The most recent thread of mainstream “archive fashion” started three or four years ago when popular fashion digested and moved onto its next 20-year cycle. We saw a re-appraisal of Y2K era styles of baggy jeans, rhinestone tank tops and Bapestas, birthing a parallel underbelly of interest in other designers’ work around the early 2000s (and earlier).
The term “archive fashion” as it is used right now means something different than what the words “archive” and “fashion” mean when put together—anything could potentially be worth archiving, but the names typically invoked by the term can be reduced to a basic anecdotal list of: Comme des Garçons’ menswear diffusion lines, Helmut Lang, Hedi Slimane’s tenure at Dior Homme, Raf Simons, Jean Paul-Gaultier, Rick Owens, Yohji Yamamoto, Undercover and Takahiro Miyashita’ years at Number (N)ine… This particular menswear grouping can be traced back to late 2000’s StyleZeitgeist forums and 4chan’s /fa/shion board. They’re not unified by a strict aesthetic code, but the style is generally composed of dark tones, anything with clear and uncomplicated logos, punk and bondage inspiration, and a lot of direct references to music. To be clear, there are also other brands that are either a part of this circle but too niche for most, like Veronique Branquinho, or are usually included within it because they share large parts of their fanbases, like Carol Christian Poell.
For some labels, like Lang or Slimane, this focus on the early 2000s exists because their best shows are considered by popular opinion to have been around this time. What’s usually archived is the work that is emblematic of an influential moment in the designer’s past—such as when the aforementioned Lang brought minimalism to the runway, and when Slimane revolutionized the ideal male figure by making it impossibly thin in a time of billowy tailoring. Consumers look to these past collections to avoid the anxiety of having to buy “the right thing” in stores right now, when 20 years’ worth of collective critical eye can select the most timeless or contemporary pieces for you. Many of these designers sell lots of avant-garde material alongside basics like jeans and t-shirts, and the market tends to favor pieces that lie somewhere in the middle, so that one can represent a brand’s ideology in a way that feels authentic. The appeal of this clothing is a mix of vintage and haute couture, the thrill of the hunt combined with a secret badge of honor for those who know. Lowered cost and environmental impact are also two of the most common reasons to participate in archival clothing, though of course there are specific iconic items that have become much more expensive.
Instagram has played a massive role in popularizing archive fashion, since the format lends itself to self-described archive pages that upload rare scans tagged alongside blurbs of text describing the item’s year, influences, context, occasionally dual-operating as stores. As these pages have grown in popularity so have fashion meme accounts, themselves often instrumental in disseminating which pieces are the most in demand. Many of these accounts have noted how archive seems to be the way for post-streetwear collectors to perform within the same cycles of hype as before, but with the appearance of matured taste—that is, archive fashion is still fashion and fashion is exclusivity. It’s why the community groaned when peak exposure breached and Drake wore Raf Simon’s AW01 “Riot! Riot! Riot!” MA-1 Bomber Jacket (record sale is $47,000; the cheapest I could find at time of writing is $16,200). Some would claim this article as proof that the movement has reached critical mass and has, in theory, begun its decline.
However, although certain items have become means of conspicuous consumption, the overall conversation around construction, material, concept, presentation and durability is infinitely more culturally valuable than whatever ex-streetwear enthusiasts used to talk about. Obviously these are not black-and-white distinctions: some would consider Chrome Hearts a part of the archive circle, but the brand also definitely exists within the realm of pure hype (this being Supreme, A Bathing Ape, etc.). And even if archive fashion has become just another way to brag, for some like myself it has created a real passion where there was not one before. This is because archive fashion, while trendy, isn’t necessarily decided by trends. It’s a method of curation that prioritizes the past, entirely in line with the great conservationist slogan of “BUY VINTAGE,” one that asks us to not only think about how clothing can make meaning, but also if that meaning is meant to last.