The Improbable, Slightly Surreal, Plan to Save Fashion’s Printed Matter

The three men arrived at the front door of Steven Mark Klein’s sublet on the Lower East Side of Manhattan on June 29 in full personal protective equipment, ready to pack up his piles: the dusty Seussian towers of paper had grown up on every surface of the steel tables and shelves in the small apartment where he has lived for almost 40 years.

By the time the men left that evening, they had two tonnes of paper — enough boxes to fill an entire shipping container that would make its way slowly across the Atlantic to Oslo. There it would come to rest on the third floor of a 19th-century landmark building owned by the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, and sandwiched between its sprawling new gallery space, scheduled to open in 2021, and the Nobel Prize Museum. It would be unpacked and cataloged by a young woman yet to reach legal drinking age (in the U.S., that is) and a group of student volunteers, laying the foundation of a new institution: the International Library for Fashion Research.

The ILFR, which in its digital incarnation was unveiled on Oct. 15 with more than 5,000 documents, will open its physical doors to the public next spring. It aims, according to its pitch book, to be “the most comprehensive and important facility of specialized fashion research — and the most unique archive of modern fashion publications in the world.”

It contains not only books and periodicals but also fashion ephemera such as show invitations, brand magazines, look books and direct mail produced from 1975 to the present — the kind of stuff, in other words, that historically has been considered disposable — and is entirely open access. All you need is a library card and a search engine.

The project is the unlikely brainchild of an unlikely friendship between an almost 70-year-old Zelig of the New York downtown creative scene and the not-quite-21-year-old Tavi of Scandinavia. It is taking place in an unlikely country, and opening at an unlikely historical moment: in the midst of a pandemic, when the value of print itself is under siege.

Yet it has the buy-in of not only the National Museum, which has lent the space and is considering a more formal relationship, but also such revered fashion world names as Comme des Garçons; Harold Koda, the former curator in charge of the Met’s Costume Institute; Shala Monroque, the creative director and Prada muse; Terry Jones, the photographer and founder of i-D; and Vince Aletti, the curator and photography critic. Among others.

The ILFR could turn out to be an elaborate Duchampian scheme to exploit the fashion world’s self-regard and mostly unrequited desire for a seat at the serious table; a real life “Man of La Mancha” quest (but make it style); or a landmark in a whole new field of material culture study.

You couldn’t make it up.

Mr. Klein — not to be confused with Steven Klein, the fashion photographer, and Vogue favorite, whose subversive imagery imbues the beautiful with dread — is a rubber ball-shaped man who wears dark-framed glasses and New Balance sneakers and prefers to exist, as he said in a recent interview “in the shadows.” He calls himself a “freelance outlaw.” He lives alone in an apartment with someone else’s name on the door and no cellphone, and sees his purpose in life as enabling great visionaries, a group in which he includes Ms. Olsen.

Born in Brooklyn, Mr. Klein came to fashion via a circuitous route that involved the School of Visual Arts, the Strand bookstore and Books & Co., and somehow also intersecting with a list of now famous people that includes Robert Ryman, Keith Haring, Ed Ruscha and Philip Glass.

“I have been incredibly fortunate to have stumbled into this life around all these geniuses,” he said, which is something of an understatement.

(This is the part of the story, where Francesco Clemente and Robert Mapplethorpe make cameo appearances.)

A brief marriage to the contemporary dancer and choreographer Molissa Fenley, whom he met at the Mudd Club, brought him to Paris, where Ms. Fenley was working in the fall of 1982. Friends invited Mr. Klein to what would turn out to be Rei Kawakubo’s famous “Holes” collection for Comme des Garçons. Convinced he had seen something extraordinary, Mr. Klein contacted the brand in search of costumes for his wife to wear the next year in a piece she was performing at the Next Wave Festival, with backdrops by Francesco Clemente. (Robert Mapplethorpe did the press photos.)

