Almanac of Contemporary Aesthetics
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THEARCHIVEALGORITHM

In recent years, the rise of fashion archivists has had a similar trajectory to the popularization of vintage clothing in the 1960s and ’70s—only this time it was social media that fostered the hype and resale apps that channeled the biz. And one can’t help but wonder, if the burgeoning second-hand market is controlled by the algorithm, who stands to benefit most from it?

Words by Taylore Scarabelli

The other night I told my friend that resale apps are over. I was being facetious, but as someone who has bought over 95% of their wardrobe on Poshmark, I can’t help but feel frustrated by how quickly inexpensive vintage designer items are selling these days. Of course, I’m not the only one who feels this way. The burgeoning clothing resale market, also known as the circular economy, has become inflated by people like me, who think that sifting through virtual garage sales makes them experts in vintage fashion, and deserving of it too. But the truth is that buying and selling used clothing is becoming as ubiquitous as shopping at Target, and collecting rare designer goods, though less common, is no longer only a game for those in-the-know.

If you look up #archivalfashion on TikTok you’ll find endless videos featuring vintage Vivienne Westwood and Galliano-era Dior. Not only do savvy teenage collectors use the app to promote their Depop pages and show off their algorithmically acquired taste, but they also share trade secrets: like how to get deals on resale apps, or what kind of estate sales to look out for. These junior collectors may have money to spare (the best vintage archives tend to be held by the wealthy), yet that hasn’t stopped them from perpetuating a new phenomenon wherein anyone feels like they can become an archivist with a collection worth showing off.

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But what does archival fashion even mean? The general consensus is that “archives” should include items from iconic collections—those that helped define a designer's career. For beginner archivists, the most shared collections on social media tend to be the most coveted, like Jean Paul Gaultier’s Spring/Summer 1994 “Les Tatouages,” or Vivenne Westwood’s Fall/Winter 1993 show “Anglomania.” Yet through the mass adoption of archival fashion on social media its meaning has become watered down. Today, a Miu Miu sweater from 2009 that never made it to the runway might be tagged as #archival on Depop, while an increasing amount of people are referring to their own wardrobes as archives, regardless of whether they contain rare vintage items.

For resellers and friendly fashionistas, the rise of vintage fashion in the mainstream has had a net-positive effect, even if some people’s drive to acquire designer duds is more desperate than endearing (many buy second-hand labels because they’re cheap, not fashionable, like they would at an outlet mall). Yet for others, the democratization of collecting, facilitated by social media and resale apps like Etsy, Vestiaire Collective, and Depop, has led to a drought both in style and substance. Not only has a thirst for vintage items led to the skyrocketing of prices for the most sought-after designer goods, but when digital platforms are making big money o the sales of little businesses, there’s a lot more at stake than whether or not one can afford vintage Gaultier.

“But what does archival fashion even mean? The general consensus is that ‘archives’ should include items from iconic collections—those that helped define a designer's career.”

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For as long as people have had fashion sense, there’s been a market for second-hand clothes. In fact, it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that the idea of germ theory, and thus the perception of used clothing as unsanitary, arose. As a result, second-hand garments were reserved for the impoverished until the late 1950s, when beatniks and bohemians in New York’s Greenwich Village spearheaded a new craze for ’20s-era racoon skin coats. This look of “elected poverty” trickled-up from the underground onto the pages of magazines and into boutiques and even department stores, earning the name “vintage” to ascribe its rarity. By the 1970s, the second-hand clothing trend had become so popular that it resulted in a dearth of stock at thrift shops like Salvation Army, inflating the prices of used garments and popularizing “new old clothes” that mimicked vintage trends. In the early 2010s, around the same time that ’80s acid wash jeans and old band tees became popular amongst thrifting hipsters (culminating in Macklemore’s 2012 hit “Thrift Store”), there was a growth in online shopping for used designer clothes. In many ways, the rise of fashion archivists in the mid-2010s mirrored the popularization of vintage fashion in the ’60s and ’70s. Only instead of magazines and department stores spurring a renewed appreciation for used clothing in the mainstream, it was social media and resale apps like Grailed that enabled vintage dealers to grow, share, and monetize their collections. In fact, both Depop and Poshmark were founded in 2011, shortly after the launch of Instagram, and around the same time that now-infamous fashion archivists like David Casavant amassed their early collections. Casavant may have gotten his start thanks to an inheritance and a unique penchant for then-under-appreciated menswear designers like Raf Simons, Hedi Slimane, and Helmut Lang, but it was social media that solidified his success. Thanks to Instagram archivists like Rashida Renée (@howtobeafuckinglady), as well as collectors with moodboard accounts like Gabriel Held (@gabriel_held_vintage) both old designers and the dealers archiving their looks, have become household names amongst fashion-adjacent people who shop their resale stores and follow their social accounts for inspiration.

