In Fashion, the Beauty (and Challenge) of Looking Back

LAGERFELD’S WILDLY successful echoing of Chanel’s history has become the blueprint for labels across the world. Today, designers use archival styles to anchor their individual aesthetics to a brand’s past. You may not recognize Maria Grazia Chiuri’s name immediately, for instance, but you recognize the name and look of Dior in her designs for the house — the wasp-waisted Bar jacket, the wide-spread skirts. The same goes for Paco Rabanne: Julien Dossena is a designer name that resonates mostly among industry insiders, but everyone remembers the house’s chain-mail dresses from ‘‘Barbarella’’ — ‘‘or Jane Birkin, or Françoise Hardy,’’ adds Dossena. All of them, and in turn Paco Rabanne itself, have become synonymous with ’60s Space Age style. In a crowded and confused modern marketplace, immediate recognition — Coco! Bar! Barbarella! — is as good as gold.

From a business perspective, this approach makes sense. But it raises larger creative and cultural questions: namely, who owns history? Does a designer operating under a label founded by another have license to resurrect its forebear’s history for inspiration? It often results in little that is truly, genuinely new. But maybe, right now, we’re not craving something new, but something honest. Some labels will reissue designs with minimal changes, if any — Chanel, for instance, offers multiple versions of the 2.55, the quilted, chain-strapped bag originally designed by Gabrielle Chanel in 1955. Perhaps this is a reflection of a global appetite for vintage, for an authenticity that we believe can only be found in the past.

But maybe backward-glancing isn’t a product of the ideological or philosophical ramifications of our time — a quest for the genuine article — but rather a more practical matter of supply and demand, a need for speed. Fashion designers typically produce four collections a season (bolstered by multiple interim commercial collections), some designing for two or more different labels. (Gvasalia has Vetements, Lagerfeld his namesake line and the co-creative director role at Fendi.) Cribbing from an existing style sheet is an easy fix for an industry demanding ever more from its designers, a practice that’s been employed with increasing frequency since the early 1990s, when journalists began to freely throw around the term ‘‘revival’’ to describe various designers’ close recreations of vintage styles. In the same period, the…

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