In Fashion, the Beauty (and Challenge) of Looking Back – New York Times

LAGERFELD’S WILDLY successful echoing of Chanel’s history has become the blueprint for labels across the world. Today, designers use archival styles to anchor their individual aesthetics to a brand’s past. You may not recognize Maria Grazia Chiuri’s name immediately, for instance, but you recognize the name and look of Dior in her designs for the house — the wasp-waisted Bar jacket, the wide-spread skirts. The same goes for Paco Rabanne: Julien Dossena is a designer name that resonates mostly among industry insiders, but everyone remembers the house’s chain-mail dresses from ‘‘Barbarella’’ — ‘‘or Jane Birkin, or Françoise Hardy,’’ adds Dossena. All of them, and in turn Paco Rabanne itself, have become synonymous with ’60s Space Age style. In a crowded and confused modern marketplace, immediate recognition — Coco! Bar! Barbarella! — is as good as gold.

From a business perspective, this approach makes sense. But it raises larger creative and cultural questions: namely, who owns history? Does a designer operating under a label founded by another have license to resurrect its forebear’s history for inspiration? It often results in little that is truly, genuinely new. But maybe, right now, we’re not craving something new, but something honest. Some labels will reissue designs with minimal changes, if any — Chanel, for instance, offers multiple versions of the 2.55, the quilted, chain-strapped bag originally designed by Gabrielle Chanel in 1955. Perhaps this is a reflection of a global appetite for vintage, for an authenticity that we believe can only be found in the past.

But maybe backward-glancing isn’t a product of the ideological or philosophical ramifications of our time — a quest for the genuine article — but rather a more practical matter of supply and demand, a need for speed. Fashion designers typically produce four collections a season (bolstered by multiple interim commercial collections), some designing for two or more different labels. (Gvasalia has Vetements, Lagerfeld his namesake line and the co-creative director role at Fendi.) Cribbing from an existing style sheet is an easy fix for an industry demanding ever more from its designers, a practice that’s been employed with increasing frequency since the early 1990s, when journalists began to freely throw around the term ‘‘revival’’ to describe various designers’ close recreations of vintage styles. In the same period, the market for vintage clothing exploded — another example of that thirst for authenticity and, perhaps, a rebellion against fashion’s built-in obsolescence.

But what are the ethics of referencing existing clothing so closely, even if the same label is stitched on the inside? The revival styles we are seeing now are often line-for-line recreations, not mere interpretations. It’s largely accepted that a fashion house can freely reference its own past; the name gives designers license, and the physical archives give them access to templates from which to work. ‘‘If you want to know a brand, you have to know the history,’’ Dior’s Chiuri says. ‘‘I really decided immediately, when I arrived here a year ago, that it is like I am a curator for [Dior’s] heritage. And on the other side, I try to give my point of view.’’


On the mirrored staircase leading to Chanel’s couture salons at 31 Rue Cambon — designated a historic monument by the French Ministry of Culture — one of Gabrielle Chanel’s signature black dresses, from fall 1954 haute couture (left), stands next to a look it inspired from Karl Lagerfeld’s fall 2017 haute couture collection (right). Chanel’s archive, in the northeastern suburbs of Paris in Pantin, employs around 15 people and contains more than 50,000 pieces.

Chanel Haute Couture dress, price on request, (800) 550-0005.

Photograph by Annabel Elston. Styled by Enrico Pompili and Valentina Cameranesi

IN TRUTH, it’s a delicate balance. Ironically, the strength of a house’s archive (and its worth) can only be measured by the merits of its contemporary designer. Chiuri uses the term ‘‘curator,’’ a word many designers invoke to describe the somewhat uneasy relationship between present and past in their work. Part of their role, at these kinds of brands, is to provide a new point of view on a well-established aesthetic — to reinvent (or at least modernize) the wheel. Designers are tasked with getting the press and consumers excited about something they might have seen many times before.

But does looking back satisfy a designer’s artistic urge to create something new? ‘‘If you think too much about Mr. Saint Laurent, I think the weight is very heavy and you cannot do anything,’’ Anthony Vaccarello says. ‘‘It’s too ‘homage,’ too old.’’ Vaccarello’s approach has been to collage elements from different Saint Laurent looks — his redux of that 1992 dress, for instance, collided the bodice with a miniskirt in the style Saint Laurent showed in the 1960s, rather than copying the full-length original. He remixes, instead of creating faithful reproductions. ‘‘It’s normal for me to live with a huge history because I was born in Rome,’’ Chiuri says. ‘‘I love the archives, I love history, I love memory, but I’m not nostalgic. I want to use that now.’’ Her collections do in fact reference particular Dior styles — her fall 2017 couture collection alluded to specific Dior dresses from every year between the founding of the house in 1947 and 1957, the year Christian Dior died. At its best, archival reference like Chiuri’s intrinsically connects the new with the old, weaving a seamless story that can constantly evolve.

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