Ms. Fenley ended up going to the company’s headquarters in Tokyo, and Mr. Klein followed not long after, which is when he also discovered designers like Issey Miyake and Yohji Yamamoto, and started picking up the random publications and catalogs that were sitting by the cash registers.

Mr. Klein and Ms. Fenley were divorced around 1985, and though he never formerly participated in the fashion industry (after a stint in nightclubs he now largely supports himself by helping clients like Levi’s and Starwood W Hotels with their branding), he kept collecting — not according to any formal criteria, but rather his own sense of what might have historic resonance. He also started Not Vogue, a website/conceptual art experiment run by his alter ego, Steve Oklyn (as in “Brooklyn”), in which he trolls the gatekeepers of the industry from which he has been passionately collecting — though he doesn’t like that word. He prefers “preserving.”

Around the time Mr. Klein was starting to be knee-deep in fashion paper, thousands of miles away in the suburbs of Oslo an 8-year-old girl named Elise By Olsen, the daughter of customs workers for the Postal Service, was starting a blog about her life at school. (“By” is her middle name, and her mother’s surname.) When she was 13, she founded a youth culture magazine, Recens Paper, at which point she was nominated for inclusion in the Guinness Book of World Records as “the youngest editor in chief in the world.” (She could not be added, she said, “because of age restrictions.”)

Ms. Olsen, who wears her seriousness like a slip dress and seems to have been a typical teenager only in that she likes changing her hair color (it has morphed from dark brown to pink red to white blond) and has some small tattoos on both wrists because “I am too scared
to get a big one,” dropped out of school at 16 to focus on her work. She retired from Recens at 18 because she decided that she was too old to legitimately opine on the young. Instead she started another magazine, Wallet, a print-only publication that came out three times a year, focused on more academic fashion criticism.

“I was trying to redeem fashion journalism and the written word,” Ms. Olsen said, and also “ask new questions of this world that had humiliated me.” (She was speaking metaphorically, about the way fashion can be intimidating.) Wallet was famous for having ads with perforated edges, so they could be ripped out. Its 9th issue is about to be published, and the 10th will be the last.

Like Mr. Klein, she has a sort of love-hate relationship with the fashion system, and fashion, which is deeply attracted to those who don’t love it back, has been busy courting her. She was profiled by Vogue, guest-edited AnOther, and did a Google residency in Paris. She has lived a somewhat itinerant existence for two years, lecturing, curating and interviewing fashion folks in London, New York and Portugal before going back to Norway to stay with her parents again during lockdown.

During all this time, the digital friendship that began when she was 15 with a man 3,673 miles away — he had discovered her while surfing the web and sent her an email saying “Who are you?” — continued.

“She needed a sort of intellectual guide,” Mr. Klein said of how they met. They didn’t see each other in person until about two years ago, which is when Ms. Olsen got her first glimpse of Mr. Klein’s collection. They speak, she said, about once a day (Mr. Klein uses a landline), and he sends so many emails that, Ms. Olsen said, “I put them in a folder, and once a month I go through it.” She calls him her mentor. He calls her a genius.

Despite the fact that fashion is supposedly all about clothes, around the last quarter of the last century it also became an industry obsessed with the printed page.

“It’s the tactility,” said Mr. Koda of the Costume Institute. The sense of physicality in a digital and disposable culture.

Brands still ask if every story will be “in the paper,” even though digital readerships are much higher across the board than print readerships. In the currently elapsed fashion season, many brands, even those hosting a digital show, nevertheless FedExed actual paper (or generally heavy card) invitations to the homes of editors around the world for the viewing.

For years, elaborate show notes have been placed on the seats of attendees at certain fashion shows, a practice elevated by the late Karl Lagerfeld, who used to include his sketches for Chanel and Fendi. In the hands of designers like Jonathan Anderson, look books — those catalogs of seasonal collections used by editors and buyers to see what is available — have started to emphasize the book part, rather than the looks.

