To my left are mannequins of all shapes and sizes, stacked haphazardly against a wall.
To my right are vast tables, laden with textiles, clothes, hats and embroidery. Ahead of me are row upon row of shelves, holding the most impressive fashion collection in the world. This is Blythe House, more commonly known as the V&A’s archive: home to more than 250,000 objects, of which 80,000 belong in the textile and fashion collection. Only 10 per cent of what the V&A owns is on show at the museum in South Kensington — the rest is here, in the old headquarters of the Post Office Savings Bank in Olympia.
But not for much longer. The V&A is set to open its East project at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in 2023: a new museum at the growing development complex Stratford Waterfront, and a collection and research centre at Here East, a campus for creative industries. The entire contents of Blythe House will be transported there, in what promises to be the biggest collections move since the Second World War. Gus Casely-Hayford (brother of the late menswear designer, Joe Casely-Hayford, and V&A East’s new director) has described the archive as ‘the most thrilling single body of material culture I have ever encountered’.
It’s easy to see why: the museum’s fashion collection is the largest in the world. It’s a treasure trove of clothing, from the historical (textiles dating back 2,000 years and mummy wrappings) to the everyday (there’s even a pair of Primark jeans). In total, Blythe House is home to 3,292 pairs of shoes, 755 bags and 1,873 hats, as well as costume jewellery, parasols and umbrellas, walking sticks and dress swords. Of course, the rare designer pieces are the main draw: a Norman Hartnell dress for the Queen, the Vivienne Westwood platform shoes that famously toppled Naomi Campbell on the catwalk 1993 and Dior’s New Look Bar suit all belong to the V&A. The museum’s exhibitions on Alexander McQueen and Dior have been its most popular; the Dior exhibition alone saw more than half a million visitors walk through the doors. In short, this is perhaps the most valuable wardrobe of all time.
‘We have just over 12 months to decant the collection here,’ explains Philippa Mackenzie, head of the collections relocation programme, when I meet her for an exclusive tour of The Clothworkers’ Centre (where 7,000 drawers and more than 500 metres of rails store most of the fashion archive) at Blythe House. ‘To do that, we have to be incredibly prepared. We’re looking at four lorry trips a day, every day, for a year. At the moment, there’s a team of about 45 people working on it.’
The building has been used as the museum’s archive since the late 1970s, occupying nearly 15,000 square metres across six floors, but its labyrinthine Edwardian rooms and passages, which are Grade II-listed, just aren’t up to the challenge of storing and preserving the collection any more. ‘Everyone is very fond of the building,’ says Mackenzie, ‘but it’s not really fit for purpose. Environmentally it’s very hard to control.’
While the building may not match the state-of-the-art new site in terms of bespoke, temperature-controlled storage, it more than makes up for it in character: fashion and textiles curators Suzanne Smith and Elisabeth Murray take me through the interconnected rooms, up and down stairs and along corridors. Some of the most precious pieces are kept in the old loos; while they can’t be knocked down due to planning permission, the stalls make perfect storage spots for, say, an enormous, laser cut tulle dress by Hussein Chalayan. ‘They actually work quite well for us,’ laughs Murray.
Contrary to what you might think, seeing items in storage can be far more rewarding than seeing them on display. Smith and Murray show me those afrorementioned Westwood shoes Naomi Campbell fell in, and it’s much easier to appreciate the 30cm heel height of the blue, mock croc platforms up close. ‘These are the actual shoes she wore,’ Smith tells me. ‘The curator of contemporary dress got in touch with Vivienne Westwood really quickly after the images appeared in the press, and they were gifted to the collection. They really are a moment in fashion history.’ Westwood herself has used the archive for inspiration, as has Erdem. Alexander McQueen once said: ‘The collections at the V&A never fail to intrigue and inspire me. The nation is privileged to have access to such a resource… it’s the sort of place I’d like to be shut in overnight.’
And that dress designed by Norman Hartnell for the Queen in 1957 for a state visit to Paris nestles alongside Dior’s iconic Bar suit, gifted to the V&A by the design house. ‘It’s constantly popular,’ says Murray. ‘The first thing visitors to the Dior exhibition last summer saw was this exact outfit. After an exhibition, quite often the requests to view that designer go up — after the Dior exhibition, people wanted to see it much more in storage. We minimise handling as much as possible, to preserve it in the long term. Now it’s back, and having a lie down.’
Some of the pieces are kept safe in the archive for our protection as much as theirs. ‘We’ve got arsenic in dyes; in hats, there’s often problematic chemicals used in the manufacturing process, like mercury,’ says Smith. ‘We’re careful to wear gloves!’ There are also treasures such as a coat designed by photographer Cecil Beaton for his country house party, embroidery by Mary, Queen of Scots, vintage Givenchy couture and shoes from the 1600s. A Sibling tracksuit from 2012 with a blue, toile de Jouy-style print, donated by fashion journalist Charlie Porter, sits side by side with a length of original toile de Jouy from 18th-century France.
At V&A East, you won’t need to book an appointment to see these iconic pieces. They, along with thousands more, will be available for anyone to see at their new home, where visitors will get a 360-degree view of how a museum functions, from acquisition to display, storage and conservation. Mackenzie predicts that the number of visitors will increase ‘massively — we’re featuring some objects as they would be seen in storage rather than on display, and people will be able to look into some of the conservation studios. It’ll be a behind-the-scenes sort of experience.’
It’s not what you’d expect from an archive: far from being roped off from public eyes, the collection in storage will be celebrated, rather than locked behind dusty, closed doors. As Smith puts it, ‘it’s a living, breathing thing’.