The more things change, the more they stay the same. That roughly sums up a trend suffusing the luxury fashion industry: brands are increasingly going back to their roots. It’s only in the recent few decades that the histories and archives of heritage brands became truly critical. The idea of a brand or designer’s “DNA” is a recent invention, largely because the era of eponymous founders began to pass into the next generation. The biggest players in fashion are named after people, and as successor designers and creative directors take over, the starting modus operandi is often a trip to the archives. Whether for inspiration or aesthetic immersion, history has become indispensable.
Haute couture reimagined
The house of Dior is one brand that has made a truly concerted effort with its archives, with results to show for it to boot. Its Designer of Dreams exhibition, conceived in 2017 for its 70th anniversary, was first staged at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. Since then, it’s been on a tour around the world: at the Brooklyn Museum in New York, the Victoria & Albert in London, and most recently, in Tokyo’s Museum of Contemporary Art. It’s now past the 75th anniversary of the house’s founding, yet still its trove of historical haute couture creations and objects continues to fascinate and educate. It’s nothing to scoff at; with more than half a million visitors, Dior’s run at the V&A has actually become the most-visited show in the museum’s history.
All of this was made possible as early as 1974, when one Soizic Pfaff arrived at Dior. First, in the marketing department. Then in 1985, fresh off the acquisition of Dior by Bernard Arnault, Madame Pfaff was assigned to the house archives. The occasion: an exhibition to be staged in two years to celebrate the brand’s 40th anniversary. Pfaff has been with the archives since, and is responsible today for maintaining and building up the department known as Dior Heritage.
A big part of her work is visibly front-facing: those blockbuster exhibitions, each one asking new things of the rich Dior Heritage. The latest inTokyo for example, expands on the base show by exploring Christian Dior’s history and ties to Japan. Some of Dior’s looks from the ‘50s used fabrics from Kyoto, and the couturier was commissioned to create dresses in 1959 for Princess Michiko’s wedding. Behind the scenes however, Pfaff’s work is crucial for the creative directors and designers looking for inspiration from the past. When Maria Grazia Chiuri reinterprets the Bar silhouette for example, there is 75 years’ worth of inspiration at the ready. When house milliner Stephen Jones wants to reference a particular decade, Pfaff provides the examples. When Peter Philips, the brand’s creative director of Dior Makeup, wants to design shades of red, he can pull up a repertoire of reds that have been used on the brand’s designs. When newly-minted perfumer Francis Kurkdjian wants to capture an essence of the house in scent, he too can pull up the history of the Parfums of Christian Dior, and so on—you get the idea.
One creative director at Dior who has made copious use of the archives is Kim Jones, the artistic director of Dior Men. Since his debut collection, Jones has made a clear and obvious connection between contemporary menswear and the house’s haute couture roots. There are show stopping pieces from that Summer 2019 collection for example, that use haute couture embroidery and plumasserie(feather working) techniques—a minor revolution in menswear with pieces allegedly priced as high as the women’s equivalents.
His current collection, Fall 2023, features similarly clear links. Staged in Cairo, Egypt, it’s meant as a tribute to the wonders of astrology—Monsieur Dior was a famously superstitious man. There were a pair of richly embroidered vests in the show: clusters of blue, silver and beige sequins sewn by hand, and worn under sheer, gauzy shirts. For the trained or even remotely familiar eye, these were a direct reference to the Junon haute couture dress from 1949, one of Dior’s most famous creations. More subtle were a series of woven wool tracksuits with a Flemish pleat cuff detail, inspired in fact by a skirt suit silhouette from 1956. The soft, rounded volume of those archival designs were translated into a silhouette for men, with the zipper opening hidden in the back. There’s also the Bonne Fortune dress from 1950—the heather grey wool and hand-pleated skirt detail translated into half-skirts that gird men’s wool trousers. Those dainty, feminine couture clothes, reconfigured by Jones, match contemporary needs: the inherent sportiness of present-day menswear, with a material and conceptual link to the house’s past.
Flying the flag
It’s also no coincidence that the biggest players in fashion today are French and Italian. The French, with the illustrious history of Paris as the heart of haute couture; and the Italians, with a long past as a centre of high craftsmanship. The more unsung member of the continent is the United Kingdom. There, one brand flies the flag for the British—Burberry. Founded in 1856, few in Britain compare when it comes to heritage. Names of the modern vanguard like Alexander McQueen, Christopher Kane and Jonathan Anderson only go so far back as the ‘90s.
