Everyone wants to get in on the game. In recent years, the trendiest celebrities of the moment have taken en masse to sourcing archival pieces from John Galliano’s Dior era (1996-2011), Tom Ford’s Gucci (1994-2004), Karl Lagerfeld’s Chanel (1983-2019) as well as original pieces from designers who helped to define particular eras, such as Jean Paul Gaultier, Thierry Mugler and Alexander McQueen. Think Bella Hadid at this year’s Cannes Film Festival in trio of Gianni Versace gowns from the ’80s or more pointedly, Kim Kardashian donning Marilyn Monroe’s Bob Mackie-designed dress at this year’s Met Gala.
Bella Hadid and her archival flex for this year’s Cannes Film Festival, in a Versace dress from the Fall/Winter 2003 collection which is crafted in silk georgette and with satin ribbons criss-crossing across the front and back in a corset shape.
One could say vintage is on fire – and it definitely is, going by most metrics. But it’s also fashion from a specific subset within the vast field of vintage that’s been gaining traction; while there is no hard definition, archival clothing is generally agreed to be designs hailing from a particularly pivotal era or collection from a designer’s oeuvre.
The buying process for archival fashion is one that tends to come with a sense of intention and selectiveness. Research and education are a big part of the process, regardless of which designer’s temple one chooses to pray at. As Alfred Bong, 22, one of the three co-founders of archival specialist store Milieu points out: “I don’t think any random piece from a designer qualifies; at the end of the day, I think the garment in question should have some sort of (cultural or career-making) significance other than just looking cool or pretty.”
Alfred Bong (right) and Kai Jun Leong are two of the three co-founders of Milieu. Their third partner Leon Lim is not pictured here.
“I think the main thing is that, if you look at certain pieces by themselves, they might look very plain or simple. But there is a backstory behind it that often doesn’t get spoken about to the consumer,” adds Bong, whose store opened at The Adelphi in January this year.
“Therefore I think it’s important for us to have that stance and platform where we can talk about the history and context behind a particular design or collection – because that’s the most important way you can understand how a piece came to be.”
Archive collecting has traditionally been a rather niche scene with a palpably insider’s vibe to it due to various gatekeeping factors: prices can be steep, especially for iconic pieces such as Raf Simons’ bomber jackets from his seminal Fall/Winter 2001 collection (they can go for more than US$30,000, or S$42,600 a piece on marketplaces like Grailed), and pieces are typically scarce or hard to find.
That said, the incendiary rise of TikTok (the tag #ArchiveFashion has more than 14 million views and counting) has helped to bring new audiences into the fold, where younger collectors are more open to sharing their most treasured pieces and how they snagged them.
Other social media platforms such as YouTube also help to further broaden the conversation, says marketing executive Shimin Poh, who favours learning about designers like Vivienne Westwood, John Galliano and Jean Paul Gaultier through the channel.
“Collecting archival garments is very much a journey and it takes a lot time to hunt down a specific piece in your size. (I’m into it) because it feels very much like preserving parts of a designer’s work and learning to keep it alive,” says Poh. “There’s a certain sense of joy in collecting and admiring these pieces in your own time, because there’s always a story behind the details of the garment.”
“I think it’s important for us to have that stance and platform where we can talk about the history and context behind a particular design or collection – because that’s the most important way you can understand how a piece came to be.”Alfred Bong, co-founder of Milieu
In Singapore, things are starting to pick up too, through the efforts of various brick-and-mortar stores, led by collectors mostly in their 20s. For one, Milieu, is a key player in the growing scene here with its stylish mix of educational posts on social media, self-published editorial content and an overall more casual approach.
As it website states, “we hope to have casual conversations about the clothes we marvel over – less about transactions, more about texting a friend about your latest obsession.” Of course, there’s also the founders’ tight curation of more than 100 men’s and womenswear pieces from brands such as Comme des Garcons, Helmut Lang and Martin Margiela.
The team behind hybrid art and fashion space Lithium comprises (clockwise from left) Han Goh, Jan Cheng, Tiffany Chen, Kiefer Tay, Kent Ho and Pin Goh (seated in foreground), with member Jacky Lim not in picture as he was unable to make the shoot.
