Packages started arriving at my doorstep last September: from thick cardboard invitations to digital shows wrapped in fabrics inside boxes inside shopping bags, sometimes tucked away next to additional gewgaws like candies or buttons or candles, sometimes superimposed on books. They were care packages from across the ocean and the city, Proustian madeleines intended to refresh the memory and the senses so that, seated at our desks, beds or kitchen tables, wherever we “Attending” virtual fashion shows, we could imagine ourselves sitting on benches airside, as we have done in the past.
One day my doorbell rang and a courier handed over a brown paper bag containing two more brown bags, each containing a single croissant, from a brand theoretically committed to sustainable development.
Another time a giant shopping bag arrived containing a smaller shopping bag, containing an invitation printed on a piece of silk.
It’s the last straw, I tell my husband. Such a waste. A waste of money and a literal waste, all that packaging and promotional material going straight to the recycling bin. (Certainly we ate the sweets with pleasure.)
But then the show-in-a-box, by JW Anderson, arrived: a do-it-yourself building set of paper dolls (models photographed in the collection and then shrunk), backgrounds and props, to create your own diorama.
And then came a book commemorating an empty New York, with models silhouetted against the horizon and echoing street scenes, by Proenza Schouler. And then I started to think about all the … thing … In a slightly different light.
Two seasons and several months later, it’s just stuff. It’s more like a memorial to a sad and lost year; a year marked by the absence – of people, places, experiences – captured by random physical things.
“When everything has become virtual, the object becomes the repository of a moment,” said Steven Lubar, professor of American studies at Brown University and author of “Inside the Lost Museum”. Even if it’s a doohickey with no particular monetary value.
Such objects are, said Clara Berg, curator of collections at the Museum of History & Industry in Seattle, “witnesses to history.”
“This year, we all have collectively understood that we are experiencing something important,” she said. “We will want to remember that and save the items for the future to tell people what it looked like.”
After all, if fashion teaches us anything, it’s how easy it is to forget, even with a physical object left as a cheat sheet. As each season hits the catwalk, each new designer in a house takes out the old and enters the new.
But it also reveals how much a personal story can be contained in a dress, blouse or bag; how just seeing it can bring back, viscerally, a moment in time. Like when we were forced to live largely online.
It turns out that virtual fashion shows are even more ephemeral than the real ephemeral ones. Seen for a moment, they disappear even faster in the digital mouth, all merging into a sea of pixels. Very little of this lingers in the mind (let alone what was left of the crazy cycle of physical shows). When everything is on Zoom, everything is equal, which means it’s almost impossible for anything to stand out.
Unless it can really hold up.
Questions surrounding the significance of artefacts date back to Aristotle, who struggled with them in his “Metaphysics,” and our understanding of their importance has grown and diminished over the centuries. During the last great pandemic – the 1918 flu – “hardly anyone saved anything,” Lubar said. “The country desperately wanted to forget.”
After September 11, he said, that changed. Now we are in another of those times, where everyone is “thinking about the story,” he said. “There is currently a large collection of masks in almost every museum.”
The designer who understood this most intrinsically was undoubtedly Jonathan Anderson, who treated each of the shows he created for the three brands he works with (JW Anderson, Loewe and Moncler) as a potential future archaeological find.
What started as a show-in-a-box turned into a gallery in a book, a show-on-a-wall (complete with DIY wallpaper and a glue brush), a show-on -a-shirt (a giant T-shirt plastered with looks), a collaboration of artists in the form of a poster and a large-format newspaper distributed in the dailies of thousands of people around the world. All this an experience of corporeality.
“I just didn’t see how you could make an emotional connection with a moving image on a screen if that’s all there is,” Mr. Anderson said in a conversation via, yes , Zoom in on newspaper delivery.
“Netflix, email, Zoom – it’s all in one place, so whatever you do, it never stands out,” he said. “I felt at least with one object, it occupies space and a moment in time. You interact with him physically. It’s part of the record. “
It takes commitment and consideration; represents not only the touch of the one who made it, but the touch of the person who received it. In this, his work became more than a memory, but rather an exercise that forced everyone to become an anthropologist on their own. We were already rummaging when we started to open the mail.
(Speaking of mail: Ms Berg said that one of the items the Museum of History and Industry has acquired is a stimulus check.)
I have never been a collector of fashion season memorabilia like some of my peers; I used to throw out show invites and press releases as soon as the lights went out on a runway, like crossing them off a to-do list. As my bag got lighter, so did my psyche.
But like so many others this reversed year, my practice has changed. I hardly bought anything, but I started to amass these memory containers. Think of them as amphorae, the fashionable version.
Little by little, I started to choose: a copy of “Dune” by Joseph Altuzarra, annotated with nuances and notes that reflect the relationship between fiction and fashion. Packets of fabrics from Gabriela Hearst’s beginnings at Chloé it looked like tactile snippets from the future.
Prada’s kitsch faux fur boxes, covered in the same shiny polyester down as the sets, looked like little Pokemon pets. A Thom Browne flip book of an old fashioned skier pulling downhill. A toy bus from Carolina Herrera and a DIY balsa wood airplane with an air sickness bag from Louis Vuitton, which seemed to symbolize a time when we were free to travel without thinking. Dior tarot cards for predicting what’s to come. A mock TV guide from Coach that added some levity to the fact that we all live vicariously through our TVs (or what’s going on about that now).
There is no financial value attached to anything – it was not made for sale, the materials are not valuable – but together they form a sort of reliquary. I see them and see the human desire to create and the stubbornness of hope. It is also not, in the end, a throwaway idea.