Society

How Instagram Is Reviving Fashion-House History

Amateur fashion aficionados are using new technology to celebrate the pre-internet past, and forcing labels to reconsider their archives.

Scrolling down through fashion history
Carine Bizet

PARIS — In a narrow, labyrinthine room, gold chairs are lined up against the walls. The top model Amber Valletta struts catlike along the runway, wearing a truly marvelous creation: a Chanel haute couture coat with embellishments by Lesage, designed by Karl Lagerfeld and inspired by Gabrielle Chanel's collection of lacquered wooden screens from Coromandel.

The year is 1996, and the event features one of the most beautiful collections the legendary German designer ever produced, though of course there were no smartphones around back then to immortalize it. And yet, here it is, the moment captured in all its glory — on Instagram.

For that we can thank Ilius Ahmed, creator of the account @unforgettable_runway, who uploaded the vintage video for the world to see. The footage is from one of numerous runway videos that the Central Saint Martin's graduate spent years collecting. Artifacts from a pre-internet-age, the fashion-house videos sparkle like rare gems.

Their success poses a bigger question about online history.

Ahmed is part of a new wave of amateur "fashion historians' who have taken over Instagram. Their follower numbers are growing by the day: the @mcqueen_vault account, created last September, is dedicated to the work of Lee Alexander McQueen and his fashion house. It already has more than 44,000 followers. The work of John Galliano has also proven to be an inspiration for many: @diorinthe2000s (53,000 followers) and @diorbyjohngalliano (39,000) are keeping the English designer's legacy at the label alive.

The Instagrammers have quickly established themselves as credible sources, and their followers include many industry insiders: designers, journalists or stylists such as Marc Jacobs, Alexander Fury or Ellie Grace Cumming (two of the biggest talents in English fashion journalism). Some of the most prestigious newspapers are also publishing features about their fashion accounts.

CHRISTIAN DIOR Haute Couture Spring Summer 1998 — Photo: @unforgettable_runway via Instagram

But their success poses a bigger question about online history: What place do these self-appointed experts have alongside the official and institutional sources such as the museums and the fashion houses themselves?

Curiosity and caution

Over the last 15 years, the biggest names in luxury fashion have made great efforts to organize their archives, explore their heritage and make use of it by holding exhibitions and publishing books. The exhibition celebrating 70 years of Dior, organized by the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris (July 5, 2017-Jan. 7, 2018) was a particularly resounding success, attracting 708,000 visitors and demonstrating to fashion labels and official institutions that working together can prove very fruitful.

But in the virtual world things aren't so simple. The big fashion houses have struggled to find the right tone on social networks. They concentrate on promoting new products: this season's handbag or their latest perfume campaign.

The issue of legacy can be brushed aside when it has to compete with the demands of the market. And the biggest labels also use social media to perform a modern form of damnatio memoriae, a kind of deliberate forgetting practiced in Antiquity, where every trace of a person is destroyed. In the 21st century, this approach is used to purge all online platforms of the work of outgoing artistic directors in a single click.

Photo: @mcqueen_vault via Instagram

But nowadays there is nothing to stop diehard fans from rescuing a designer's work from obscurity and memorializing it on their Instagram accounts.

At Céline and Burberry, the arrival of two new designers (Hedi Slimane and Riccardo Tisci, respectively) precipitated a spring clean: All images of the previous designers' work was deleted from the labels' Instagram accounts to mark the beginning of a new era. A few web users, however, disregarded this marketing strategy and created accounts celebrating the outgoing designers. One such account is @oldceline, which pays homage to Phoebe Philo's work for the French label.

When everyone is defending their own patch of ground, it can feel like there's not enough space for all. The reaction by the fashion houses to these accounts beyond their control has so far been a mixture of benevolent curiosity, mistrust and helplessness.

"Of course, everyone is free to publish images that are freely accessible on the internet," says Bruno Pavlovsky, president of fashion at Chanel. "In principle, these fan accounts don't bother me as long as they don't interfere with the label's communication strategy. That's what we'll have to keep an eye on in the next few years."

