The concept of museum-worthy clothes is arguably as old as museums themselves. But only in modern history did blockbuster fashion exhibits really take off.
At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the 2018 exhibition “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” drew some 1.6 million guests, according to the museum. “Romantic and Glamorous Hollywood Design,” an exhibition that opened in 1974, had about 780,000 visitors.
Matthew Yokobosky, the senior curator of fashion and material culture at the Brooklyn Museum, which over the past two years has staged exhibits on the designers Christian Dior, Thierry Mugler and Virgil Abloh, said the interest in seeing clothes on display has risen as “the occasions for getting dressed up have diminished.”
Preserving collections for posterity has not always been a priority in the fashion industry, which is focused heavily on the future (by the time that most brands’ spring clothes are released, they are already showing pieces for fall). “I remember having a conversation with Valentino,” Mr. Yokobosky recalled, referring to the Italian fashion designer who started his namesake label in 1960. “He said, ‘We weren’t thinking exhibition, we were trying to sell dresses.’”
Lately, though, Mr. Yokobosky said more designers are thinking about how to care for their pieces after they are sent down a runway. “In the last 10 to 15 years,” he said, people have realized that those pieces “are valuable and could make for an exhibition.”
For some American brands, the answer is to send garments to Garde Robe by Uovo. It was formed in 2021 after Uovo, an art-storage company, acquired Garde Robe, a high-end clothing storage business.
Before the acquisition, Uovo worked with a handful of brands, including Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, Thom Browne and Oscar de la Renta. Absorbing Garde Robe brought about 20 others, including Carolina Herrera and Jason Wu. Brennan Lowery, the general manager at Garde Robe by Uovo, is hungry for more.
“I want every single American designer to store here,” said Ms. Lowery, 42.
Warehouses for Couture
The designer Jason Wu, 40, said he used to keep collections in a rental storage unit after starting his namesake label. About three years later, he began to work with an archivist and moved his pieces to a facility that specialized in art storage. The facility was good for the clothes, he said, but access was difficult.
In 2015, Mr. Wu — who has lent designs to the Met for “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion” and “China: Through the Looking Glass” — started storing his brand’s pieces with Garde Robe.
They are in a massive Garde Robe by Uovo warehouse in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn that stores some 40,000 units — individual garments, bags or pairs of shoes — belonging to Mr. Wu and other clients. About half are from fashion brands, Ms. Lowery said, and the rest are owned by other customers, including private individuals.
The facility in Brooklyn is one of five warehouses across the country where Uovo stores fashion; the others are in the Long Island City section of Queens; Orangeburg, N.Y.; West Palm Beach, Fla.; and Glendale, Calif. All but the Glendale location also store artwork.
Garments stored at the Brooklyn warehouse include pieces from Pyer Moss’s 2021 couture collection designed by Kerby Jean-Raymond, the first Black American designer invited to present during couture week. Though the clothes, which included a traffic-light dress and other pieces inspired by objects created by Black inventors, received mixed reviews, Mr. Yokobosky noted that opinions can change over time.
“When Marc Jacobs did the grunge collection for Perry Ellis, everyone was up in arms and upset,” he said. “Today that is the genius collection that he did. You can’t not save the collections that people don’t like in the moment.”
“We want those up-and-coming brands,” said Ms. Lowery, the general manager at Garde Robe by Uovo. She added that Uovo, which for the last four years has teamed up with the Brooklyn Museum to award $25,000 to an artist in the borough, may introduce a similar annual prize for fashion designers down the line.
Acid-Free This, Polypropylene That
Garments begin their afterlife at Garde Robe by Uovo in Brooklyn with an inspection by one of eight wardrobe managers, who catalog the pieces and examine them for damage, stains or pests. When items look less than pristine, dry-cleaning is sometimes recommended before storage.
“I love order,” said Quinn Bradley, 38, the director of operations at the Brooklyn warehouse. Ms. Bradley, who had worked at Garde Robe for about eight years when it was acquired by Uovo, has a master’s degree in fashion and textile studies from the Fashion Institute of Technology. She said that she developed her love of collections management while working in public affairs at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York.
All Uovo warehouses used for fashion storage are climate controlled, Ms. Bradley said, specifically at 70 degrees Fahrenheit and 50 percent humidity, which she noted are industry standards.
“What is important is to avoid large swings of temperature or humidity,” Ms. Lowery added. An industrial sized chiller regulates both at the Brooklyn warehouse.
Once pieces are cataloged and deemed ready for storage, they are photographed in one of the warehouse’s three studios. Two of the studios have cameras that capture 360-degree images; according to Ms. Lowery, those cameras cost $50,000 to $60,000 each.
After being photographed, garments that need to be hung are put in bags made of polypropylene (a breathable plastic). Other pieces are folded, wrapped in acid-free tissue paper and placed in light-blue boxes made of acid-free, corrugated cardboard. Shoes are stored in clear plastic bins. All of those bags, boxes and bins are kept on rails and shelves that occupy about 20,000 square feet of the facility’s 150,000 square feet.
“They keep our clothes as if they were works of art,” said Emilie Rubinfeld, the president of Carolina Herrera, which began using Garde Robe in 2012. Previously, its garments were kept in-house.
When storing fashion, Garde Robe by Uovo charges by the rack. One rack — which holds up to 50 garments, 10 pairs of shoes and 10 bags or other accessories — costs about $400 per month. Pricing, especially for fashion brands, can vary based on volume and the length of storage time.
Nothing Lasts Forever
The designers of Vaquera, Patric DiCaprio and Bryn Taubensee, also lent pieces for “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion.” Their approach to storage is more ambivalent.
After Vaquera garments are shown, photographed and captured on video, “We kind of don’t care” about their upkeep, Mr. DiCaprio, 32, said. “If the story and the idea are able to be preserved in video and photo, we are not going to agonize over the actual garment being the thing to be archived.”
Pieces from past collections are stored in plastic tubs kept at an iStoreGreen unit in Brooklyn, where the monthly cost for an 800-square-foot space is about $180. The setup is not as controlled as Garde Robe by Uovo, and the Vaquera designers once had to remake a piece for the Met.
But they aren’t too concerned. “We have fantasies that if the storage unit burned down or flooded it would almost be like a relief,” Ms. Taubensee, 33, said. “The show for us is what we do it for, that was the moment it happened. If the clothes themselves disappeared, we wouldn’t be that sad.”
In addition to specialized materials and climate control, the storage process at Garde Robe by Uovo includes creating a digital archive through which pieces can be viewed on a computer and delivered with a few clicks of a mouse.
Mr. Wu described the system as a modern version of Cher Horowitz’s computerized closet in the film “Clueless.”
Ms. Rubinfeld of Carolina Herrera said the technology was very valuable. “The way that they are organized and structured allows access to the archives in a way that we can get to rather quickly,” she said.
Still, Ms. Bradley conceded that all the technology and carefulness can go only so far.
“Everything breaks down,” she said. “Our job is to slow that process as much as we can.”
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