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.
Don Quixote and Sancho Panza (It’s Unclear Who is Who)
Mr. Klein — not