Living History: Step Inside East London’s Aro Archive

The fug and fervour of Dalston’s heaving Kingsland High Street feels far away from the cool-toned industrial space that houses Aro Archive. A Christ-like mesh mannequin hangs on the wall, presiding over the concrete room. Arpeggiating clothing rails move from silver, white and cream to pops of fuchsia pink, graduating into scarlet red and acerbic shades of orange. It is a curated selection of more than 12,000 pieces of vintage fashion by the independent, family-run archival company. It specialises in a vast array of designers, including Yohji Yamamoto, Issey Miyake, Comme des Garçons, Helmut Lang, Maison Margiela, Raf Simons, Ann Demeulemeester and John Paul Gaultier.

“Archives are an accumulation of personality, personal tastes and family history,” says Ariana Waiata Sheehan, the owner of Aro Archive. Sheehan’s mother, Hoana Poland, began the business as a stall under the railway arches of Camden Market, when it was just known as Hoana’s, in 1989, closing it in 2002. She would curate what she found in car boots and from other traders. “A lot of the clothes here reflect my mum’s life as a club babe, doing sound systems and raves in the ’90s – like that safety orange [vest] over there,” she says, gesturing towards it. “That’s why all archives are so different. I was in a baby carrier under the stall table.

“I’ve been buying with my mum since I was 13. I was never going to do anything else.” Today, Aro Archive is a team of 11 people and focuses on Japanese, French, Belgian and British designers. Each team member’s vision informs the archive’s direction. Aro incorporates directional, wearable designer pieces, from workwear to tailoring, that span from the 1880s to contemporary, renting to design houses, museums and educational institutions. While nothing from the archive is for sale, Aro does operate a store of pre-loved items, which has just wrapped up a rare sale event. “I remember the first proper lot of stuff we resold on the stall was from a few huge wholesale boxes of old Guess – jeans, belts, bags,” says Sheehan. “That was the start of us reselling designer [clothes].”

Aro forgoes the white-gloved service of stuffy institutions with a collection that feels sensory and lived-in: garments have stains and worn elbows. Visitor scan get up close and try items onto understand the vibrant lives of each piece and make tangible the layers of a designer’s universe. “This is an active resource. Nothing is in a plastic bag with a code. We are constantly packaging things up and sending them to designers, exhibitions and ateliers in different cities,” says archive manager Joseph O’Brien. “We never want it to gather dust. It’s important to treat the archive with continuous curiosity.”

“Clothes do disintegrate if you don’t use them. I find that really wild about the institutional nature of a lot of clothing archives,” says Sheehan. “Eventually, it’s going to fall to pieces having had no life. That’s so sad!” The archive remains in both Sheehan and O’Brien’s heads. They worked out recently that it would take four years and a huge number of people to catalogue it all.

The archive has lived through its own metamorphosis. First it was a market stall, where it quickly became a sought-out spot for vintage. It was known for its ceiling of bondage Barbies and Kens. Patrons included Boy George, Adam Ant, Skunk Anansie, Fatboy Slim, Noel Fielding, Rosanna Arquette and a lairy Pete Doherty, who once allegedly trashed the stall and had his minder pay for the damage. With Sheehan’s stepfather’s redundancy cash, they opened a physical shop in 2008, the purple-fronted Strut in Stoke Newington. “Everything was old-school, as in, ‘put a piece of clothing on every visible surface’ school of thought,” she says. “Windows, walls, chairs, back of the till – pow!” People kept bringing more for them to buy and sell. “We just didn’t really know about pre-owned, luxury designer [clothes]. I remember one day a woman brought in a Yohji [Yamamoto] coat,”says Sheehan. “She had bought it in the ’80s. Me and my mum just loved it, and it fit us both. We got curious and started asking about Japanese designers. We asked around and found out more. At the time, it was wildly cheap. We’d get a huge rubberised fold-up Yohji mac for £250. The only other one I’ve seen is from an archive in Australia.”

The Aro Archive team, from left: store manager Luke Hindley, archive manager Joseph O’Brien, junior buyer Matteo Kento Cossu, archive boss Ariana Waiata Sheehan, head of special projects Joseph Delaney, 3D content creative Delphine Jaubert, junior creative Ambre Martin

The archive concept bloomed, becoming two sparse rails of vintage Japanese designs. They felt too attached to sell any of it. As they moved into this new aesthetic, Sheehan found a gutted shop on Broadway Market in Hackney and furnished it in their new vibe: Mary Quant shop fittings plastered with stickers and expandable foam, sourced from a squat. Here, store patrons –designers, stylists, students – kept asking to hire clothes. “For a whole year, it was total smoke and mirrors,” says Sheehan. The archive grew into a new Mare Street space. “We rotated two rails between 10 clients, pretending we had stuff out on loan. We turned things inside out, re-merchandised. We were resourceful.” With a new stream of income, two rails became 12 in five years and, four years ago, Aro found its current Dalston home. In the time since, it has produced exhibitions and fashion films centring archive pieces, such as Aro’s head of special projects Joseph Delaney’s striking films Yohji Yamamoto 1983-2016 and Do You Know What You’re HereFor?!, a film set against the unbridled self-expression of rave culture. They’re currently running the Calling All Raf Fans project, spotlighting Simons’ work. The Aro Discord channel buzzes.

