Our newest influencer sale features the lovely Julie Le, head of the library at the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute. Her love of fashion’s printed word inspired a collaboration that pays homage to the artistic dexterity of fashion tomes. In part one of our two part interview, content editor Maria Echeverri sits down with Julie to discuss everything from vintage shopping to the future of print in the digital age.
Maria Echeverri: Let's start with something easy. What do you love about vintage clothes?
Julie Le: I don't follow trends too much. My "look" has been pretty consistent. I like to wear what makes me feel good about myself because I feel that fashion trends come and go. In a way, really good vintage clothes are forever and timeless to me. I have clothes that I still wear from high school and cannot give up unless they have started to fall apart (I will often repair and mend my clothes if need be).
ME: I find it truly heartbreaking when clothes really fall apart. Then again, to let go of a threadbare piece after years of love and comfort rather than as a consequence of a regretful whim feels proper and responsible in a way. I like to feel some sort of connection with a time when people owned a finite number of clothes, and had to be considerate in their choices. Vivienne Westwood has said that disposable fashion has led to a generation of clones and Yohji Yamamoto said last week that he feels “a new wind starting to blow. People started looking for something real, something serious to wear.” Although it seems hard to believe that fast fashion isn’t here to stay, vintage clothing offers an alternative consideration of dress, a reminder and tribute to permanence, a concept that is now seemingly of the past.
JL: Vintage clothes to me are tactile connection to people in the past, whether if they gifted hand-me-downs from people we knew or the idea of someone living in that particular time period. I come from an immigrant Vietnamese family and my mother used to HATE the idea of me buying vintage clothes because she would associate it with dead people and didn't like that idea of it being previously owned. So our compromise was buying vintage patterns and re-creating looks that I saw in vintage magazines. My mother was a seamstress in Vietnam - she made custom traditional ao dai. Nonetheless, I continued to buy vintage and snuck it in my closet pretending it was new clothes.
ME: I really love this story. I have always thought the real power of dress, and its purest beauty, comes from its embodiment of a tactile memory. Cloth is such a sensual medium and therefore its potential to express emotion truly endless. There is that wonderful Peter Stallybrass article about a jacket he wore after his best friend passed. But what I found so interesting is the idea of your mother trying to protect you from this power that clothing has. In doing so, she acknowledges the connection between the dead and their clothes, but completely rejects any fascination with it. Is there something very Western about this idea of the supernatural and occult? There is definitely a lean in the field of fashion history toward western dress, western history and western tradition. Would you like to see incorporation of a more global perspective? It seems that when non-western dress is approached, it is usually through its influences on certain designers (McQueen very obviously comes to mind). I’m just curious what your take on this is.
JL: I supp0se the relationship between clothing and culture within the context of the history of my Vietnamese family always came from a need or tradition. My mother always wanted my clothes to be mine and she often made clothing for my sister and I wore when we were younger. I still have pieces my mother or father used to wear in the late 1970s when they came to the States and it is amusing to me the disconnect between how much I cherish those things that they wore and their ambivalence. Their relationship towards clothing is so different from mine when they were my age when you think of their setting of Vietnam. It could be both non-western and western the idea of the supernatural and the occult. Or maybe it’s the value of nostalgia the one attaches to a particular piece…
Going back to what you said about the lean towards western fashion in the field of fashion history, you are absolutely right. When you look at fashion trends in particular, influences from non-western cultures are always revisited and referenced, but often in a fetishistic way. I would love to see a different and more global perspective in fashion although I am not sure how it would manifest. Perhaps it would be from a collaborative standpoint or as forum to create and educate. I think there are so many avenues that could be explored in this sense and opportunities that could be given to aspiring designers from non-western countries.
ME: I want to talk a bit about vintage shopping. Is there something about that process that you are particularly drawn to?
JL: Vintage shopping is an adventure. You are never quite sure what you will find and sometimes you will be surprised with what finds you. You may see a piece on the rack that looks absolutely insane, but then you put it on and maybe fits like a glove and completely transforms you. I love that kind of a serendipity and thrill of it all.
ME: Without a doubt, the question we are most asked at PinkClouds is about product sourcing. Everyone is looking for a good scoop on vintage shopping. So I’m wondering if you have any special places you frequent? Do you like to buy vintage online? Ebay or Etsy? When you do shop brick and mortar, how much do you talk to dealers? Is there anything you keep an eye out for – colors, textiles, cuts, etc.? What is your favorite non-clothing item to look for when vintage/flea market shopping?
JL: I often go on Ebay and Etsy binges for my vintage shopping as of late. I am pretty simple in terms of what I look for – I will often search by color when I’m browsing (i.e. red, black) and I love dresses and heels. It’s when I’m shopping at a boutique that I go against my own rules. I also live in Fort Greene, just a stone’s throw away from Brooklyn Flea and I lean towards hunting for accessories such as jewelry in white or gold. Sometimes it’s all about fate and luck.
ME: The act of scouting, or discovering is so elemental to the process of vintage shopping. I think you described it quite fittingly as a serendipitous and thrilling experience. I have always thought it holds a special appeal to anyone that is independently minded; sort of the anti-department store display that has been researched and merchandized to no end. I always love to ask vintage shoppers about their experience because it always feels very personal. I, for example, like to shop alone. Especially with vintage, I like to take my time and be able to sort of lose myself in the details of everything. I can’t think things through if I am worrying about someone else. Jennifer, on the other hand, is more of a social shopper and loves to have girlfriends with her to bounce ideas off of. I was wondering if you have any traditions, ways you prefer to shop.
