In Fashion, the Beauty (and Challenge) of Looking Back


In the age of the heritage brand, does looking forward necessarily mean looking back?

THE ARCHIVES OF BALENCIAGA, the 100-year-old fashion house, are held in a raw concrete warehouse space in Paris. There are 6,000 items in total — sculptural silk ball gowns and cocoon-shaped coats and a tobacco-brown chenille-embroidered lace coat once owned by Wallis, Duchess of Windsor — all shrouded in calico garment bags. Especially delicate pieces are wrapped in acid-free tissue paper to protect against dust and moths and are laid to rest in cardboard boxes referred to in the business as ‘‘coffins.’’ Balenciaga’s haute couture maison, formerly located on the Avenue George V, was a chapel dedicated to the worship of fashion as art; here, in its cavernous catalog of designs past, the atmosphere is of a crypt — or even a shrine.

When I visited the archive in the spring of 2017, the debut fall 2016 collection of Balenciaga’s latest artistic director, Demna Gvasalia, had just arrived. The conservation team, led by archive manager Gaspard de Massé, was unfolding the clothes while wearing white cotton gloves. (Acids from human skin erode the textiles.) These contemporary pieces, whose likenesses had barely departed store racks, are treated with as much reverence as a one-off couture gown by Cristóbal Balenciaga himself, who founded the house in 1917. In this space, these humble garments are transmogrified ­— from contemporary clothing to preserved specimens. The archive team discusses how to stabilize specific pieces: for instance, by running threads from waist to hem to support dresses with unusually curved skirts, which threaten to buckle and distort if they’re not held in place. Those that can be laid flat, are — in one coffin, billows of tissue cosset one of Gvasalia’s evening dresses, a silver strapless style in a sequin-embroidered fabric created by the Swiss textile company Jakob Schlaepfer. Matching boots are stored in another room devoted to modern accessories. The Sisyphean task of the conservation team is to ensure Balenciaga’s clothing — past, present and future — survives, even as time conspires against it.

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PARIS IS A CITY where history has always been hallowed — perhaps more so than the present — and where the oldest (and many of the largest) fashion empires are based. Rituals like Balenciaga’s are undertaken by fashion brands across the world, but the archives of Parisian houses are especially sacrosanct. Some are stored in actual museums — Lanvin’s archives reside at the Palais Galliera, the fashion museum formally known as the Musée de la mode de la Ville de Paris. Others seem to be: Off the Avenue Montaigne, in the archive of Christian Dior, a handful of dresses dating back to 1947 (Dior’s debut) are displayed in temperature-controlled vitrines, exhibiting the label’s heritage.

In an industry whose catalyst is relentless novelty and perpetual newness, this zealous reverence for bygone fashions seems incongruous. While these archives — cold and dark, with their shrouds and cardboard ‘‘coffins’’ — may resemble repositories for the dead, the pieces cataloged inside are anything but. Despite the near-religious fervor devoted to their preservation, past styles aren’t viewed by brands as relics, but rather as the foundation for future creations.

These days, the archive is the petri dish for designs of the future. History in the hands of these houses has become a valuable, marketable commodity to build upon, cultural capital that can’t be bought. This past winter, the fall 2017 collections in Paris were distinguished by each house’s attention to their native silhouettes, tropes and trademarks. Saint Laurent’s Anthony Vaccarello veiled breasts with a panel of gauze in a velvet dress that originated in an identical style in Yves Saint Laurent’s fall 1992 haute couture collection; Julien Dossena of Paco Rabanne used that label’s still-futuristic-looking metal mesh alongside chain-linked constructions directly drawn from 1967 designs; and Maria Grazia Chiuri riffed on Christian Dior’s penchant for navy blue, offering another iteration of the label’s signature curvaceous suit jacket. (It was named Bar in 1947, and still is today.) Finally, Demna Gvasalia’s Balenciaga women’s wear show made the ultimate statement — he rejected the contemporary entirely and closed with nine gowns that recreated looks, in their entirety, from ’30s and ’40s Balenciaga collections. Ghosts, resurrected.