1 Girl, 4 Looks: Fashion's Top Archivist Gives Us Spring Inspiration

We're the first to admit that working in fashion is a blast — but we still take it seriously. And so does top archivist Julie Ann Orsini, who is responsible for curating garments of iconic designers, as if their troves of ensembles were her own "personal mini-museum." It's no wonder then that Orsini, also a veteran fashion writer, has developed a sophisticated style all her own. So we caught up with the on-the-go entrepreneur for an inspiring interview about how to make it in the biz, and of course, an exclusive look at four of her favorite transitional outfits. And yes, we consider these looks works of art, too.
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You've written, curated, and archived in your professional career — what are the differences/intersections of these practices, and which has been your favorite?
"Each of these disciplines has informed the other for me. With curating, naturally you get to do all of these things because you’re writing object labels and an exhibition catalogue, and also delving into archives for purposes of choosing the objects for a show. Archiving is appealing because I’m working with incredible pieces on a daily basis and helping to shape my clients’ legacies. I don’t get to write as much as I used to, but having the research and writing background is very helpful in terms of documenting a collection and sourcing rare items to add to one. Ultimately, running my own business has been tough, but rewarding work, and my favorite experience."

Vintage coat, J.Crew jeans, Alaia pumps.
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You've seen some fabulous fashion, up close and personal. What are the garments that have shaped your opinion of fashion?
"Studying the history of fashion at F.I.T. afforded me the opportunity to see — and in some cases, touch, with the appropriate museum precautions, of course — many vintage, haute-couture garments. Seeing Fortunys, Poirets, and Charles James’ kind of set the bar high. But, one that stands out is a Chanel lace gown from the late '30s that I was able to study. Examining the hand-done construction and beautiful material showed me what craft really goes into making a garment well, and gave me a true appreciation and understanding of the work behind couture.

Seeing Chanel dresses from the early 20th-century showed me how revolutionary Mademoiselle was — she was the first designer to dress the truly modern woman. She anticipated the roles women would have in the 20th-century, and dressed them accordingly. You know, it’s good when a dress from 1919 looks modern today."

Celine bag.
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How has your education helped your career?
"I wouldn’t have this career without my education. Initially, I went back to grad school with the goal of better-informing my fashion writing through a deeper knowledge of the history of fashion and textiles. The program I did at F.I.T. is a museum studies program, so in conjunction with the history and theory, I got a hearty dose of what we call “hand” skills — technical skills about collections management and textile conservation. I rely on them on a daily basis. Without that know-how, I wouldn’t be able to properly manage and care for the archives of my clients."

Hermés bracelet.
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What are the major changes you've seen in the fashion industry?
"E-commerce! Things are so much more accessible than they were even five years ago. While I love that, the flip side of it is that we’re all becoming a bit homogenous. The mystery and excitement of finding something unique while traveling is kind of gone. You can get anything anywhere now. I wonder if some of the extreme styling we see in street style photos is a reaction to that, and a way to remain individual.

I also think that the cycle of bringing back historical trends and eras is speeding up. By now we all know there’s nothing new under the sun — even 19th-century fashions were obsessed with the past — but, I think the cycle is shorter. Historically there’s been about a 30- or 40-year gap — the '60s were influenced by the '20s, the '90s by the '60s, etc. When I saw '90s influences creeping back in five years ago, it felt too soon to me.

Fast fashion has really come to the forefront in the past 10 years, but the seeds for this were actually sown in the 1960s with retailers like Biba and Paraphernalia. On the one hand, it’s great that we have a platform for expressing personal style affordably, but the flip slide of that is that truly well-made clothes are getting more and more expensive. And, at a certain point, you have to ask, what is the real cost of that? In terms of human lives, like the factory disasters we keep reading about, environmental pollutants, and plagiarizing the work of young designers who can’t really afford to be ripped off, it doesn’t seem worth it. I’m more in favor of owning fewer, more quality items."
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Describe your personal style and style influences.
"Classic with an edge, or polished tomboy? I think that despite my appreciation for and love of beautiful clothing and accessories, I am a tomboy at heart. I grew up riding horses and spending most of my time in a barn, so I gravitate to simplicity and classic, tailored lines that work for my shape. But what is most inspirational to me is the historical nexus of music and fashion. The Rolling Stones, Anita Pallenberg, Jim Morrison, Robert Plant, and Motown. (My favorite Tom Ford collection was his fall '03 YSL ode to Diana Ross, and one of my favorite looks in my own closet is exit one from that show!). I’m also inspired by fashion photography: Old Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin photos are so striking."

J.Crew shirt, Carven skirt, Manolo Blahnik pumps, Chanel bag.
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If you had to wear any two designers for the rest of your life what would they be?
"Alaïa and Tom Ford. But seriously, I’d need a great pair of jeans and a stack of white T-shirts."