Yet because much of this ephemera has a commercial purpose, it has been largely dismissed by the art and collecting worlds. Thus, while specialized fashion libraries already exist at schools like Central Saint Martins and the Fashion Institute of Technology, as well as museums like the Met’s Costume Institute, they generally focus on paper that is attached to a masterwork. And while brands generally start archiving their own works on paper, they are largely for internal use.

Both Ms. Olsen and Mr. Klein, who have a sort of mind-meld over the power of print, believe this is wrong. In the same way that the early advertising work of Andy Warhol and Irving Penn is now prized, Mr. Klein thinks that the paper ephemera generated by fashion will become a key cultural relic of its time.

Ms. Olsen, who should theoretically be print-agnostic as a member of Gen Z, believes there is a real hunger for paper and a shift away from disposability. Not just when it comes to attitudes toward clothing, but to attitudes toward all of the creative expressions that surround clothing.

“You have to understand the past before you can create the future,” she said.

In early 2019, Mr. Klein told Ms. Olsen that he wanted to leave his collection (which includes all of The New York Times T magazines) to her so she could guard it and grow it. Parts of it had been shown once, in 2004 at the Andrew Roth gallery in an exhibit entitled “Promo: fashion publications from the ’80s and ’90s,” but despite the fact that the work shown included names such as Robert Frank, it hadn’t been reviewed and not many people knew it existed.

She liked the idea of creating a library, and so did he. “What is more important in a moment of extreme actions and opinions in certain cases leading to violence than to create a library?” he asked. “A place of peaceful contemplation and the preservation of human knowledge, where an individual can in their own time and pace think and search for meaning.”

Ms. Olsen knew the idea of having a fashion library in Oslo was strange, but she thought it could work because it was a neutral space, and the country had a tradition of preservation: See the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in northern Norway, which aims to safeguard the world’s plant species. (It’s a bit of a leap from botany to fashion look books, but well … seed collection, seed collection.)

She was already in talks with the National Museum about other potential initiatives, and they segued into the idea of the library. “I think it is interesting because this is the post-internet generation,” said Stina Hogkvist, the head of collections and exhibits. “They are searching for something analogue. And this is material that is not usually collected, which makes it an important archive.”

Ms. Olsen began to raise money from private individuals, the Royal Norwegian Consulate General in New York and Talent Norway, a part of the Norwegian cultural ministry that helps young artists with specific projects. In the end, she got about 1 million kroner (about $106,000) to transfer the collection from New York to Oslo. Then she began putting together an advisory board and reaching out to other organizations for donations.

“I’d much rather our material be in a library for everyone to see than locked up in our archive cupboard, that hardly anyone delves into,” said Adrian Joffe, the chief executive of Comme des Garçons International, who first encountered Ms. Olsen when she interviewed him for Wallet, and who has agreed to donate copies of the brand’s annual direct mails
created with artists
like Ai Weiwei, as well as posters and catalogs. “And to start in Oslo! I love the idea. Fashion can no longer be centered in Paris, London, Milan, Tokyo and New York. It feels such an old idea. I hope the next one she does is in Johannesburg or Lagos or Ulaanbaatar.”

Terry Jones, the founder of i-D, said much the same. “Since no one in Britain ever showed any interest in the history of i-D, I thought, ‘Why not give it to the Norwegians?’” Indeed, Ms. Olsen said her problem is already too much material.

Still, the plans remains a work in progress. Mr. Klein’s archives, as well as any donations received, are currently owned by Ecudorp AS, Ms. Olsen’s production company, rather than a separate nonprofit, though the intention is to establish one in the future. She’s still working out the collecting criteria, even as she strategizes on a series of talk and exhibitions to bring the holdings to life.

And though Ms. Olsen often describes the physical library as part of the National Museum of Art, Design and Architecture, and while both parties think it is likely they will formalize their relationship, the deal is still under discussion.

But, Mr. Jones said, Ms. Olsen “is someone who seems to deliver.”

It’s not a throwaway line.