Main image courtesy of Raf Simons / Willy Vandeperre

What does fashion’s obsession with the past say about its future?

Raf Simons is the latest cult designer to disrupt the fashion’s inflated resale market by re-releasing iconic archival pieces. And he certainly won't be the last.

by Karl Smith
17 March 2021, 2:30pm

Main image courtesy of Raf Simons / Willy Vandeperre

That Raf Simons would time the release of his new Archive Redux collection to coincide with Paris’ Digital Fashion Week makes perfect sense. The Belgian designer, after all, is a beacon of irreverence, a long-time champion of creative self-reference, and known to have that most rare of qualities in an artist of his standing: a good sense of humour when it comes to his own work. It’s no coincidence, then, that while Fashion Week was happening online – with all the usual brands and houses presenting their latest collections – Raf Simons released the second part of an archival project he first announced last year. A selection of key, hard-to-find pieces from the preceding 25 years of Raf Simons, the label; pieces which, in common resale parlance, have absolutely earned the distinction of “grails”; pieces that include a jacket recently hawked for $47,000 on the resale market. ‘Holy grails’ might be a more appropriate term.

However, it also feels like something indicative of both a broader movement as well as the strangeness of our present moment, something in opposition to the ongoing rigamarole of a concept as abstract as “digital Fashion Week.”

Unlike so many other things that Prada’s current Creative Director has done over the course of his career, taking a moment – this moment in particular – to look back into the archives, with a view to repurposing and reimagining designs from the past, isn’t actually all that unique to Raf Simons. Referencing, re-contextualising, and re-tapping the capital of well-known cultural touchstones is more popular than ever within fashion.

Martine Rose, Helmut Lang, Maria Grazia Chiuri at Dior, Kim Jones at Fendi, even Riccardo Tisci at Burberry – are just some of the labels and designers looking to a vast back-catalogue of their fashion archives for inspiration. It makes sense when you consider that the future currently looks at best completely indiscernible and, at worst, like the hell-fire dystopia Rick Owens keeps imagining. With nowhere to go for the foreseeable, reconsidering the past has taken on greater importance.

“In a world in stasis the past is a goldmine for creative expression. This is how we find our way back to the future.”

And it’s not just the brands; the high-end concept store and editorial platform LN-CC has been getting in on the action since late last year, too. Now on the ninth edition of an archive spotlight series that has featured such distinct and – ordinarily, at least – notably future-facing names as Marni, Acne, Marine Serre, Jil Sander, Stone Island, Walter Van Beirendonck, and Vivienne Westwood, it’s clear there is, among consumers and designers alike, an appetite for revisionism.

As a society at a standstill, we have nothing to talk about. Nothing new to say. No one necessarily wants to be misanthropic; we want to remember what was and hope that it might be again. Like those pictures that your iPhone keeps showing you when you swipe the wrong way – the ones from a time when you could do things and see people. In a world in stasis the past is a goldmine for creative expression. The mosquito preserved in amber from the opening sequence of Jurassic Park — the one they first use to recreate the dinosaurs. This is how we find our way back, quite literally, to the future.

When Raf Simons launched Archive Redux back in July 2020,  he called it, “both a creative and a commercial gesture…a chance to experience these garments for the first time. A nostalgia for the unknown.” And, while it’s easy to focus on that last part – after all, we’re all feeling a little nostalgic for what we might’ve had right now – it’s the first which is actually the most striking in context.

That context is the fashion resale industry: a market speculated to be worth in excess of $64 billion within the next five years from $28 billion in 2019, and a unique corner of the vast luxury sector that is continuing to perplex and beguile high-end brands and their corporate backers in almost equal measure. The recent acquisition of a stake in the resale platform GOAT by the Kering-owning Groupe Artemis is about as big an indicator of that interest as you’re likely to get.

