Don’t call David Casavant an archivist. The 28-year-old Tennessee native began collecting now-coveted pieces by Helmut Lang and Raf Simons in 2004 to satiate his appetite for work by menswear icons. At age 13, the internet became Casavant’s portal to the fashion industry; websites like The Fashion Spot fueled his obsession with fashion images, while eBay (an oft-overlooked, but important harbinger for platforms like Grailed) became his retailer of choice. “At the time, people didn’t value clothes that weren’t new,” Casavant says. “After Helmut [Lang] left his brand, clothes from his era cost nothing.” Since the early-aughts, Casavant’s collection has grown to thousands of garments by the likes of Jean Paul Gaultier, Tom Ford, and Hedi Slimane.
As opposed to fixating on the history of these pieces as a curator might, the New York-based stylist regards them as his medium for conceiving new fashion narratives. Upon returning stateside in 2012 after some time at Central Saint Martins in London, Casavant began loaning pieces to fellow stylists. His archive eventually caught Kanye West’s attention; personal pulls evolved to dressing the rapper and Paul McCartney for their FourFiveSeconds music video with Rihanna (another client). Celebrities including Kim Kardashian West, Pharrell, Kendrick Lamar, and Travis Scott soon began wearing pieces from Casavant’s archive during performances, talk shows, and beach outings in Malibu. Instead of relegating them to tissue-lined boxes, Casavant sends his precious wares into the world to create striking style moments for our era.
From his home-cum-studio inside of New York by Gehry in Manhattan’s Financial District, Casavant revisits his early days of collecting, gets candid about working in New York, and expounds on the power of his archive.
As a teenager, did the people around you understand your penchant for collecting fashion?
“I think I was always kind of abnormal to them. [Laughs]. At the beginning, I was treated as if I was spoiled brat, as opposed to someone who has a genuine love for creativity and design. At the time, people thought of it as a way to waste or flaunt money.”
Do you feel that sentiment was compounded by the fact that you were specifically collecting clothes?
“Definitely! Now, it’s completely normal for a 14-year-old boy to be obsessed with clothes and collect a ton. They’re not confronted with people calling them frivolous or accusing them of bragging. For me at the time, especially living between Tennessee and Georgia, that’s how it was. At the same time, there were people who knew I was creative and could appreciate it in some way.”
You eventually escaped to Central Saint Martins in London, correct?
“I did, but I dropped out in my last year and moved to New York. I felt I got everything I wanted out of it and I had the extreme motivation to go for it myself. The final year there is focused on a massive project and I wasn’t interested in that. Instead, I really wanted to work in the industry.
“I worked at CR Fashion Book for a year when the magazine first started. It was insane and amazing. I loved going in every day, no matter how crazy it got. When Hurricane Sandy hit, we still had to do a shoot, and I had to go to The Standard Hotel in the East Village and walk up eighteen flights of stairs to get all the clothes for the next day. But I was still excited to do it. I just loved it.”
So adjusting to the industry in New York after being London was easy?
“Well, not exactly. I got to be more choosy with who I worked for after my first year in New York.
“No offense to New York’s fashion community from that time, but I think the industry people that I worked with in London were a lot more qualified. They had a genuine passion for their work and understood how to work with very limited budgets but still create a really amazing product through teamwork. It wasn’t about ego or performing some scene out of The Devil Wears Prada.
“Working in New York for the first times was a total shock. There was a Hollywood vibe to it; calling an intern ‘intern,’ and not their name, for example. Just corny theatrics like that. I don’t think I had to humble myself to do that, because I was pretty game. It was just interesting to observe. I was doing my best to stand back and learn as much as I could knowing that people who act like that don’t make it far.”
I’ve read that your archive is valued at $20 million. I imagine that price tag has a lot to do with being able to tie celebrities like Kanye and Paul McCartney to these pieces.
“I don’t know if that number is right! [Laughs]. I think someone said that once and it got re-quoted over and over again. You know, it’s really hard to appraise because the value is whatever someone is willing to pay for it. I don’t think it’s valued that high, but if you factor in the cultural significance of these clothes or who they’ve been worn by, it could make the pieces more valuable.
“I also don’t really know a lot about the history of these individual pieces. I have a lot of unproduced samples only seen in runway shows, for example. I assume I have it because some intern stole it and eventually sold it online. That’s partly why I’m so adamant about keeping everything. I want to know the full story some day, but also add to the story through my own work.”
You’ve previously said that if you do sell your archive, you would want it to maintain its power with its new owner. What inherent power do you feel these clothes have?
“For me, it’s about a powerful personal connection. I’m not a historian or an archivist, which is often how I’m referred to, so the value isn’t necessarily about why these clothes were made or how old they are. I see them as tools I can put out in the world to bring different creative projects to life. I don’t separate these clothes from myself and my work.”
Do you feel that there is a common thread that brings these pieces together?
“They all definitely fit into my aesthetic. I feel like I have a really strong viewpoint and this is how I materialize it. Even though I go through phases of being interested in a certain category or style, I’ve never really bought into trends. I’ve always kept it true to me. It’s a really instinctual process, so I never know how to define it. I’ve always struggled with words, because I mostly think in images. I kind of like not defining the overall aesthetic of the archive because when you define it, it’s suddenly more rigid.”
Most of your archive focuses on “the greats,” like Helmut Lang and Raf Simons. Is there a certain creative class you stick to?
“Well, we say ‘the greats’ now, but when I first started collecting them they weren’t “the greats.” Helmut was thought of by a very inside group of fashion people as a strong designer, but I don’t think he was thought of that way by a large population of people across creative disciplines like he is now. The same applies to Raf Simons; at the time he was a small menswear designer. People didn’t see him in this glorious way that we see him now. They weren’t necessarily ‘greats’ when I became interested in them. I don’t buy something just because it’s by a ‘great’ designer. I get designers that I feel a connection to.”
What it is that connects you to the designers you collect?
“I loved that they were doing menswear in a new, street style way that was different for high fashion. I really like that Raf was focused on menswear at a time when there weren’t people just doing menswear. A lot of menswear was second to a brand or designer’s womenswear collection. The same applies to Hedi Slimane. He was doing menswear and doing it very well. There just weren’t that many menswear-focused things at that time.”
Between launching your book last October, actively styling work, and keeping up with projects related to the archive, it seems like you’re in a constant state of work.
“It’s definitely a constant state of work, in my head. I’m always organizing, ideating, and going over things.”
Are you ever just over it? What do you do if you hit a wall?
“I’m always over it! [Laughs]. But if I do something, I do it to the extreme and with all my effort, intention, and passion. I sort of feel like I don’t do that much, honestly. I’m a hyperactive person that wants to create more.
“If it gets to be too much or I hit a wall, I just have to wait and be patient. Sometimes it takes a while for the universe to catch up to all the work you’ve put in and give you something in return for it. But when it finally does, the payoff is well worth the wait.”