Still, relations between the labels and these internet historians tend overall to be friendly. "I've never had any problems with the labels," says the @unforgettable_runway account's Ilius Ahmed. "I'm in contact with lots of fashion houses and I have agreements with some of them that allow me to post shorter or longer clips of their shows."

The British man collaborated with the Karl Lagerfeld brand, for example, to help create an homage to the late designer at the Paris memorial in June.

A double-edged sword

The biggest fashion houses are aware of the importance of communication for their legacy, especially online. "People want historical content, so it's up to the labels to respond to that demand. The time is now, and we have to be the driving force behind this," says Soizic Pfaff, archivist of Dior Heritage.

As for the brand's digital division, they are already working on their online legacy. "More than five years ago we started digitizing all our archives," a spokesperson told us. "It's quite a long process as we have to scan the photos, sketches, etc. However, we regularly post stories about the history of Dior when we're launching products or collections."

And they don't hesitate to use external, amateur sources. "A few years ago we discovered the king of couture, a Tumblr page that was entirely dedicated to the work of Raf Simons at Dior. We invited the creator, Mikulas, to our runway show in Cannes and set up a meeting with the designer. He then did an internship in our studio."

DIOR HOMME par Kris van Assche — Photo: the king of couture via Tumblr

Museums also have a key role to play in this area of fashion history. It's easy to imagine these institutions as being very serious and set in their ways. And yet, they have proven to be welcoming to amateur historians. "The well-run accounts in this field are genuine historiographical tools for the history of fashion and art," says Olivier Gabet, director of the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris.

There's a risk, though, in making the old designs too readily available.

The museum has already done a lot of work in this area, although there is a significant obstacle: the financial and human cost of digitizing their archives and making them available online.

But even for the museums, there is a tension between the need to promote current exhibitions and the desire to celebrate history. "Putting both on the same Instagram feed is a bit inconsistent," says Olivier Gabet. "In fact, you'd almost need two Instagram accounts, one for each." Not a bad idea perhaps.

It's true, though, that there's a double-edged sword aspect to social networks. Yes, they give us access to many things, perhaps too many, as we can see with celebrities on Instagram. And fans are delighted to have a window into their daily lives. But after a few photos of the stars making power smoothies in the kitchen, people can also start to pine for the mystery of bygone eras.

The throw-back videos — the kind that Ilius Ahmed are doing so much to disseminate — respond to that desire. There's a risk, though, in making the old designs too readily available. "The archives are a real treasure that the fashion houses want to preserve," says Michael Jais, CEO of Launchmetrics, an international marketing and data analysis platform. "But making them public puts them at risk of being copied and devaluing their creative capital." A dilemma indeed.

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A tribute to the 30,000 Iranian political prisoners murdered in Iran in 1988

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Hannah Steinkopf-Frank and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Laba diena!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where Afghanistan's Taliban demand to speak at the United Nations, China takes a bold ecological stand and we find out why monkeys kept their tails and humans didn't. Business magazine America Economia also looks at how Latin American countries are looking to attract a new generation of freelancers known as "digital nomads" in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

[*Lithuanian]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Taliban ask to speak at UN: With global leaders gathered in New York for the 76th meeting of the UN General Assembly, Afghanistan's new rulers say their country's previously accredited United Nations ambassador no longer represents the country, and have demanded a new Taliban envoy speak instead. Afghanistan is scheduled to give the final intervention next Monday to the General Assembly, and a UN committee must now rule who can speak.

• Four corpses found on Belarus border with Poland: The discovery of bodies of four people on Belarus-Poland border who appear to have died from hypothermia are raising new accusations that Belarus is pushing migrants to the eastern border of the European Union, possibly in retaliation over Western sanctions following the contested reelection of the country's strongman Alexander Lukashenko. The discovery comes amid a surge of largely Afghani and Iraqi migrants attempting to enter Poland in recent weeks.

• China to stop building coal-burning power plants abroad: Under pressure to limit emissions to meet Paris climate agreement goals, China announces an end to funding future projects in Indonesia, Vietnam and other countries through its Belt and Road initiative.