The crescendos of a designer’s oeuvre can be traced through each archive: unfurling a signature silhouette, an epiphanic moment of tailoring, functionalities developed and defected from, each sartorial about-face sharpened into focus. In an age of overconsumption and trend cycles, where algorithms reward ahistorical fashion forecasting, and as many heritage brands try to align with new generations, the key to progression remains in looking back.

O’Brien shows me a ruddy yellow Body Map jacket.The waxed cotton smock is less Leigh Bowery and more lighthouse keeper, quite different from what we know of the influential ’80s British label, which was famed for its distinctive prints and performative shapes. “Who was wearing this and what for?” he says. “Were they at a rave, in a boat, or walking the dog? We love pieces that have obviously had lives before us.” Exploring archival fashion can yield inspiration and illuminating, surprising context.

“I found it on eBay from someone selling car parts,” says Sheehan. “I love how surprising it is for the brand and how it fits in with our workwear.” She spends hours trawling eBay each day. “A lot of the big guns stuff comes from people who are selling Pokémon cards or crockery. Then you spot some Daniel Poole.”

“They’ll try to hawk a few phone chargers along with the Dexter Wong,” adds O’Brien. He twirls the jacket on its hanger, where stains dapple its veneer, before returning it to a side room bloated with suits, jackets and Stone Island coats, the heritage badge punctuatin grows of khakis and camos.

Narrative is a powerful tool and Aro Archive finds a through line with its designers. This is timeless clothing that celebrates power and function, which at once negates and interrogates gender, spans body types and nurtures heritage while innovating beyond rules and what is expected.

“The designers are patient and committed. A lot of people pooh-pooh new Yohji, but it is always bold in message and craftsmanship,” says Sheehan.“I love Stone Island because I grew up very working-class. A Stoney jacket was the epitome of making it. To do this, there has to be a wild self-belief in one’s own taste.”

Still, Aro revels in irreverence,a refreshing tone in an industry often viewed through an exclusive, ultra-serious lens. “I love Comme. It’s practical but silly,” says O’Brien, who previously worked as a hand embroiderer. “‘Silly’ downplays genius, but Rei [Kawakubo] – like Yohji – is a pattern master. I love the abstract, the humour. Think of those iconic ’90s runways that built a total fantasy world. Super playful, but shifting culture.”

Aro is built around designers who stay true to their roots, which is also true of Sheehan and her family business. “It’s about keeping hold of identity while reimagining and repurposing,” says O’Brien. “That’s very Yohji and Issey.” The relationship with in-house clients is symbiotic. Yamamoto went bankrupt twice and lost his archive. His team then bargained with Aro for four missing pieces. “I said, ‘If there’s one thing we love more than Yohji, it’s his clothes.’ Our whole reason for being here is to collect and inform for the future,” says Sheehan.

Archives are a petri dish for a new generation of designers, too. “To have an archive, you have a duty to teach and allow people to feel inspired,” says Sheehan.“We exist to cut through and bring people in. Archives and museums can be alienating. Kids in Hackney deserve this as much as fashion elitists with cash money.”

Spikes in interest in Aro’s particular factions can reflect industry pressure points. “It can be a bit of a negative jigsaw puzzle,” says O’Brien. “You can spot phases. Maybe three people have asked to borrow the same piece, or show interest in a designer’s specific era.” With Issey Miyake dying last year, they expect to see archival Issey circulating in the next two years, “when people feel ready to let their pieces go”, says Sheehan. Clothes hold deeply personal, tangible memories.“The people we buy stuff from often tell us the story before they allow us to buy the items,” says Sheehan.“To be able to share and impose those stories on a designer’s narrative is super special.”

Aro’s vital artery remains its community. “It’s been a series of meeting the right people at the right time,” says Sheehan. “It’s from having these connections that my mum built with traders, boots on the ground.” She cites Steven Philip, co-founder of pioneering vintage mecca Rellik, as a mentor. They would swap bags of Galliano and Westwood for Yohji and Comme. “On the outside, it’s billed as a fashion business,” says O’Brien, “but there’s no speaking to second assistants, it’s a family tree.”

The dream is to run the company “like a design house”.It aims to have the longevity of a label, but the expanse of an educational institute: “The Institute of Aro, run by people for the people,” says Sheehan.

In years previous, Aro offered space to emerging designers – from Claire Barrow andLiam Hodges to Ed Marler – to use the archive and sell their own pieces. “I want to be a world first: a pre-owned department store, an educational institute and a design incubator all in the same space.” While contemporary worlds of archive and resale culture interpolate, and definitions morph, those blurred lines only invigorate Aro Archive. “I love seeing young people being savvy. The more of us doing the same thing, the better we all do this community,” says Sheehan. “‘Bedroom archives’ are easily dismissed,” says O’Brien. “But this is a major food chain. Sometimes personality overrides the archive. Someone who collects Heinz Baked Beans labels and knows all the typography can be endlessly more interesting. We always want to liberate how we think about archiving.” As he says this,Sheehan’s personal archive of phallic sculptures (she has about 20, of all types and materials) looms around us.

In September, Aro Archive will open a new Shoreditch space: an archive, café, clothing and homeware store, a “safe haven”. There are plans to open in Paris next year, too. It’s a positive new venture, as most of Aro’s archive clients are in Europe. “Archive is a different blood flow,” says Sheehan. “Paris is really white and stuffy – they need something hot, and Aro’s gonna sprinkle that spice.

Photography by Jason Lloyd-Evans. Taken from Issue 71 of 10 Magazine – FASHION, ICON, DEVOTEE – on newsstands now. Order your copy here.

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