Likewise, the six-month-old hybrid art and fashion space Lithium over at Genting Road also encourages a more egalitarian approach to navigating this arena. It stocks over 300 rare garments and accessories from labels such as Chrome Hearts, Saint Laurent, Dior Homme and Visvim.
Its resident art curator Han Goh welcomes anyone (even if you have no buying intention) to try on pieces. These include pieces which Goh says are probably not (publicly) available anywhere else in Singapore, such as the aforementioned Raf Simons bomber jackets.
“I think if you are a true lover of clothes, you should just come down and try them out,” says Goh. “Have a conversation with us and enjoy the clothes, because to us, clothes (shouldn’t) be just for the enjoyment of one person; it’s it’s meant for everybody to see.”
Below, we chat more with these archival specialists on their thoughts on the scene here.
How would you define archival fashion?
Alfred Bong: “There’s no clear-cut definition and I think we came to the conclusion that it should be pieces from at least five years ago and it should be a semi-important piece or from an iconic collection. For example, I don’t think any random piece from a designer qualifies. At the end of the day, I think the garment in question should have some sort of significance other than just looking cool or pretty.
I think the reason the definition is pretty amorphous is because the whole scene only really boomed five to seven years ago, so a lot of things aren’t set in stone. I think certain designers like Raf Simons and Margiela are collected because they’re very frequently spoken about in pop culture. We’re also trying to bring in other younger brands that aren’t as high-profile, but which we personally like, such as Lemaire and Craig Green… I think these brands will get much bigger 10 to 15 years from now.”
A pair of custom Proleta Re Art jeans at Lithium, which was fashioned out of antique bandanas from the 1900s, according to Lithium’s resident art curator Han Goh.
Han Goh: “Archival fashion is the celebration and appreciation of a prolific fashion house and/or a designer’s past work.”
What makes certain designers more sought-after than others?
Kai Jun Leong: “It’s probably because these designers (like Raf Simons and Martin Margiela) produced in very small quantities and it’s hard to find pieces from early collections that are still in (good) condition.”
Alfred Bong: “Outside of that ‘exclusivity’ factor, each designer has their own design language and that’s what makes it very collectible. There will be designs that seems kind of out-there early on, but now they look normal because it trickled down all the way from the runways to commercial stores. For example, Dior Homme by Hedi Slimane – his slim jeans, when they first launched, were considered to be too slim, but right now it’s become so normalised. I think people like different designers for different reasons, and usually they’re quite personal. Even if we like the same designer, we might look at their work from different angles.”
Spotted at Milieu: a selection of Maison Margiela’s signature Replica sneakers, which were inspired by vintage German army trainers.
The “education” aspect seems to be a very important part of the process of archival fashion shopping/selling. Why is that the case?
Han Goh: “Well, you could say that it gives more depth to the article of clothing. I would say for most things that are collectible, people want to know the provenance behind the piece before purchasing it, because it gives it a bit more authenticity, it gives it a bit more value to it when when there’s actually some history behind a particular piece. It also depends on the type of collector, but from those that we know, they tend to have a very keen eye on certain things that they want.
Reflecting the interests of the Lithium team, there is even a custom built skating ramp custom within the space, as well as artworks and pop culture memorabilia by various artists scattered throughout.
Alfred Bong: “I think the main thing is that, if you look at certain pieces by themselves, they might look very plain or simple. But there is a backstory behind it that often doesn’t get spoken about to the consumer. Therefore I think it’s important for us to have that stance and platform where we can talk about the history and context behind a particular design or collection – because that’s the most important way you can understand how a piece came to be.
I personally think knowing the history behind a specific garment also has the effect of increasing how much you like the design, because it’s not just about looking cool.(Educating the customer) is not just about selling the item. I think selling the clothes part is just to sustain us so that we can keep doing what we’d like to do – I think creating an environment where people get to know more about the context behind these designs – that’s the most important thing to us.”
There seems to be a growing appreciation for archival fashion, especially among younger audiences. Why do you think this is so?
Han Goh: “With platforms like TikTok and Instagram, a lot more people can be reached. It’s definitely given the vintage scene and the archival scene a huge boost, as compared to earlier on (in the 2000s and early 2010s) when hardcore collectors were only found in small circles, stalking online forums like Superfuture.”
Art Direction Imran Jalal & Danessa Tong Photography Athirah Annissa & Phyllicia Wang Grooming Sarah Tan