The likes of Gucci, The Row, Alexander McQueen and Burberry have made exclusive deals with resale platforms – Gucci is selling its own used or archival goods on RealReal, McQueen offers store credits for its authenticated resellers on Vestiaire Collective, and Burberry is offering a personal shopping experience whenever you consign their goods on RealReal.

HBX, the streetwear ecommerce platform owned by HYPEBEAST, recently moved into the resale market with the launch of HBX Archives – which is exactly what it sounds like: a weekly drop of archive clothes and accessories from much-loved and, obviously, much-hyped brands. What’s perhaps most interesting about this is that HYPEBEAST essentially thrives as an in-house editorial platform with a size and influence capable of propping up the market for its own goods.

“Labels are looking to their past with a view to creating something – if not exactly “new” – timeless in its disdain for linear time itself and for the concept of accumulated value.”

The reason that the resale marketplace is so valuable, of course, is that it works on a premium of scarcity and exclusivity – goods that are hard to come by become more valuable as a result. The same as any commodity, really. And that’s the issue. To an artist like Raf Simons, these aren’t simply commodities to be owned and hoarded like pieces of art in the hands of private collectors – they’re to be appreciated, enjoyed, and, above all else, worn — if not by the many, then not, at least, just by such a minuscule few or, even worse, stowed away in an archive. That $47,000 Raf Simons AW02 ‘Riot’ jacket isn’t a point of pride but a clear example of something wrong with the system itself.

Exclusion – either by age or money or geography – is not the Raf Simons M.O., as he explained in an accompanying statement to February’s Redux drop: “I had a lot of reactions from young people who wanted pieces, and who weren’t even born when we were making certain pieces,” he explains, continuing, “I was thinking a lot about the access, that it’s a pity we cannot offer them anymore. But at the same time, I was thinking is it wrong to the people who have been paying a lot of money for the archive pieces and they might be a bit upset?”

People, though, love to be a part of history – even when they weren’t there.

Martine Rose’s announcement of an ecommerce platform that not only housed the British designer’s most recent work but also featured extensive archive imagery placed the past and present contexts of her work side-by-side. Not in opposition, but in parallel. It’s the same principle that sees her continuing to release T-shirts with ‘90-’91 AUTUMN & WINTER COLLECTION” emblazoned across the chest, 20 years after that date, which was also long before she launched her label.

Labels are looking to their past with a view to creating something – if not exactly “new” – timeless in its disdain for linear time itself and for the concept of accumulated value. It’s not about hurting original collectors. First edition books often only go up in value when further printings are made, after all. It’s about democratising a wholly undemocratic process.

It also raises questions about another kind of pervasive, undemocratic attitude in fashion – a question of insiders vs. outsiders. Or, as Virgil Abloh so succinctly puts it, “Purists vs. Tourists”, a concept further refined in his AW21 collection for Louis Vuitton, which not-so-subtly takes aim at those who have worked to criticise and exclude the designer for his supposed lack of high fashion credentials — as well as accusations of plagiarism of other, more “purist” designers.

Designers like Raf Simons, Martine Rose and Virgil Abloh seem to think that the past – both their own and at large – belongs in the hands of those working in the present, to use as a raw material to build something from the future. But it’s clear that this isn’t the catechism of the fashion industry as a whole.

Still, that fashion is cyclical is a truism known to pretty much everyone that’s ever been shopping as an adult and had to endure their childhood wardrobe taking pride of place in an Urban Outfitters. But, of late, time does seem to have compounded a little more than usual. Without getting too metaphysical, it’s starting to feel like everything that will happen has happened already. That fashion, particularly – and with no small sense of irony – its more progressive and creative names, should reflect this is no great surprise.

What is a surprise, perhaps, is the potential disruption this kind of crate-digging has the potential to cause; it’s not simply the release of new clothes that look like old clothes – it’s a gauntlet thrown down to the exclusionary practices of an industry that has thrived on gatekeeping. When those gates are thrown so vigorously open, it’s hard to know exactly what might come next. If anything ever happens again, that is.

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