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Inside Arc - Every piece has a story

The London College of Fashion is displaying key pieces from the Arc fashion archive.

The Arc is the rare collection of sartorial wonders personally amassed by Jennefer Osterhoudt, who worked closely with John Galliano and Alexander McQueen during the 90s and early 00s in both of their eponymous studios, as well as during their respective fabled tenures in the couture ateliers of Givenchy.

A professional hoarder and obsessed collector, Jenne is in possession of some of the most immediately recognisable pieces of ready-to-wear and haute couture in the world. It’s a collection to rival museums. Archives are usually repositories where things go to die, but the Arc is a living, breathing, constantly expanding collection that acts as a resource for designers and stylists who frequently use items for photoshoots and campaigns. Out of over 2000 pieces, the curator Polona Dolžan made a selection to highlight the eccentricities and rarities in the archive, concentrating it down to 27 key pieces that really stand out. “Jenne gets triggered by these pieces and just starts talking. Every piece really tells a story.”

Maori-tattoo pattern embroidered opera gloves, Alexander McQueen for Givenchy, Autumn/Winter 1997

Jenne was with Galliano right from the start when it was just her, John and his assistant Steven. Her tasks spanned everything from sourcing vintage garments and working with niche ateliers to hand-crafting invitations and hunting for esoteric materials that would form parts of the collection.

A selection of toiles shows how really expensive fabrics were used to create extreme detail – for prototypes that wouldn’t even make it into the final collection. Both McQueen and Galliano were implementing haute couture techniques into their prêt a porter lines and it was Jenne who had to come up with a way of how these could be mass-produced. She would go and find people in rag trade districts in Paris, the most obscure master-makers and artisans. Her bible of handymen and people with speciality skills doing interesting and potentially useful stuff is on display in the exhibition and notes range from “prosthetics maker” to “good fake lizard’ and often include funny little scribbles and character descriptions (“shithead”). Jenne started her bible in 1992 and while it keeps expanding, a lot of the trades people are no longer around these days.

Butterfly shoes, Alexander McQueen, Spring/Summer 2003

There is a McQueen shoe made of two pieces of Perspex with a butterfly trapped inside. “I had to go to Deyrolle, the famous taxidermy shop in Paris, and buy butterflies. I was always there getting exotic birds and beetles for jewellery and hats…”, she remembers. Robert Goossens, the feted jeweller famous for his work with Coco Chanel, then hand-poured resin over the butterfly and into a mould to create the wedge for the shoe. “Unfortunately the butterfly changed colour with the resin and ended up looking like a moth.” For the final shoe, butterflies were made out of tiny pipe cleaner rod and painted feathers. Trial and error was very much the way they worked, and Jenne actually designed the first ever skull print pirate scarf for McQueen, which almost ended in the bin but is now a staple of every collection.

Skull scarf, Alexander McQueen, Spring/Summer 2003

The Arc is full of these eccentric pieces and interesting anecdotes. Galliano’s Poodle jacket uses up 400m of chiffon and only 5 were ever produced in the world. The jacket worn by Madonna in the Take a Bow video is on show. “The fitting model we used for these secretly had her ribs removed so the waist is tiny, it actually doesn’t fit anyone.“

Poodle Jacket, John Galliano., Autumn/Winter 1995-6.  Photography Unai Mateo Lopez

Also on display are early Galliano invitations, all hand written by his assistant Steven and attached to rusty keys that Jenne found at Clignancourt Market. She can never throw away a pass from a show, so there is a bundle of backstage passes from some key McQueen shows and invitations with drawings by Tim Burton. Both Galliano and McQueen’s work features animalistic elements quite heavily, represented here by one of the horse teeth necklaces Jenne brought back from America. Galliano stole the necklace and wore it until all the teeth fell out. This one object inspired a whole show where models had animal skeletons on their heads. The first of McQueen’s ram’s head headpieces by Philip Treacy for Givenchy is on display, which Jenne got in a staff sale for next to nothing. Now it’s a priceless piece.

Show invite, illustrated by Tim Burton for Alexander McQueen, Autumn/Winter 2002 -3

Some of the treasures Jenne has rescued out of the garbage at Galliano. A toil dress finished to a very high standard was destroyed with a marker pen by Steven to make it unusable. Jenne saved it from the rubbish bin to add to her collection.
There is also the first sample of the McQueeen oyster dresses, a reoccurring signature technique. The dress is completely hand made, a show piece which could never enter mass production.  “McQueen had so many show pieces, half his shows would be show pieces.” She has other engaging anecdotes, such as the one where she was tasked with finding pastel coloured saris - a contradiction in terms – searching all over Paris so Galliano could use them as lining for a jacket. Another priced possession is a lavender cape from Galliano’s first Givenchy show The Princess and the Pea. “It’s 15 meters long, it would take up this whole room but I used to use it as a canopy for my bed in Paris.”

Oyster dress sample panel, Alexander McQueen, Spring/Summer 2003. Photography Unai Mateo Lopez

Jenne’s main love is shoes and the wall of photographs only features a snapshot of the collection she has in the arc. Three styles are on show from her own shoe line Jenne O., thigh-high laced up boots that she had decorated with designs by contemporary illustrators. There is one piece by a different designer, an Alaïa dress Jenne found in a Soho vintage shop and immediately recognised. In the entrance hall there is a cape on display by Irish designer Sorcha O’Raghallaigh, a new protégé of the Arc, which apart from gathering lots of vintage pieces also supports contemporary designers. One of the Arc’s latest acquisitions is Fecal Matter, a sort of anti fashion brand, who take all the wasted fabric out of the bins in the garment district of NY and make something new out of them. Something that Jenne can wholeheartedly sympathise with: “I love them!”
Inside Arc will be on display at the Fashion Space Gallery of the London College of Fashion until 28 July. Jenne will be holding two masterclasses on 19 and 20 June and a curator’s tour with Polona Dolžan will take place on 9 June. All events are free.