JL: It honestly depends on my mood – sometimes I love being on my own and taking my time as you do. I’m also a really good shopping partner and like helping my friends find stuff they normally may not wear or consider.
ME: This has been such a wonderful collaboration to develop with you. I want to know what is inspiring about this concept? Why did you want to mix books and fashion?
JL: The idea of mixing books and fashion gives you a glimpse of what my work is like. I am head of the Costume Institute library at the Met - we have a collection of tens of thousands of books and periodicals on the subject of fashion and dress in addition to related ephemera such as fashion plates, sketches, photographs, textile swatches etc. I am surrounded by inspiration on a day-to-day basis. I love everything about fashion books - from the outside cover, the arrangement and art direction of the text and photos inside, and obviously the content and subject matter. Some of these books are like works of art in themselves. I am heavily involved in the collection development of this library, which means finding new acquisitions of fashion books both new and rare. It feels like more of a perk to my job rather than one of my duties as a librarian. I love my work and feel fortunate to be in space that is an endless well of inspiration. Never a dull moment.
ME: I have a few questions about the changing world of publishing. What I find most interesting about your job right now is that you are sort of a custodian of a highly evolving art form. I am currently in the middle of The Name of the Rose, which takes place in a 14th century monastery and revolves around the famous, elaborate library that the monks keep. Every book is truly a piece of art, imbued with an almost magical power, as each one is hand crafted and one-of-a-kind. For the last few centuries, this idea seemed so foreign and almost precious, but then again there may be a bit of resurgence in the digital age (at least conceptually if not in practice). How do you see the role of books in the digital age? Do you own a Kindle?
JL: I very much love the tactile qualities of holding and flipping through the pages of a book or magazine. I also love to take notes while I am reading and bookmarking, etc. I love that idea of being able to have an entire library worth of reading material in the form of a Kindle or iPad, but I have only used one for more utilitarian purposes, such as for cooking and recipes. As for the role of books in the digital age, I consider all the digitization initiatives we have at the Museum as a way to preserve rare materials and ephemera, but also widening our audience to a more global range. For example, we have been digitizing thousands of fashion plates from 1771-1920s – which are so incredible and so valuable in preserving this aspect of fashion history. We will continue to digitize more ephemera from our collection such as fashion sketches, rare books, etc. It’s a way to keep print alive, but also evolve in this Digital Age. I don’t ever see books disappearing and I am always searching for rare and artist-type books on fashion. Sometimes they come in the form of look books or special collaborative print projects, but nonetheless valuable to preserve and save for future generations of designers and creative minds.
ME: I also am very eager to know what your take on the fashion magazine market is. There have been endless debates about magazines dying out – all moving to the digital platform etc. – and yet, there seems to be no lack of this new generation of artsy, thick biannual new publications (The Gentlewoman, System Magazine, CR, Document Journal). Do you have any thoughts?
JL: Yes, I have seen many print titles expire during my time as fashion librarian and moving towards a digital platform. Unfortunately, that is when I start to lose interest. I do love this trend towards these newer biannual publications such as The Gentlewoman/ Fantasticman, Self-Service, Acne Paper, etc because I feel these magazines are going back to honoring the print magazine from the way they select the type of paper they use, the size, format, and more creative & beautiful layout and design with less focus advertisements. I would like to see more publications like Visionnaire or Cream (now defunct Hong Kong based magazine) where creative collaborations push the traditional book and magazine format.
ME: As someone who loves researching, I seriously covet the access you have to old periodicals. I would love to know what a few of your favorites are? I know you mentioned you guys have a full collection of Sassy, which is one of my personal favorites. Are there any lesser-known sources you are constantly turning to? Any surprising ones?
JL: Yes, Sassy was probably the first magazine I remember coveting as a child of the 80s. I’m surprised how much is familiar to me because I had forgotten how I used to re-read a single issue over and over again until the next one was published. I remember all the editorials and clothes I used to try to recreate on my own.
A few others I have been obsessed with…
The Face: Endless inspiration for designers obsessed with the 80s, 90s.
Art Goute Beaute: Parisian magazine published from 1920-1933 and illustrated with hand colored pochoir images.
Early Paper Magazine: It was published during a time period of NYC that I wish I was a part of (late 80s, early 90s).
Details Magazine, from the late 80s when it was in newsprint form: I love the art direction and graphic design.
Vogue Paris: Late 70’s where you would find Charles Jourdan ads photographed by Guy Bourdin.
ME: Do you have a favorite book?
JL: This is a loaded question for me.
JL: Haruki Murakami’s The Wind Up Bird Chronicles.
JL: Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris.
ME: Do you have a favorite fashion theory/history writer?
JL: I am a fan of Judith Thurman and her essays profiling fashion designers in the New Yorker many of which can be found in her book entitled Cleopatra’s Nose.
Be sure to check back on Monday, June 3, for part II of our interview, along with some beautiful editorial imagery from our shoot with Henry Mounser.