At 22, Elise By Olsen has spent much of her life refusing to be ignored by what she calls the “legit” fashion world.
At 8, she launched a style and culture blog; At 13, she became one of the world’s youngest editors when she founded, published and edited Recens, a glossy style magazine for under-18s. (“It was unheard of for young people to be part of the cultural conversation or the fashion industry,” she says.) Later, she launched Wallet, a fashion industry journal with what WWD described as a “sharp and critical pen”.
The child prodigy from the suburbs of Oslo worked as a cultural and brand consultant and joined a creative residency at Google in Paris at the age of 17 at the invitation of Hans Ulrich Obrist, curator and art critic. . Her early magazines were, she says, born out of frustration: “Fashion people cling to their positions, even though they may not be as relevant as they think.”
Today, Olsen embarks on her most ambitious project yet, as founding director of the International Library of Fashion Research.
What claims to be “the world’s most comprehensive repository of expert fashion research and contemporary fashion publications” is an extraordinary trove of printed ephemera: two tons of magazines, lookbooks, runway invitations, of catalogs etc. dating from the mid 1970’s to the present. Opening in October, it will be free and open to all.
His home will be the old Oslo West station (Olsen and his team share the grand Italianate building with the Nobel Peace Center, among others) and across the courtyard from his aides and supporters, the Museum recently opened Norwegian National. Olsen worked closely with Hanne Eide, the museum’s curator of fashion and clothing, to initiate the project. “We have a common mission,” says Eide.
Olsen, who is slim with bleached white hair and intricately tattooed wrists, shows me around, browsing builders and engineers as they bump into each other. When completed, there will be two floors: one for exhibits, the other for shelving and studies.
How would Olsen describe the library? “As a neutral space for fashion discourse – that’s my mission,” she says. “The archives will all be on shelves. It will look like a physical study room, above it there will be a large table where you can use the on-site archives, printing and scanning facilities. . . ”
But there will be no clothes, because the purpose of the library is not to study fashion, but how it is mediated. “We are going to extract the costumes and just look at the processes and methods. No dummies, no dummies.
Strolling through the bright, white-walled premises in a minimal black ensemble and futuristic high-heeled turquoise boots, Olsen is surprisingly confident. She speaks in quick paragraphs delivered in fluent English without hesitation – an accent that is part Scandi, part New York, part South London.
A stack of cardboard boxes taped with labels such as “YVES S LAURENT – CHLOE – LANVIN – GIVENCHY” and “BALENCIAGA” contain part of the collection, most of which was donated to OIsen by Steven Mark Klein, the cultural theorist American and his mentor, who died last year at the age of 70. What makes Klein’s collection worth preserving?
“Because promotional materials have always been disposable, thrown away and used only for marketing and sales,” Olsen says. “Each of these publications is not necessarily as valuable, but taken together, they are incredibly valuable. . . for students, researchers, entrepreneurs . . . anyone who needs to understand the history of fashion.
“I don’t think it’s ever been seen before in such a range, because people in the intellectual discourse of fashion tend to shy away from the commercial, the promotional.”
Klein’s huge gift was shipped from his East Broadway apartment in Manhattan to Oslo in 2020, when the project was first conceived. More were added as word spread. Olsen pushes aside another neat box: “This is part of a donation we received from Comme des Garçons: email correspondence, catalogs, lookbooks.”
Klein – aka Steve Oklyn – was a provocateur and cult figure on the American fashion scene. A former graphic designer and branding consultant, Klein was both immersed in and positioned outside of the New York visual arts scene, and fashion in particular.
Under her pseudonym Oklyn (“her troll persona,” Olsen notes, approvingly), Klein oversaw Not Vogue, a longtime satirical fashion blog that delved into the industry’s most inflated excesses. He was also an obsessive collector – even a borderline collector – of fashion ephemera.
Olsen and Klein met when Klein spotted media coverage of Olsen’s self-publishing empire and contacted her via email in 2015. And “from that point on, he bombarded me links – all references to culture, music, art, and it was like 20 links a day.”
Klein had finished his collection when he gave it to her: “He said, ‘I’m done with my research, I’m done with this material and people should be able to access it.’ ”
Olsen visited him regularly in New York and felt his absence as the library neared its opening date. “I was his student and he was my teacher and it was a monologue. I was taking notes and really listening to him. I had such respect for him.”
Now Olsen is focused on continuing his work. As part of the library’s partnership with the museum, there will be exhibitions, editorial work, a symposium and collaborations with leading fashion schools, including Central Saint Martins in London and Parsons School of Design in New York. Olsen would eventually like to set up a doctoral research residency.
His generation is often assumed to ignore print. Olsen clearly loves her, but why? “It’s daring. It’s on the newsstand and not to be ignored. It’s more legitimate and it’s that antidote to the online media cycle.
Could she be doing Anna Wintour’s job in 15 years?
“Hmmm . . . ” There is an unusual pause before her response arrives.
“So I don’t believe in monthly magazines. We have to slow down. It’s not viable to print 500,000 copies of an issue every month and send it out for worldwide distribution and so on. Magazines need to be completely transformed.
“But the commercial edition is interesting. Its sales, reach, and influence are dwindling, which means it can experience incredible revival. »
Then she adds, “But there’s definitely something about taking something that’s dying as a concept and doing it in a new way, for a new audience.
“Like a library.”
Olsen’s 5 Favorite Things in the Library. . in his own words
Visionary No 18 ‘Louis Vuitton’
Visionaire really pushed the idea of the fashion magazine as a simple 22x28cm monthly. Rather, its stakes are highly conceptual artifacts and collectibles in themselves, like this Louis Vuitton clutch bag filled with unbound pages. Published in a very limited circulation, at irregular frequency and distributed in contemporary art spaces. . . Cecilia Dean, the co-founder, is also a member of our board of directors.
Martin Margiela spring-summer 1997
The press release is the fashion communication medium par excellence, often for a very promotional or commercial purpose to which our collection does not hesitate. Commerciality is what makes fashion, fashion. This 1997 Margiela press release includes loose A4 paper text and C-print images, wrapped in a linen sleeve.
SHIRT Comme des Garçons Spring Summer 2012
Fashion prints, such as lookbooks or catalogs, are often very expensive pieces, with the best prints, the best graphic designers, the best photographers, etc. These lookbooks or catalogs were distributed free of charge on store counters to customers, and eventually disposed of. I think these are some of the best publications we have in our permanent collection, not because they have any particular economic value in themselves, but in their totality.
Balenciaga Men’s Collection SS 09
Ryan McGinley shot Nicolas Ghesquière’s 2009 Balenciaga collection. Perfect binding, very high quality printing. Steven was an art book collector and always drew parallels between artist books and fashion publications. I fully understand why.
Rick Owens furniture by Michèle Lamy
Our library collection includes a broader scope than what are traditionally considered “fashion” books. This is a catalog of a collection of Rick Owens furniture designed by his wife Michele Lamy. Fashion crosses fields such as art, architecture, industrial design, music/sound, literature and history in general.
The International Fashion Research Library opens in Oslo in October
Check out our latest stories first – follow @financialtimesfashion on Instagram