Much has been written and said about Coco Chanel, but it is rare to see up close the inspiration and ideas that steered the couturier through her career, or get an insight into Karl Lagerfeld's dialogue with his predecessor. The recent Culture Chanel exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Shanghai offered a glimpse into Chanel's universe: her designs, iconic pieces, and her literary and artistic inspirations.
This exhibition highlighted a growing trend among the big players in fashion to throw open the archives and use their heirlooms to communicate the essence of their brands to the modern customer.
Ferragamo, Louis Vuitton and Hermes are such labels with a rich heritage of craftsmanship that is carefully protected and nurtured.
Salvatore Ferragamo opened a museum in Florence in 1995 featuring the history of the brand's founder and his creations. It expanded in 2006 and began tours of parts of its archive, such as shoes Ferragamo designed for Hollywood movie icons of the 1930s and 40s, including Greta Garbo and Judy Garland.
People are fascinated by the clothes worn by the stars, but also, in an age of automation and mass production, the luxury and pure craftsmanship of a shoe or a handbag made by hand. The success of the Ferragamo museum, which is one of the few open to the public, echoes the popularity of fashion exhibitions hosted by museums such as New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art (which will hold an Alexander McQueen retrospective this summer) and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, where fashion is one of the biggest crowd-pullers.
Last year, the Yves Saint Laurent retrospective at the Petit Palais in Paris introduced his work to a younger generation.
Fashion may not be art, but it gives an insight into the creative process in a way we can relate to, because clothes are a part of daily experience. Today, Louis Vuitton's handbags set pulses racing, but the Vuitton tale began in 1854, with the making of quality luggage for the ocean liner set and, later, the jet set.
Occasionally the Vuitton archives are unlocked for exhibitions such as the heritage trunks and toys shown in Malaysia and the Philippines and the examples displayed at the 100 Legendary Trunks book launch last year in Hong Kong, illustrating what travel was like before package holidays and discount airlines.
'Showing our heritage is a way to celebrate our savoir faire and craftsmanship, and at the same time our creativity and modernity by explaining how Louis Vuitton adapted to people's aspirations and ways of travel,' says Jean-Baptiste Debains, president of Louis Vuitton Asia Pacific.
In Paris at the Musee Carnavalet, the 'Voyage en Capitale' exhibition last month brought together some strikingly unusual trunks, vanity cases and even a medical cabinet. These came not just from Vuitton's own archive, but also from major French museums. The exhibition reveals the history of the house and the Louis Vuitton family.
'People have different levels of knowledge and understanding of Louis Vuitton,' Debains explains. 'Those who know more are also curious about each trunk or product's specific story and what makes it special.' Others discover that Vuitton was originally a trunk maker, 'and can better understand today's values of quality, craftsmanship and innovation'.
The 'Regola d'Arte' exhibition at Ferragamo's Palazzo Spini Feroni in Florence reflects on the traditions of craftsmanship in Florence and how it can serve to inspire others in the future. The exhibition describes how the creative process works - the development of a shoe from conception to production and sale.
Gucci, founded in Florence 90 years ago, will celebrate the anniversary by opening a museum later this year. Gucci bags and accessories have been handed down through families, so the brand is getting customers involved, through the recently launched Gucci Collector service with Christie's auction house, which appraises and certifies vintage Gucci accessories.
'The idea to establish a Gucci museum is a way to celebrate the incredible story and heritage of this house,' says Gucci president Patrizio di Marco.
'Gucci has a rich archive of vintage items that has never before been accessible to the public. Between now and the opening, through the new Gucci Collector Service, it is possible that Gucci's archivists, who are constantly on the lookout for additional pieces of note, will add to this archive. The aim is to develop a dynamic and innovative experience, where visitors can appreciate and enjoy our history, and at the same time understand how vibrant and alive Gucci is today,' he says.
Some houses bring their archives into their stores. On the third floor of Hermes' Rue du Faubourg Saint-HonorE store in Paris is a space for hushed contemplation and history. It was originally the workroom of Charles-Emile Hermes, who took over his father Thierry's business as a saddle-maker in 1880. On display is a range of objects collected by Charles-Emile's son, Emile-Maurice, to inspire his work, including saddles and bridles of kings and warriors.
The first Hermes silk scarf in 1937 was inspired by the motifs from a children's board game and leather bridles inspired a later scarf. The collection, a memory bank and resource for the company's designers and artisans, 'is really the soul of this house', says Pierre-Alexis Dumas, artistic director and sixth-generation family member. 'It is a reminder for all of us at Hermes of the ability we should always keep to find beauty wherever it is.'
Daks, which started the men's slacks revolution in the 30s, has amassed a wealth of material dating back to the origins of the company in 1894. Some pieces were donated by former members of staff. A 2009 exhibition in Japan generated so much interest a permanent base for the archive in London was created.
The clothes, the photographs, and the evocative advertising illustrations by Max Hoff inspire the house's design teams and visitors. 'The company made many revolutionary statements over the years and Daks is proud of that,' says curator Janice Heron, adding, as if speaking for all luxury labels: 'In the current economic climate it is even more important to authenticate the brand for the luxury consumer.'