Archival Quality

Building a collection with fashion archivist Julie Ann Orsini

While the debate over whether fashion is an art or a business rages on (we side with “both”), few of us actually treat our clothes like works of art. Julie Ann Orsini, founder of fashion archiving service The Wardrobe LLC, creates museum-quality storage conditions for both private collectors and the archives of designers including Tom Ford, Proenza Schouler, and Jason Wu. We asked her for some professional advice on how to collect and care for clothing.
Where should a novice clothing collector start?
The most natural place to start is with a designer whose work you love.  Personally, after learning about many amazing designers forgotten by history, I found it really fun to hunt for [their] extant pieces.  I could usually find things relatively inexpensively.
Which designers working now are worth investing in?
Stella McCartney’s and Phoebe Philo's work for Chloé is very hot right now.  I'm sure Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton will be commanding high prices in the years to come, as well Nicolas Ghesquière's work for Balenciaga.  It wouldn't be a bad idea to invest in his upcoming first collection for Vuitton, either!  
Tips for achieving archival storage conditions at home?
Call me!  Barring that, start with a basic premise: don't use attics and basements.  Climate controlled rooms with consistent temperatures and humidity levels are best.  Attics retain too much heat, and basements are too damp.
What are some common clothing storage mistakes?
Packing pieces in closets too tightly not only denies garments breathing room, it's inviting to clothing moths – they love to hide in dark, cramped spaces.  A hanger that is the wrong structure for a garment can stretch it out, or cause the weave to weaken.  Another big offender I see (and in shockingly nice closets, as well as designer archives) is that people keep garments in dry cleaning bags or vinyl garment bags.  This is a major no-no.  The plastic traps cleaning solvents that are off-gassing, which eventually damages garments.  
Which styles are the hardest to store?
Generally, pieces with mixed materials and construction.  For example, imagine if you had a silk dress with beading and feather trim.  The beading will weigh on the silk, making it a good candidate for flat storage.  Laying the dress flat would prevent stressing the weave structure over time.  The feathers, however, could be smashed and destroyed.  That's where an expert opinion is really essential: I can make a case-by-case judgment about the right method and how to achieve it.
Preserving special pieces (a wedding dress, a couture gown) is one thing. What about items you wear all the time?
Make sure they're clean before you store them.  You can wet-clean more things than you'd think using a very mild detergent and cold water in your sink.  Give clothing a break – don't wear the same thing every day if you expect it to hold up.  I like to air out garments that don't necessarily need to be washed after every wear before storing them.  Keep closets and drawers clean and free of dust.  It not only attracts pests, but as fibers expand and contract with humidity changes, dust can weaken them and create holes.
Which pieces should you never throw away?
Keep work that is significant to a designer's career: a first collection, last collection, or pieces featured in a famous editorial or ad campaign.  A piece that is very unusual or atypical of a designer's work can also gain value.  Generally speaking, pre-seasons are considered commercial, and are not valuable from a collector's standpoint.  Shop them for yourself, and splurge on a main collection piece for your archive.
When is it time to let go?
It's time to let go when you haven't worn something in over a year, if it doesn't fit, or if it’s otherwise unflattering.  I find people hold on to clothing for irrational, emotional reasons: thinking they “may” have a use for a piece if they ever go back to a job they had ten years ago, etc.  The truth is, even if they do go back to a former career, they're going to buy new clothing.  Special pieces you wish to archive should be properly stored in an off-site location. That will leave room in your closet for things you are wearing and enjoying all the time.
It's important to keep in mind that caring for a collection is costly.  You want to ensure that those dollars are going to care for worthy pieces.  That's when it's important to know their value and to have an expert opinion.
Has your point of view as an archivist influenced your views on fashion?
Learning the history of fashion and textiles and working as a fashion archivist has definitely influenced my views.  I generally abstain from fast fashion.  I think that, sadly, many consumers are taught to shop for “the look” rather than quality.  I hope we are moving away from that and getting back to appreciating quality.
Julie Ann Orsini is available for consultation at

Photos courtesy of Julie Ann Orsini.