: a three-story, climate-controlled, special-access basement that's only accessible to certain people within the company. Moths are, of course, a concern, as are other necessary safety precautions like sprinklers. "We need to keep a very close eye on what goes in and what goes out," says De Bruin. "Obviously, the basement value is priceless, so we're super-careful that nothing happens in the archive."
To maintain such a precise degree of organization isn't just efficient, but also necessary for how the archive gets used. Mueller explains that she doesn't tend to keep items in archive boxes — durable packaging often made from acid-free materials — because collections get used a lot. When employees pay a visit to Gap, Inc.'s archive, they're more often not entirely sure what they're looking for, and it's much harder to browse product if it's in boxes.
So, have brands' archives gotten more play now that fashion — in terms of both consumers and the designers creating for them — is investing so heavily in nostalgia? Mueller says yes, she has sensed as much, and to that end, she's even gotten to work on some reissues. She tells me about a particularly fun Gap collection called "Logo Remix," which launched in January of this year and featured revamped signature Gap tees, sweatshirts and rugby shirts with various logos from the retailer's archives. To celebrate the project, Gap hired director Tabitha Denholm to lense a short film paying homage to iconic Gap ads of years past.
Sometimes, the archive is referenced less explicitly: Just recently, Banana Republic updated one of its bandanas from the '80s, transforming it into an opera scarf, though the updated version wasn't marketed as a reissue.
"You never know what's going to be popular again," says Mueller. "That's the one thing I've learned and seen from doing this job for as long as I have, is you never know what someone's going to ask for. It could be a certain type of button, or a certain fit, a certain wash, a certain color. The garment really has so much information, so in that respect, too, it's important to save things, just so you can look back and try to recreate certain things from the original."
Over at G-Star, De Bruin says his design team will turn to the archive constantly, but not always in literal sense. He describes drawing inspiration from a military jacket with "a very interesting pocket" that will then be taken from that garment and placed on the back of a pair of jeans. "We always learn from the archive; we never copy from the archive," he says. And for G-Star, this is the key to nostalgia: Consumers are able to recognize certain details when they're put in new contexts, but those details are still familiar enough that they don't alienate new shoppers.
Nostalgia aside, a design house is nothing without its codes; even some of today's more recognizably archival pieces — Dior's saddle bag; Calvin Klein's logo briefs; Tommy Hilfiger's graphic tube tops — come from a place of specific, respective brand identity. An archivist's job is to maintain and encourage that.
"For us, it's really important that everybody here really understands product, and we believe that shows in our product and that the consumer actually sees this," says De Bruin. "No designer can sit here behind their desk and start sketching a collection. We always start with in-depth research of the past."
Homepage photo: Courtesy of G-Star Raw