When a band releases a greatest hits album, it's generally acknowledged that the glory days are over and it's resting-on-laurels time. But when a fashion designer does it, increasingly, the story is very different – it's a reinvigoration of the brand, an exploration of its heritage and a new way for shoppers to get their money's worth. That's what the hope is, anyway.
The launch of Yves Saint Laurent's "New Vintage" collection this autumn, announced today, is part of a growing trend – but it's one that is set to cause unprecedented hype when it lands here. The pieces in YSL's new venture are made using patterns from previous collections, and material left over from different seasons.
New Yorkers had the first look at the new/old concept in June when it launched at Barneys, where sales assistants reported 75 per cent of the collection was snatched off shelves in the first hour and a half. It sold out within a matter of days.
This autumn, YSL's next take on old-but-new hits London, Paris, Hong Kong and Milan too. Stefano Pilati, the brand's creative director, claims that the collection is his response to the moral issue of "sustainability". "The emphasis here is on the value that fashion can have and represent," he says.
It's certainly representative of something – so the cynical might say – when the brand's handbags can go for up to £1,200 and a pair of shoes costs about half that.
But Pilati is earnest in his hopes to attract shoppers looking for sturdy buys in an uncertain climate. And even for those of us whose budgets are rather more conservative, the message stands. Whatever the recession has done to the economy, for the fashion conscious it may have changed our shopping habits for the better. When one of France's most exclusive ateliers starts using watchwords like "sustainability", you know that the issue isn't going away.
It's hard to present something new at the moment without consumers thinking it's a catchpenny, but the reintroduction of archive pieces – or as YSL terms it, "New Vintage" – has more allure than other ploys. Far from indicating that a designer is over the hill or his creative juices have run dry, it's an intelligent marketing strategy: a brand's "greatest hits" are proven to sell well, and here they are with a new twist – in this case, made from a different fabric.
YSL isn't the first label to delve into the studio archives. Laura Ashley, whose sense of history is part of their image and has a certain cachet with their customers, has already successfully launched an archive collection, a mix of retro prints on new silhouettes and redeveloped original garments. In honour of Martin Wood's new biography of Ashley (Frances Lincoln, £35), it has recently reproduced a scarf in original swan and peacock prints from over 30 years ago. On the site of its head office in Wales, there is a warehouse that contains over 33,000 archive items available for reference, as well as an "Inspiration Collection", which includes velvets from the 16th century. Rigby & Peller meanwhile, lingerie makers to the Queen, celebrate their 70th birthday this year with a range inspired by pieces from yesteryear, from Marilyn Monroe undies to a Fifties-style swimming costume. Vivienne Westwood too makes use of her rich fashion history; her Anglomania collection contains her signature pieces from the past two decades. Her idiosyncratic tailoring and drapery don't have a shelf-life, after all. Shopping for vintage pieces may be a trend in itself, but it rises above the shifts in fashion tastes from season to season, feeding a broader interest in historicism that labels like to cash in on.
Saint Laurent's "New Vintage" does exactly this, with garment tags featuring the five cities that the collection is available in and a production number. All the fabrics and designs come only from the years that Pilati has been at the helm of the company, so the capsule collection will effectively be his legacy, creating instant collector's items. The pieces, which will hit British stores in November, are still being worked on by Pilati, but the previous collection featured cult items like the Downtown tote bag and Hero sandals, as well as the grey bustier dress from spring/summer 2008 and a silk shift from autumn/winter 2008 (one of the most acclaimed collections of that season) reworked in a cotton drill.
"That the collection comprises garments made from our archive, with recycled fabric and from existing patterns instead of new ones, is to start a dialogue with the market in a common language that is reassuring," explains Pilati. Reassurance is what shoppers need now. The knowledge that these pieces won't date and if anything, will only increase in value, makes for a very tempting "investment buy" indeed.Reuse content