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  • Lilian Weiermann

Is Archive Fashion Sustainable?

What comes to your mind when you think of second-hand fashion? Thrifting? Maybe quirkily curated vintage shops? If so, you might be surprised to hear that there is a niche in the fashion world where pre-owned garments are traded for the price of a brand-new car. So called ‘Archive Fashion’ is all about the historical context, rarity and relevance of a garment to a designer's oeuvre in retrospect, causing prices to skyrocket on second-hand resale platforms such as Grailed. Can this gatekeeping of second-hand pieces and the hype around Archive Fashion be sustainable?

An Artisanal Margiela vest and Raf Simons bombers in a Japanese Archive Store

A prime example of what archivists seek is Raf Simons' iconic Autumn/Winter 2003 collection 'Closer', named after the Joy Division album and created in collaboration with the album's graphic designer, Peter Saville. A hand-painted parka from the collection sold on Farfetch for almost 15,000 USD. Other platforms such as Depop or Grailed use the term to categorize vintage designer products like Prada nylon bags or Tom Ford's Gucci, which are all sold under the umbrella term ‘Archive’, branding products as relevant to a brand's historic tenor.

Such emphasis on scarcity and exclusivity might ring the 'Supreme' bell for some. In hypebeast culture, price and exclusivity dictate a buyer's status, which materialistic show-offs often accompany. While there are similarities in treating fashion as an investment, Archive Fashion pays greater attention to the artistic value. When it comes to hypebeast fashion the value was rather determined by the novelty of an item at that moment. The axis of value/time seems to be the opposite for Archive Fashion, where value is generated over time. However, one could argue that Archive Fashion is undergoing a ‘hypebeastification’ itself. Naturally, the rarity and high price point of the pieces lend themselves to boasting. It is difficult to resolve whether or not the wearer holistically comprehends the importance of an item aside from its financial worth. This leads to a customer base consisting of both types of consumers; tactical investors and archivists with a museum-like approach to collecting.

David Casavant and Middleman Store archives

In the recent past, the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse that caused the death of over 1000 garment workers ignited a conversation about the social and environmental exploitation that is common within the fashion industry. A shared value of those who advocate sustainable fashion consumption is the appreciation of the product as well as the resources, labor and time that have gone into its making. Our consumption has increased by 400% in the last 20 years, and the upward trend sees no end in sight. Even the slightest glance at these buying and disposal habits reveals that most clothing appears to be worthless to many modern consumers. In fact, it is estimated that more than half of all fast fashion items are disposed of less than a year after they were purchased. Needless to say, this signals an urgent need to re-evaluate our relationship with clothing. Suddenly, Archive Fashion's approach of understanding fashion as a cultural artifact, treating garments with due devotion, and giving them an emotional historical value seems quite reasonable considering our massive over consumption. Doesn't it? Never would it cross an archivist’s mind to toss it in the bin, which would feel as wrong as throwing away a book, equally revered as a cultural asset instead of a product. I am not saying we need to archive every item on this planet; however, a wider adoption of the tight garment-wearer-designer bond of Archive Fashion would help tackle our mindless consumption of clothing.

That being said, when this triangular fashion relationship and contextual validation resulted in a brown distorted Comme des Garçons set from 1997 selling for 35,000 USD on Grailed, we catapult to the opposite end of the mindless scale. To date, the most expensive item sold on Grailed is still the Raf Simons Riot Riot Riot bomber jacket from his trailblazing Fall/Winter 2001 collection. At a price point of 47,000 USD, it might be the peak of a price affected by contextualization. The camouflage jacket referenced the political and pop-cultural zeitgeist of the time and paved the way for years of streetwear to follow. Speaking of contextualizing; the average price of a second-hand jacket in 2010 was about 26 USD. Certainly, two very different target groups are addressed here. But still, the pricing is a point to be questioned.

Raf Simons A/W01 camouflage bomber jacket

It is nothing new in luxury fashion where scarcity limits the accessibility of certain items, which ultimately ends in an elitist fashion market. While in this individual case, one could still argue that the Comme des Garçons set is an art object rather than a garment, this exorbitant price is a peephole into the pricing strategies of the Archive Fashion world, which can exaggerate the prices of some second-hand items by up to ten times their brand new counterpart. To illustrate, Rick Owens platform boots cost about 1,500 USD new, yet some second-hand models on Grailed sell for ten times more. This side of the pre-owned market no longer has much to do with thrifting, though the Archive Fashion community doesn't claim that either. Preferably, it locates itself within the luxury fashion sector, among luxury clients, where there has always been a desire for exclusivity. In the end, isn't it better if this appetite is satisfied with second-hand items?

Rick Owens Kiss Heels

So, after all, can this gatekeeping of second-hand pieces and the hype around Archive Fashion be sustainable? Arguably, there is no clear-cut answer to this question. If this hype results in garments being purchased because they are trendy not because they are needed, this consumer behavior can hardly be called sustainable. Although it might still be better not to satisfy this momentary urge to consume through newly produced goods, it still promotes the understanding of fashion as a short-lived commodity. Besides, why do we gate keep in the first place? Second-hand fashion can be open to anyone while the cool pieces are for the cool kids? This “You can’t sit with us” attitude and the “If you know you know” stance are well-known phenomena in fashion, causing its reputation of being elitist and judgmental. Eventually, a more welcoming attitude towards those who are curious to learn and interested in fashion would not only help to overcome the toxicity of gatekeeping but also promote a more considered consumption minding the garment beyond its materiality. Whether Archive Fashion can be deemed sustainable or not ultimately depends on the consumption pattern of the individual archivist. To them, fashion ideally gains emotional value and loses its alarming status as a throwaway product.

Clothes collector featured in ‘Happy Victims’ by Kyoichi Tsuzuki

In truth, Archive Fashion likely sits somewhere between being enthralled with historically significant pieces and being a tactical investment – something a small group of fashion enthusiasts is passionate about and that is financially accessible to an even smaller circle. After all, the appreciation for the garment and its history is a lesson we can all learn from archivists and incorporate into our own corner of the fashion world

Writer: Lilian Weiermann Co-founder of The Stitch

Editor: Isaac Davis


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