At 21, Elise By Olsen has racked up more accomplishments and flight miles than people double her age. She began publishing her own youth culture magazine at 13, becoming something like Norway’s answer to Tavi Gevinson. After putting Recens Paper aside, she debuted the small-format magazine, Wallet. Today, Olsen is launching her most ambitious project to date: the International Library of Fashion Research.
This collection consists of all sorts of printed matter, everything from show invites to rare books, and it will chart the history of fashion from 1970 forward. It’s home base is Oslo, but as the scope of the project is international, and Olsen generally spends 10 months out of 12 on the road, it has the potential to travel, and the founder says she is open to rethinking what an institution, or library, can be today.
Olsen thinks of herself as more of an entrepreneur and a media person more than a fashion one, per se: “I feel like I have one foot in, one foot out. I like to create businesses and companies and publish publications and fashion has been like the filter for that… but that is a coincidence. It could have been anything,” she said on a recent Zoom chat. The International Library of Fashion Research is much more than a business proposition, though; it’s a passion project built upon an gift from Olsen’s mentor of many years, the self-described “brand author and identity designer” and the cultural theorist Steven Mark Klein (known also as the “architect of influence” or “freelance outlaw”), which he presented her when he decided to retire.
As Klein’s instructions were to guard and grow the collection, the first thing Olsen needed to do was find a space for it, and she has been given room on the campus of the National Museum. The digital institution is accessible to the public starting today. According to Olsen the library offers a “maximized digital experience,” but not one that tries to mimic reality. “Especially during COVID,” she notes, there’s been so much [that’s gone] digital, I just feel really saturated online.” To that end collaborative programs are being designed. One of the questions Olsen asked herself while developing this project was: “How can we create a library that, yes, guards the past, but also creates conversations for the future? Something that my generation would want to interact with?”
From New York City…
Olsen absolutely refutes the generally held ideas that print is dead and that millennials are “a non-literate generation” that “have completely digital lives.” She also rejects the idea that Norwegians give no thought to fashion. The fact that Oslo is, in her words, “decentralized” and “off-the-grid” she sees as being a plus.
… to Oslo.
The pandemic has revealed not only an insatiable appetite for nostalgia, but the importance and need for archives. Olsen, who consults for many fashion houses, noticed that when lockdown made new production challenging, design teams “were kind of forced to go back into their own archives, and realized that they hadn’t really prioritized them at all. I think that was a proof of concept for me to create a neutralized space for fashion. It also says to me that there’s a very disposable mentality in fashion,” she adds.
It’s a throw-away culture that has contributed to the climate crisis. In order to move forward, there needs to be a clear-eyed look at history from different perspectives. The International Library of Fashion Research is one place to sart.