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Yet the increased visibility of these archives has had unintended results. Like the proliferation of “new old clothes” in the 1970s, renewed desires for vintage goods and the rising prices of new designer items has led to a booming industry of fast fashion knockoffs including everything from twenty dollar replicas of iconic Vivienne Westwood bustiers to mass-produced mesh Jean Paul Gaultier lookalikes from companies like Mystique Boutique and Fashion Nova. All of this is in part thanks to what I like to call the Kardashian-Jenner-Hadid effect. Whenever a member of the paparazzi-adored clan wears an item of vintage designer clothing, its replica appears on Alibaba.com in the following weeks, and the price of the original garment skyrockets in value. Even lesser-known vintage dealers and archivists can blow up the spot on little-known designers, increasing the demand and thus the value of their pieces. It’s the reason why we see hysteria over t-shirt companies like Hysteric Glamour, and the sudden absence of obscure brands like Plein Sud on Poshmark (rumor has it that Alexander McQueen designed a few collections for them in the late ’90s/early ’00s). When everyone sees the same trends, shopping becomes a competitive sport, especially when it comes to rare vintage looks.

“Whenever a Kardashian wears an item of vintage designer clothing, its replica appears on Alibaba.com in the following weeks, and the price of the original garment skyrockets in value.”

Smart vintage dealers like Brandon Veloria and Colin James of the New York-based vintage shop James Veloria understand this phenomenon and act accordingly. Along with their regular racks of brightly colored ’80s and ’90s clothes (I like to describe their style as Slaves of New York meets Party Girl), they regularly drop big collections featuring a single designer—like their recent showcase of 150 bold and brightly colored Todd Oldham runway looks once popularized by Fran Dresner on The Nanny. Dropping designer-specific collections can generate hype for archivist’s storefronts, real or virtual, but it can also help them sidestep a common problem. When resellers stock lesser-known brands in a market where both consumers and sellers can scour apps like Poshmark for discounts, everyone thinks they can find the best deal for themselves, and profit from it too (I personally have come across designers I didn’t know on Depop, and found items from their collections elsewhere for less). By amassing a collection before promoting looks from hard-to-source brands, archivists can avoid getting undercut by other aspiring collectors, like those who sell items from designer diffusion lines on Depop.

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“Only 5 to 7 percent of resaleable clothes are sold on resale platforms, leaving an estimated 2.1 trillion dollars worth of garments in landfills.”

The hypervisibility of archive accounts on Instagram and TikTok, as well as the low barriers to entry on resale platforms, have made it so that anyone can become a vintage dealer. Never has this been more apparent than during the 2020 pandemic lockdowns, when a massive spike in traffic on resale apps and stores led to a boom for the industry’s biggest players. A total of 101.2 million clothing items were sold in resale shops in 2020 (only 560,000 of them were second-hand), while Depop had a 30% increase in sales early last year, doubling its revenue to 70 million dollars before being bought by Etsy for 1.6 billion. Unsurprisingly then, established dealers and archivists are echoing complaints similar to their American forebears who were faced with a merchandise drought following an influx of interest in vintage clothing in the late ’70s. “Every hippie who finally decided he had to support himself went into the secondhand clothing business,” said a vintage shopkeeper in a 1978 New Yorker article titled “Rags to Riches.” “It was natural for them, but it was the beginning of the end for me.”

