Every year, the school where I work has a career day, just like my own high school did when I was sitting on the other side of the desk. They feature all the usual suspects, but they’ve never had fashion archivists on the roster. What a cool job! The top design houses all have archives of their collections. The archivists try to gather examples of each style the house produced in the past. For rare pieces, they have people keeping a lookout in the auction houses of all the major cities of the world and scouring Internet sales sites like eBay. A celebrity owner makes a rare piece even more valuable. Sometimes people donate pieces, but most often they are purchased back for undisclosed prices. The archives are so valuable that their locations are top secret and protected by vigilant guards.
The archivists are much more than people who shop with other people’s money. They are highly trained and educated with Masters Degrees in history. Some document the collection, some restore pieces damaged by time and usage. The collections they curate are as important as any big museum, except these pieces are rarely seen. The treasures are covered in protective wraps and nestled in cases. In all of the archives, the temperature is kept at an even 18 degrees Celsius (about 65 degrees Farenheit) and the humidity is maintained at 50%.
The archive business is in full expansion. The Louis Vuitton archives have grown from 2,000 pieces in 2009 to 20,000 today. Chanel is moving its archive to a brand-new purpose-built location. Dior’s archives were founded in 1987 with two employees; today they have seven experts working full time because the heritage of couture is also good business. Clients like to feel that they’re part of something bigger when they buy a Vuitton purse or Chanel suit.
To celebrate the 60th anniversary of Chloé, they decided to start their own archives to create a retrospective exhibit. The team went through every issue of Vogue from 1957 to the present searching for any examples of items by Chloé. They photocopied the images and started their search. In six months, they tracked down 700 items – enough for an exhibit representative of the best Chloé has produced. It’s kind of like being an haute couture Indiana Jones. And the exhibit? – a huge success with 35,000 visitors in just six weeks.
Who uses the archives? The artistic directors of the design houses in search of inspiration usually stop in right after they’ve been named to their posts. Sometimes the precious objects leave temporarily, becoming featured in museum exhibits. The most popular items are on the road most of the time, making brief pit-stops for restoration before heading off to another country and another exhibit. Exhibits go hand-in-hand with publications. The archives enrich the books published both by the design houses and others, helping to spread the image of luxury far and wide. Art books have been a particularly effective way of entering the Chinese market, where Hermès, for example, has seen its business grow by 28% in 2012.
So career counselor, when I grow up, I’ve decided I’d like to be une archiviste de la mode (oon arsh-e-veest duh lah mowed), surrounded by beautiful things and buying more of them on someone else’s dime.
- Mannequins – Corps de la mode (onequalitythefinest.com)
- See Amazing Archival Dior, Chanel and Balenciaga from the New Paris Haute Couture Exhibit (fashionista.com)
- Dreaming of “Paris Haute Couture” Exhibit (cameoblog.com)