What are you most looking forward to wearing this spring?
"This is so cliché for a New Yorker to say, but my whole wardrobe is neutral — grey, black, white, nude. So, I’m hoping to incorporate some colorful dresses."
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Many of our readers might be unclear with the role of an archivist — describe what you do.
"In a nutshell, I treat fashion design like fine art. My role changes depending on the client’s needs, but essentially it’s like managing a fashion museum’s archive, and each of my clients has a personal, mini-museum of sorts, whether they are a fashion designer, entertainer, or collector. I help them get a handle on, organize, and maintain a very valuable asset.

For a designer-client, I ensure that the body of their work is properly stored and documented. Each season, once a press team is finished with the runway collection, I take the collection to the physical archive, and catalogue it, examine each piece to see what needs to be repaired or cleaned, and then I make sure each piece is stored using the proper technique (i.e. flat, hanging, rolled, etc.) and appropriate museum-quality materials.

The job is technically skilled, and it’s sad to see many designers and collectors make the mistake of thinking they can have interns throw their past collections in plastic garment bags and cardboard boxes in some awful storage room. However well meaning they are, someone who doesn’t have the technical training to store garments properly simply can’t do a good enough job. Caring for an archive proactively pays off big time in the long run: It’s a valuable working-asset press and design teams can work with, and the designer will have down the line whether for exhibitions, a book, or any other project.

For private clients, we work together to decide what is really an investment piece they should keep in their collection, and help them liquidate pieces that they don’t need. I have a lot of experience sourcing looks that fill in gaps in a client’s collection. For celebrities and entertainers, it’s also an investment that pays off big time: The Elizabeth Taylor auction at Christie’s pulled in over $150 million!"

Iosselliani necklace.
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What are your favorite parts of your job? Any unforeseen obstacles you can speak to?
"My favorite parts are getting to work up close and personal with some incredible fashion that most people only get to see in editorials. Archiving is always like solving a puzzle, because no two clients collections are the same. There are unforeseen obstacles every day: Some intricate garments have components that make them bad candidates for hanging storage and flat storage. At that point, I’m relying on my experience and training to make the most educated decision about what will be the best for the garment in the long run, but it’s really nerve-wracking when you’re dealing with dresses that cost more than some cars. Archiving is very physical work. When I’m moving heavy boxes around in a basement somewhere, it’s definitely not glamorous, and I’ve thrown my back out more than once. But when I take a step back and think about what role these objects play in the history of fashion and pop culture, and how I’m their steward, it’s pretty cool."
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What advice would you give someone looking to start out in the fashion industry?
"It’s probably not exciting to hear, and in fact, it’s quite simple: Get as much experience as you can, and expect to work hard. Surprise yourself with what you can accomplish. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. In my twenties, I was terrified of them and expected to get fired if anything went wrong. A good boss knows that making mistakes goes hand in hand with eventually becoming an expert, so long as you are learning from your mistakes!"

Celine sweater, J.Crew jeans, Tabitha Simmons pumps, Tom Ford sunglasses.
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What is one myth about the fashion industry you'd like to debunk?
"That it’s always fun and glamorous. Every facet of fashion that I’ve worked in, whether it was a magazine, a museum, or being around a design studio, involved long hours and lots of grunt work."
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What are you always carrying in your bag?
" My iPhone, Nars Velvet Matte Lip Pencil in Cruella, Celine wallet, and gym clothes — I am a Physique 57 addict."

Celine bag, Repossi rings.
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How has NYC influenced your style?
"I really love living in a place where people make an effort with their appearance. Every Saturday, my husband and I go on a date, and we always dress up."
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What are your favorite stores in NYC? Any hidden secret gems?
"Zoe in Brooklyn is my local! Lisa Brock and her team are fantastic. I’m also a big fan of Kirna Zabete. And, for vintage, I love Resurrection and New York Vintage."

Isabel Marant dress, Miu Miu booties.
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Who did you look up to growing up? Who do you admire now?
"Sartorially speaking, I’ve always been influenced by music, and its confluence with fashion. Anita Pallenberg and Marianne Faithfull have been perennial favorites. In fact, I wrote my MA thesis about the way the style of Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and their girlfriends and wives has had a lasting influence on fashion."
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Who are your favorite young designers to look out for?
"I would hardly call them young designers, as they have been making their mark on the world stage for a decade now, but I love the Proenza Schouler duo and am very excited to be working on a project with them now. In terms of younger talent, I am excited to see where Joseph Altuzarra, Erdem, and Alexander Wang go. I would love to help them get their archives in great shape!"
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What's one thing that will never go out of style and one thing you'd never wear?
"I love a little white dress. And I would never, ever wear Creepers. Some girls make it work, but I personally hate them and find them totally unflattering."
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