Even traditional retailers like H&M and Farfetch are dipping into the resale market. In a recent Instagram announcement, Farfetch declared that they plan on having over fifty percent of their products upcycled, preowned, resold, or donated through their platform by 2030. While luxury conglomerate Kering has both invested in resale platform Vestiaire Collective, as well as textile blend recycling company Worn Again. These investments reflect both the rising interest in vintage luxury goods amongst archivists and consumers, yet they also mirror a desire to capitalize off our collective anxiety about the future. For companies like H&M, green initiatives like resale and recycling programs work to offset the brand’s poor environmental record in the eyes of shoppers, all while increasing opportunities for sales.

“Anyone can become a vintage dealer. During the 2020 pandemic lockdowns, a massive spike in traffic on resale apps led to a boom for the industry’s biggest players.”

Still, we’ve yet to see the positive impact promised by these shifting consumer habits. While it’s undoubtedly better to buy designer goods second-hand, it’s not necessarily true that vintage shoppers are less apt to buy new. In fact, it’s possible that the resale economy could have the opposite effect, particularly when apps employ green-washing tactics to make it seem as if consumers are at the forefront of a revolution. On Vestiaire Collective, buyers and sellers earn a “Fashion Activist” badge on their page after completing a single purchase or sale, a gimmick that does little but alleviate consumers of their guilt the next time they shop new. What’s more, according to the Business of Fashion, only 5 to 7 percent of resaleable clothes are sold on resale platforms, leaving an estimated 2.1 trillion dollars worth of garments in landfills.

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Today, people like me complain about the rising prices of hard-to-find designer items, while others call out Depop hustlers for hoarding hot second-hand commodities to the detriment of low-income consumers. But critics of the rising circular economy often overlook the systemic inequalities inherent within the resale game, and who the major benefactors are. In an era when environmental catastrophes like the COVID#19 crisis are turning side hustles into full time gigs, and the environmental impact of clothing production, and fast fashion in particular, is worse than ever, it’s the platforms, not the people, who stand to benefit most from circular economies.

As consumers, not only are we buying into a smoke screen of environmentalism when we shop used, but we’re also fooling ourselves into believing that our lust for rare vintage goods is safe from becoming another corporate-backed phenomenon. Both social media filter bubbles and resale apps have made us victims to vintage trend cycles, but they’ve also bolstered our allegiance to brands. Take Dior, for example. Following the social media-fueled hype around John Galliano’s early aughts collections in 2018, the company brought their monogram back to the forefront and reissued Galliano’s infamous saddle bag. All of this contributed to a spike in Dior’s sales, regardless of the fact that many fashion critics have expressed disdain for their latest womenswear collections.

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So what does it mean to build an archive when our collective taste has been flattened by the algorithm? On apps like Depop, likes, follows, and saves harness our attention in the same way that social media does. For archivists, these features are compelling, particularly when the selling and renting of goods has become a metrics game (the more likes, the more awareness). But when a collector's success is largely based on their social media presence, they’re less likely to create a unique collection, and more apt to pander to established tastes. Even self-aware consumers, the type who post Tiktoks making fun of the fact that everyone is obsessed with Margiela Tabi boots and Gucci belts, often find themselves buying and selling the same looks.

Just the other day I met a girl who told me she was launching her own vintage collection. When I asked her what style of clothes she was selling, she simply referred to another archivist who’s popular on Instagram. Like them, she would stock items from the early 2000s featuring neutral pallets and raw hems—an increasingly popular aesthetic for millennials who like to position themselves within the Y2K trendscape without blatantly cowing to the maximalism favored by the under-25 crowd. I personally like this aesthetic, particularly at a time when wearing bold colors can come across as gauche, yet I couldn’t help but feel disappointed by the fact that this collector was comparing her style to another reseller. To me, the most appealing part of shopping vintage is the chance of finding something rare. But to do so is still a luxury, and whether we like to admit it or not, what we buy is almost always influenced by our feeds. That's why we tend to see the same brands stocked by resellers on Depop. To be a successful archivist in the age of social media, you either have to create hype or pander to it, and the former is a losing game.

TAYLORE SCARABELLI IS A NEW YORK-BASED WRITER AND CO-FOUNDER OF ALTERNATIVE SOCIAL PLATFORM RELEVANT COMMUNITY.

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