Fashion archives are often a little-known department, overlooked by students in favour of more creative sectors, but they are brought to life by passionate professionals. As documentalists or archivists, they contribute to the reputation of luxury fashion houses and work with cultural institutions and creative departments.
To better understand this behind-the-scenes job, FashionUnited spoke to an expert in the profession. With her face covered, ‘M.’, in charge of the archives at a major Parisian fashion house, reveals what her day-to-day life is like.
What are your main duties as archive manager?
We have two main tasks in the archives. The first is to make an inventory of the collections. We have kept all the items from the origins of the company right up to the present day. We don't have an acquisitions policy, but we have over ten thousand works that need to be catalogued. To do this, we have to create a small inventory label with key information and the inventory number, which is linked to a digital database where we enter all the major information so that we can easily find the pieces when we need them. The database also acts as an inventory of fixtures, so we know what we have at home. It may also be useful from the point of view of an acquisition policy, as we have a few gaps in our inventory.
Unfortunately, for reasons of space, as is often the case with many fashion houses, we can't archive everything. We will mainly be highlighting haute couture, because these are unique pieces, works of art that reflect the house, but we also archive the other ready-to-wear lines.
We also do a bit of packaging. We are not trained heritage curators. That's why we call on external service providers who specialise in preventive preservation, and possibly restoration if necessary. We do, however, have a basis for packaging, which means that we are going to buy suitable materials, museum materials such as tissue paper, neutral cardboard boxes that do not deteriorate over time and ensure that the items are well preserved, covers to cover the clothes and padded hangers.
So we have these basics that enable us to ensure the conservation of the garment, because we have to make sure that the inventory doesn't move or deteriorate over time. If we have photographed a piece at a given moment, the ideal is for it to have changed as little as possible when we take it out of the archives a few months or years later.
The second aspect concerns the management of loans, which are just as useful inside the house as outside. Internal loans are mainly loans for studios. Designers will come to us as soon as they are preparing a new collection and are looking for inspiration. Some designers may have very specific requests and ask for a very specific piece. But this can also take the form of thematic searches.
We also have loans with the press, which apply to more recent pieces, as we don't send old, historic pieces on shooting for fear of damaging them.
We also take part in exhibitions, although we're not preparing any ourselves at the moment. We don't do many retrospectives; we generally lend between one and three looks maximum to museums and cultural institutions for exhibitions. On average, we take part in five or six exhibitions a year around the world. As with in-house loans, this can be a very specific request from the exhibition curator, or a more vague idea around the theme of the exhibition, in which case we select certain pieces to showcase. These are often large-scale exhibitions, which is why the pieces on show are often haute couture or quite visually striking.
The third aspect, which is still being developed at our level, is a communications strategy, which we touch on a little when we work with the press and cultural institutions. However, we want to bring the archives to life both internally and externally. Our archives are closed to the public and at the moment we don't want to open them up. However, we would like to develop an in-house storytelling programme and welcome newcomers to the company to present the archives to anyone who is interested. At the same time, we would like to take part in more exhibitions and publishing projects with fashion history researchers.
What does your typical day look like?
When we arrive in the morning, we start by carrying out a fairly quick survey of current affairs, heritage, fashion and culture. Then come the assignments. It's important to remember that assignments are long-term. The day may be interrupted by urgent requests for internal loans from the studios or the press department, but these are fairly rare.
We're going to make an inventory, which is quite simple in the house because everything is arranged and sorted by chronology and, within the chronology, by collection. So we'll choose a category and do the inventory, in other words take the piece, try to define it, photograph it, enter all the information in the digital database and move on to the next one. We also have a photo studio, so we'll alternate roles: when one person is doing the inventory, another takes photos of the items.
Then we'll also package the parts using our stock of supplies. Often, we repackage parts that were stored in a certain way and put them in a different place to improve their preservation. But we're never far away from our emails and phones in case of emergencies, particularly when we're preparing a collection.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
Having access to a small museum. I'm lucky enough to work in a fashion house that allows me to see exceptional pieces up close, which is a real opportunity for me. That's the part I like best: being amazed on a daily basis and discovering craftsmanship, know-how and exceptional pieces. I also love the idea of creating a whole narrative around the heritage of a house. I love meeting and talking to other people from the label, showing them around the archives and telling them about our history. Through my job, I have the opportunity to help bring the archives to life, because it's easy to end up with dead stock, whereas heritage and archives can speak for themselves.
What are the ideal qualifications for this job?
As far as studies are concerned, it's quite complicated because in France we haven't really developed cultural studies, or at least fashion studies, let alone heritage studies. But there are some very good courses at La Parsons, the IFM, the Sorbonne and the École du Louvre. You need to have studied something to do with the cultural world, and ideally the cultural world of fashion, but there's no one-size-fits-all course, at least not here.
I interviewed people for work placements and I had a wide range of profiles, with people coming from creative backgrounds and others from more literary backgrounds. However, what stood out in all the candidates we selected and interviewed was a great passion for fashion history and archives.
And what qualities are required?
I think you have to be really curious and want to find out more, but also have a good knowledge of the company you're applying to and of fashion history in general. You have to go to fashion exhibitions regularly and keep up to date with what's going on.
Within the company, we don't do a lot of editorial work. That's why it's not necessary to have good writing skills. On the other hand, we are very often in our reserves and archives. We're going to expect people to be meticulous, delicate and patient, because we can't afford to handle the pieces in a rush and spoil them.
It's a long-term job, and we have assignments that take a lot of time. For example, photographing entire collections takes time, and you have to take the time to do it properly. It's also a job that requires a certain sense of organisation, because it's a big museum that we have to manage, and that requires very meticulous work. The exhibits have to be tidy, easy to find and well preserved.
During the interviews, I was looking for people who were calm and patient, because unlike a lot of jobs in fashion, where you work in excitement and at high speed, we're a bit removed from that effervescence.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to get into this profession?
I'd say go out and meet the professionals. It's a small business and, as a result, people are very friendly and extremely passionate about what they do. They're happy to answer questions and reveal a bit more about what they do.
In Paris, we're lucky enough to have easy access to archives in places like the Yves Saint Laurent Museum, the Dior Gallery and institutions open to the public such as the Palais Galliera and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. So you have to be curious and not hesitate to go and meet them.
The identity of our interviewee has been verified.
This article originally appeared on FashionUnited.FR. Translation and edit by: Rachel Douglass.