• Turkey ratifies Paris climate agreement: Following a year of wildfires and flash floods, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced at the UN that Turkey will become the last G-20 country to ratify the emissions-limiting accords. Turkey already signed the agreement in 2016, but has yet to hold a vote in parliament.

• Mass evacuations following Canary Islands volcano: More than 6,000 people have fled the Spanish archipelago as heavy flows of lava have buried hundreds of homes. Four earthquakes have also hit the Canaries since the Sunday eruption, which could also cause other explosions and the release of toxic gas.

• Rare earthquake hits Melbourne: The 5.9 magnitude quake struck near Melbourne in southern Australia, with aftershocks going as far Adelaide, Canberra and Launceston. Videos shared on social media show at least one damaged building, with power lines disrupted in Australia's second largest city. No injuries have been reported.

• The evolutionary tale of tails: Charles Darwin first discovered that humans evolved to lose this biological trait. But only now are New York scientists showing that it was a single genetic tweak that could have caused this shift, while our monkey relatives kept their backside appendages.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

"The roof of Barcelona" — El Periodico daily reports on the latest delay from what may be the longest-running construction project in the world. Work on the iconic Barcelona church La Sagrada Familia, which began all the way back in 1882 as the vision of master architect Antoni Gaudí, was slated to be completed in 2026. The Barcelona-based daily reports that a press conference Tuesday confirmed that the deadline won't be met, in part because of delays related to COVID-19. Officials also provided new details about the impending completion of the Mare de Déu tower (tower of the Virgin), the first tower of the temple to be completed in 44 years. Although it is currently the second tallest spire of the complex, it will become the highest point of the Sagrada Familia, reaching 172.5 meters thanks to an illuminated "great cross."

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Latin America, the next mecca for digital nomads

Latin American countries want to cash in on the post-pandemic changes to the fundamental ways we work and live, in particular by capitalizing on a growing demand from the new wave of remote workers and "youngish" professional freelancers with money to spend, reports Natalia Vera Ramírez in business magazine America Economia.

💻🏖️ Niels Olson, Ecuador's tourism minister, is working hard to bring "digital nomads" to his country. He believes that attracting this new generation of freelancers who can work from anywhere for extended visits is a unique opportunity for all. Living in a town like Puerto López, he wrote on Twitter, the expat freelancer could "work by the sea, live with a mostly vaccinated population, in the same time zone, (enjoy) an excellent climate, and eat fresh seafood." For Ecuador, the new influx of visitors with money to spend would help boost the country's economy.

🧳 While online-based freelancers already hopped from country to country before COVID-19, the pandemic has boosted their current numbers to around 100 million worldwide. The Inter-American Development Bank estimates there could be a billion roaming, digital workers by 2050. Some European countries already issue visas for digital nomads. They include Germany, Portugal, Iceland, Croatia, Estonia and the Czech Republic, but in the Americas, only four countries make the list, namely Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Panama and Costa Rica.

💰 In August 2021, Costa Rica approved a law for remote workers and international service providers, intended to attract digital nomads and make its travel sector more competitive. The law provides legal guarantees and specific tax exemptions for remote workers choosing to make the country their place of work. It allows foreign nationals earning more than $3,000 a month to stay for up to a year in the country, with the ability to renew their visa for an additional year. If applicants are a family, the income requisite rises to $5,000.


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$2.1 billion

Google announced yesterday it will spend $2.1 billion to buy a sprawling Manhattan office building, in one of the largest sales of a building in U.S. history. The tech giant plans on growing its New York workforce to more than 14,000 people.

📣 VERBATIM

It is sickening and shameful to see this kind of president give such a lie-filled speech on the international stage.

— Opposition Brazilian congresswoman Vivi Reis in response to President Jair Bolsonaro's inflammatory 12-minute speech at the UN General Assembly. The unvaccinated head of state touted untested COVID-19 cures, criticized public health measures and boasted that the South American country's environmental protections were the best in the world.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Hannah Steinkopf-Frank & Bertrand Hauger

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