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    Archival fashion is having a renaissance – but is it here to stay?

    Alec Holt explores whether archival fashion's influence on menswear designers is more than just a fad.

    Earlier this summer, Raf Simons lifted the veil on an upcoming ‘Redux’ collection featuring reissues of 100 iconic pieces from the hallowed vaults of his back catalogue, one of the most coveted in menswear. It’s a perhaps overdue acknowledgment of the preoccupation with archival fashion which has over the last year or two become the predominant narrative throughout online fashion circles, fittingly made by a designer who sits pre-eminent in the scene’s pantheon.  A hobby which was historically the preserve of only the most die-hard of fashion followers has emphatically encroached upon the mainstream; Simons’ move represents the first significant attempt to draw material financial gain from it since Helmut Lang’s ‘Re-Edition’ capsule in 2017 – arguably too early to capitalise upon a demand which has since burgeoned. Rachel Tashjian of GQ Style rightly points to the difficulties posed by the “grail paradox” whereby designers fail to see tangible rewards for any retrospective plaudits their past collections might receive, with the real winners from the archive fashion boom being high-end second-hand resale platforms such as Grailed and Vestiaire Collective.

    Grailed, in particular, can be credited with a critical role in the establishment of the distinct subculture which surrounds and propagates the buying and selling of archival fashion through their meme-heavy, approachable social media presence and editorial content. For all that you might be assailed by a pressing urge to retire entirely from the spheres of sartorial commerce and consign yourself to a sequestered existence independent of the need for clothing every time you see a post promoting the “copping” of “jawnz” (I know I am), it must be conceded that Grailed have been enormously successful in inculcating a language and a sense of community particular to their business practice. One need only look at their weekly round-up of the most expensive purchases made through the platform to see how high the demand can be for canonical pieces; topping the list for the week just gone at the time of writing is an unassuming crewneck from Simons’ A/W 2002 “Virginia Creepers” collection which sold for a belief-beggaring $8,000.

    Faced with figures of this order every week, it doesn’t seem irrational to question whether the archival fashion hype is – can be, even – anything more than another moribund bubble. Yet enthusiasts and collectors willing to pay thousands for garments of perceived cultural import have existed long before Grailed began extolling the values of ‘drip’, and no doubt there will always be those who rightly treat fashion as an artform and can afford to meet prices befitting an art market. Less certain is whether studying and buying archival pieces will continue to interest the majority of fashion’s followers, as it does now, rather than revert to being a more esoteric pursuit.

    An examination of the demographic to whom archival fashion currently appeals might lend itself to scepticism, with many of its young devotees having only recently relinquished ‘hypebeast’ status, trading in their once bleeding-edge box logos and trifergs for Margiela Tabis and slick Hedi Slimane era Dior. And indeed, many of the hallmarks of hypebeast culture are detectable within the contemporary archival scene. For all that an interest in past collections opens up an inexhaustible range of garments and designers to choose from, the same few names tend to dominate the conversation and to merit a greater degree of kudos. Most menswear archivists pay prostrate obeisance to the likes of Raf Simons, Rick Owens, Yohji Yamamoto, Hedi Slimane, Martin Margiela, Helmut Lang, Comme Des Garcons founder Rei Kawakubo, and so on, yet largely overlook trailblazers such as Pierre Cardin and Hussein Chalayan who have somehow been excluded from the discourse. Pre-80s collections also rarely get a look-in, though perhaps that’s more a symptom of the comparatively scarce couture menswear options available prior to the revolutions of that decade and the 90s which followed. Nonetheless, the groupthink-determined esteem attached to certain names is such that even unassuming, quite ordinary pieces by the likes of, say, Prada, will commandeer a respect flatly denied to less canonical designers, in much the same way that a Supreme, Palace, or Off-White tag can outweigh striking design in hypebeast circles. The community surrounding archival fashion, its memes and its fixations upon a select few seasons and designers, suggest that for many the desire for recognition and admission into an exclusive club is at least as significant a motivation as any deep-set appreciation for the garments themselves.

    Is, then, archival fashion and ‘Grailed culture’ doomed to be no more than another fad which will in time lose the pull it currently exerts on the on-the-pulse 20-somethings who ultimately determine what’s in? A death by over-exposure to the truly mainstream such as that which befell hypebeast culture seems unlikely, though certain relentlessly memed pieces and collections have already taken to that route (most notably Rick Owens’ now ubiquitous Geobasket and Ramone footwear designs); the significant majority of items, however, are simply too subtle in their merits to ever justify their price tags to mass audiences with only a casual interest in fashion, depending on uniqueness of cut, material, and craftsmanship rather than on the logomania which made hype streetwear so widely accessible.

    Equally, an interest in historic collections entails at least a base level of engagement with fashion as a pursuit with an intellectual dimension, as an art form with its own unique innovations and icons past and present. Such engagement ultimately represents a more substantial involvement than is required of acolytes of hype and is arguably a more robust basis for a lasting, perhaps lifelong passion for unique and creative garments. Once gained, a fascination with the runway tends to be unshakable.

    And really, where else is there for a fashion enthusiast to turn other than to the past? Luxury fashion is the endgame, as it were, to which hypebeast clothing and streetwear served as a stepping-stone of sorts for many recent adolescents, and with current seasons retailing at what are, for many, prohibitively expensive prices, second-hand pieces represent a comparably affordable option – at least when they’re not of ‘grail’ status. More than that, it’s a sustainable, environmentally responsible practice, too, relying on pieces that have already demonstrated their quality of construction and durability over the decades to fill your wardrobe rather than draining fresh resources. These are values which doubtless appeal to fashion devotees of all ages, largely immune to shifts in cultural inclination.

    Though some archivists’ fields of interest might appear oddly narrow, perhaps it would be to go too far to describe the community as an echo-chamber. Archivism might have its internal spheres of hype and mutually assured infatuation, but it still admits of an almost boundless degree of individualism. For all that particular preoccupations might wane as tastes deviate, for all that some of this fresh generation of menswear zealots will no doubt return in time to a condition of sartorial apathy, the trading of designer pieces from past collections, facilitated by the likes of Grailed, feels like a phenomenon with real staying power not just for the devoted minority, but for the industry at large.

    The performance of Raf Simons’ Redux collection will be instructive for other labels of archival clout going forwards, a first real attempt to slash open the Gordian knot presented by the ascendance and, it seems, future resilience of the global consumer-to-consumer luxury fashion marketplace. The likes of Louis Vuitton and Loewe took to revisiting past marketing campaigns during the lockdown through their social channels; should Simons’ venture prove a success, we might expect to see houses make more concrete endeavours to re-connect with their former triumphs, already a common practice when it comes to haute couture collections but less typical of menswear, particularly. Yet with that said, Raf commands a degree of veneration virtually unparalleled in the strata of internet-based archival fashion circles; perhaps his mythicising touch makes for a benchmark ill-suited to his less rarefied peers.

    Illustration by Alessia Daniels
    Illustration by Alessia Daniel

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