I’m an artist/ designer early in my career, should I start thinking about keeping an archive even though I’m only really beginning?
Yes. Always think about keeping a record of your work. Think of it like a visual diary of your processes and thoughts. Where ideas have come from and the steps you’ve taken to create something.
Okay. But why is it important?
Because if you don’t do it, you can never recover it. Keeping records of your work provides a reference point and you can see how far you’ve come and that can be very valuable for future work. At some point in your career, you’re going to have a crisis point about what you’re doing and where you’re going and it can really help to take stock and look at how far you’ve actually come. It’s really good on just a personal level, to be able to gain perspective on your own work and see what you have achieved.
How do I start keeping an archive of my work?
One of the things we are so lucky to be able to do in this day and age is keep a digital record. Documenting your work has never been easier. Start with taking photographs of your work and keeping them well labelled in a folder.
That sounds easy enough. What kind of things should I keep?
Let’s take clothes as an example, as I am a designer. It might not even be about keeping a physical item like a dress, or an artwork or sculpture. It might just be documenting a sketch, or photographing an outfit, or photographing a painting. You can also think about potentially keeping material you’ve used, or the actual garment (or painting) you’ve created. The idea of it is to capture whatever it is that has been essential to your process of creating work.
Let’s say I’ve made a collection. Or have an exhibition. Should I keep a work from every collection or exhibition I have?
That’s a hard one. For fashion, in some ways it’s actually more valuable to keep three or four pieces from a collection. A single garment isn’t enough to capture the overall feel of a collection. My advice – especially when it comes to fashion design – is this: Keep a record of two things: the campaign, and the look book. A campaign is what captures the look and feel of the collection and the look book is the nuts and bolts of putting the collection together.
So is it a good idea to keep those one-off pieces, or artworks?
Yes and no. Showpieces often stay with the designer. Adrian Hailwood made a one-off dress for Lorde – and he still has that dress because it was such a showpiece for him and so it has huge personal value. But on the other hand, those one-off pieces can also be desirable to sell. So it comes down to personal desire I think.
As an artist at the beginning of my career, I want to be able to sell my work. If I start thinking about keeping what I make, doesn’t that hurt my chances of making a living?
The thing to be wary of when you’re beginning your career– particularly in fashion – is that there’s a tendency to sew – or make – anything that people want to buy. And that’s good, you should want to sell everything you can to make a living, but try and keep some of your creations, even if it’s just a note of the details or a photograph.
So what sort of things are in a good archive?
Collection pieces, visual diaries, patterns. Zambesi has a huge archive and they draw on it for patterns of successful shapes from the past which are then changed and updated. As your career goes on, certain things come to be associated with you, like shapes, or colours, or patterns and I imagine this is the same for any creative practice. You begin to develop a signature and being able to draw on your own past for inspiration is a very important thing.
Should I just keep putting stuff into my archive? Growing it all the time?
You do need to keep accumulating, yes, but you should also edit it from time to time. Don’t think of an archive as a static thing, it’s not fixed. The best designers and creatives keep going back to their archive and talking to it. Treat it like a living thing, not a museum piece.
Alright, what about correspondence or ephemera? Is that important too?
It is. My own collection in Te Papa is a full archive of a designer really. It documents my design process, the fabric swatches I used, the pricing and costings of materials, the sales sheets – all of that kind of stuff.
What I have always kept is press. Reviews, mentions, any kind of coverage or listing. It’s been very useful to have, even if just for knowing what date something was. Newspaper clippings also give you a context to what was happening in the world at the time you created something. I would suggest to screenshot whole pages, if you don’t want the physical paper.
People say don’t read reviews of your work – but should I include these in an archive?
I really think it’s a good idea. I didn’t keep enough media pieces in the beginning – the responses to my work. I wish I’d kept more of that. Even just for the reflective process. Everybody comes to these dead patches in their process where they don’t know where they’re going and they have doubts. Being able to access commentary – even bad reviews – from other people can really help you through those periods.
If I keep an archive, what’s that going to add to my career?
It’s hard to imagine the future. An archive gives a bigger picture of the artist. An archive adds your own storytelling and gives a first-hand account of why you created what you did, and how you created it. An archive gives insight into how the artist sees themselves through what they’ve chosen to keep.
Is there a risk of just keeping your favourite works – rather than the significant pieces?
I don’t think so. I think you do know what work is significant. An artist knows what creations are the best resolved. You don’t generally keep the favourites, but you keep the works that capture the essence of what you’re trying to express.
But you’d need to learn that? Or is it instinctive?
That’s a hard one. Most designers come through some form of training where they are taught to be reflective and so it does become instinctive. But I think even kids even know what picture they’ve drawn is the best one.
As someone who now works with archives – running the NZ Fashion Museum – what things do you get excited about finding in another person’s archive?
Any first-hand account. Photographs and anecdotes are like gold. Stories that have been written down and shared. Visual diaries. Thoughts and scrapbooks. These are all like gold dust to an archivist!