It’s also a fortuitous moment for the brand, which has freshly begun a new era under the creative direction of Yorkshire-born Daniel Lee. One of Lee’s first big moves on his appointment was the introduction of a new logo for the brand.Or rather, a reintroduction: the present logo is a rework of the 1901 Equestrian Knight design, a winning entry from a public competition which the brand adopted and trademarked. Of note: the choice of colour for the logo. It’s not just blue, it’s not turquoise, it’s not lapis, and it certainly isn’t cerulean. Rather, it’s royal blue, a shade that can be traced back to the 1800s when it was created for a dress commissioned by English royalty. The return to this historical logo also features the Latin word ‘prorsum’, meaning ‘forward’, which had been the name of Burberry’s high-end runway collections between 1999 and 2015.
The delineation of a runway line may be a thing of the past, but the fame and success of the brand’s gabardine trench coat certainly isn’t. Upon starting at Burberry, Lee quickly got to work and put out a series of campaign images dubbed ‘A New Creative Expression’, shot at London locations like Trafalgar Square and Albert Bridge, and fronted by British celebrities like Vanessa Redgrave, Raheem Sterling, Lennon Gallagher and Skepta, among others. Almost all of them were photographed wearing a trench coat, or otherwise with details like the house check or a British rose. The idea being, of course, that these are the iconography of Britain’s most prestigious heritage fashion house.
Burberry has tended to simply charge ahead. Indeed, it was one of luxury’s earliest pioneers of the internet, an early adopter of e-commerce and champion of the see-now-buy-now phenomenon when it first emerged. It’s been timely and of-the-moment—in 2018 for example when creative director Christopher Bailey designed a rainbow check in support of the LGBTQ+movement.
Burberry also seems to be allowing itself a look back with its new monograph, published by the Paris-founded, New York-headquartered high-end house Assouline. It’s the only officially-endorsed book by the brand in recent years. Central to the book, which is chock full of archival photographs, is brand historian Carly Eck. She describes the history of the brand as a “dormant treasure trove”, which the book will unveil in a “panorama of the company’s extraordinary heritage.”
It all started with luggage
In the modern imagination, Gucci is known for many things. Horsebit loafers, fur-lined mules, bamboo handle handbags, monogrammed canvas, dressing Harry Styles, but what many may not know is that Gucci’s roots are in luggage. One has to understand the time period that the brand’s founder Guccio Gucci lived in. When the brand was founded in 1921 in Florence, commercial air travel was a new invention.The Savoy hotel in London where Guccio had worked, played host to a worldly carousel of travellers. As a porter, Guccio handled the luggage of the jet set, and when he returned to Florence he was inspired to open his own atelier of artisanal luggage. So influential was this background, that the brass tags of Gucci luggage from the ‘30s feature a porter icon above an art-deco style version of the brand’s logo.
Whether the timing is a coincidence is hard to say, but Gucci has put a renewed focus on its luggage collection at a time when the brand is in transition. Alessandro Michele, the creative director who revitalised and breathed kooky new life into Gucci, has left the brand. Sabato de Sarno, formerly at Valentino, has been appointed as replacement. And until de Sarno shows his first collection, there is a liminal moment of pause for the brand—which may well explain a return to fundamentals.
It’s not all historical, though. Gucci luggage has been entirely revamped and reissued for the present day in the form of its Valigeria collection. The brand even opened a specialty boutique in Paris which stocks the entire range of luggage. This includes weekender bags, roller luggages, traditional hard sided cases, accessories like watch, toiletry, hat cases and garment bags, and the latest:aluminium trolley luggage manufactured in collaboration with Italian brand FPM Milano.
The most classically Gucci of these are dubbed the Gucci Savoy collection, which is distinguished by heritage details like the GG monogram, double G hardware and the green-red canvas web stripe. Marco Bizzarri, the company’s president and CEO, explained the collection as a“powerful reminder of our Florentine roots and our timeless craft”, comparing its present iteration as a “symbol of our legacy, reinterpreted through the ages for the travellers and modern-day explorers of every era.”
The issue of Vogue Man Singapore is available for sale online and in bookstores now.