Brands Want In on the Vintage Fashion Boom

The turmoil of the last twelve months seems to have eliminated trends from fashion, with moods and desires almost impossible to track on a global scale. But one phenomenon still seems poised to dominate 2021: vintage clothing, or “archival fashion,” as the cognoscenti call it. (Funny, that, because “vintage” was developed as the snob’s alternative to “used” and “thrifted.”) Archival, a notch above vintage, is distinguished by the piece’s place in fashion history–it appeared on the runway, started a trend, or has been highly influential. And most importantly, it was created by a historically significant designer.

The pandemic and a new environmental consciousness among young people helped kick off the archival fashion boom. But there’s also a sensibility among Gen Z and Millennials that archival fashion is a way to signal taste and conscientiousness. (If HF Twitter is anything to go by, Gen Z’ers are particularly obsessive about ‘90s and ‘00s fashion.) It demonstrates an ability to look beyond the overhyped marketing blitz that fashion has become, instead prioritizing a willingness to hunt. Finding a killer Isseey Miyake flight jacket is a demonstration of connoisseurship, rather than the mere ability to stand in a line.

A new report from luxury resale platform The RealReal confirms the growing interest in archival clothes, showing that across every category on the site—from watches to handbags to ready-to-wear—sellers earned more than they did the year previously on vintage goods, which the site defines as accessories and clothing over ten years old. In fact, vintage sales grew 67% from the first to the second half of the year, with brands including Jean-Paul Gaultier, Issey Miyake, and Versace seeing huge spikes for items originally released during the ‘90s and 2000s.

That’s exciting news for The Real Real, the planet, and your weirdly cool nephew. It’s less exciting for luxury fashion brands. When those consumers grow into the age bracket for true luxury shopping, will they have a taste for the super pricey but readily available goods that make up the foundation of the market?

Some brands have faced the archival issue head on by teaming up with the RealReal. Last October, Gucci announced a partnership with the site that allows it to sell its own used or archival goods (like the ones used in campaign shoots), and has promised to plant a tree for every Gucci good sold on the platform. (Incidentally, the site notes in the report that resale value for vintage Gucci is up 12%). Burberry has a similar arrangement—beginning in October 2019, RealReal customers who consign a Burberry item on the site receive a complimentary personal shopping experience at a Burberry store, high tea included. Around the same time, Ralph Lauren launched a collaboration with Depop, the Gen Z favorite for vintage fashion, with secondhand Lauren goods curated by Depop users on the site and in pop-up spaces at selected stores. That arrangement allowed Ralph Lauren a cut of the profits. (None of Burberry, Gucci, and Stella McCartney, another RealReal brand partner, receive any money from their partnerships.)

This dynamic isn’t all that different from the art market, where artists are cut out from future sales of their pieces at auction or between dealers. But profits aren’t necessarily the point—for many designers, an interest in the archives simply part of the strategy. In a Zoom yesterday to share his Fall 2021 collection, Italian maestro Brunello Cucinelli wore a jacket from Spring 2017 he had reworked for this collection, in a new fabric, with three buttons instead of two, and a higher lapel. For Louis Vuitton’s Spring 2021 collection, Virgil Abloh offered a generous interpretation of upcycling that included reused fabrics as well as a reshowing of looks and pieces from previous collections—encouraging a collector’s eye, rather than a flipper’s sensibility.

But can designers and fashion business leaders go further? I think they can. It won’t be long before many consumers find the idea of “dipping back into the archives,” as newly installed designers at luxury houses are wont to say, passé, or even environmentally irresponsible. Why pull something out and tweak it with new-fangled ideas when the original was probably already great? I can imagine a future in which, rather than appointing a new creative director, a heritage house with a great archive will appoint a creative vintage “head” who can orchestrate the reproduction of vintage pieces, and buy used pieces off the market to repair and sell refurbished in stores or online. (Helmut Lang attempted to do this with their Re-Editions in 2017 and 2018, though it was too early and perhaps mis-marketed.) A savvy creative director might do something like that now—Gabriella Hearst, newly installed at Chloe, could enlist a vintage expert to help her repair and resell Karl Lagerfeld’s splendidly wacky works from ’60s and ’70s-era Chloe. As could Anthony Vaccarrello at Saint Laurent—the thirst for the eponymous designer’s defunct Rive Gauche tailoring for women and men is real. Raf Simons, one of the designers who launched the archival fashion movement, is already doing this, by reproducing a number of pieces from previous collections and selling them in honor of his 25th anniversary. Some snobs might dismiss the remakes. But good design is good design. And haven’t we all talked about wanting to really appreciate fashion by slowing down a bit?

One other possibility is for designers to become the curators themselves. On Tuesday, The Row announced that it will sell a collection of vintage fashion that fits into the world that designers Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen have created with their sublime minimalist brand. (Judging from the Olsens’ Met Gala outfits, their personal vintage collection is likely museum-worthy.) Their collections often openly reference ’90s touchpoints like Martin Margiela’s tenure at Hermes, Yohji Yamamoto, and Giorgio Armani. Now, they’re selling some of the pieces that have inspired them on their site and in their store, in a selection curated by Mary-Kate Olsen and vintage le
gend Marie Blanchet. The decision less about the vintage boom, Mary-Kate wrote to Vogue in an email, and more about envisioning their stores as universes unto themselves, and their customers as collectors. “For us it has always been part of our vision to sell our collections in ever-changing atmospheres,” she wrote, “to consider each location as unique and to curate what we sell in each store to enhance the client experience.” Finally: a reason to go into a brick-and-mortar store.