A Conversation with the World's Largest Helmut Lang Archivist, Michael Kardamakis
Based out of Athens, Greece, Endyma is the largest Helmut Lang archive in the world. Run by Michael Kardamakis, Endyma traces the trajectory of the Helmut Lang brand through iconic pieces and their many iterations season after season. In honor of the Endyma pop-up at Totokaelo in NYC, we had the opportunity to chat with Kardamakis about the language of archiving, his interest in objects, and the brand’s current ethos. Kardamakis explains the role of archiving within the larger fashion conversation and stresses the importance of not allowing one's personal interests to interfere with the construction a collection of clothing. Through his expert collecting, archiving, databasing, and selling processes, Kardamakis has made Endyma sustainable unto itself.
Alex Assil: Helmut Lang’s work in the late-90s and early 2000s has heavily influenced this decade of dressing. Why does Helmut Lang of all brands interest you?
Michael Kardamakis: Helmut Lang, for me, is about the clothes entirely. So, most of my work is about them as objects—so, how they feel and how they are constructed. It is really enjoyable to have all these pieces and see the progress of his work. It is easy in a way for me to collect Helmut Lang than any other designer because he has a really consistent voice and you can see the evolution over the years but also, over the years you see a consistency and the voice is the same. I’m interested primarily in the consistencies. Now, I feel like I know his language and I can appreciate everything—the little changes over time.
AA: What were the first pieces you acquired for your archive?
MK: In a couple of interviews I said the first thing I got was a denim jacket and I just remembered a couple of days ago that it was actually a leather jacket. It was one of his 1999 biker jackets with the high neck and the fur—it’s the one that was silver leather. That’s one of his best designs. It’s really busy and has the straps to carry it like a backpack. It feels really hardcore—really technical. That was actually the first one and it’s funny because I was first a reseller and then a collector. Being a collector is something that is a more recent development [for me]. Before, I would just sell things and made money when I was at university. Actually, I sold that jacket a few months later and Givenchy bought it.
AA: I noticed your approach to archiving is very much academic. What kind of databasing techniques, if any, do you use for Endyma?
MK: The way that I store things in Athens is by type. Like I mentioned before, Helmut Lang has a really consistent language throughout the years, so it’s really nice to see a classic Chesterfield coat changing over the years. I have ten coats [in the archive], one before the other. I also record that information on the website or on Instagram but it’s kind of all in my head still. The indexing is purely by type and also color.
I immerse myself in this so much, I know everything by heart really, so when I wrote the descriptions for Totokaelo I was just really unpacking my thoughts. I would say one thing that is really important is to have a numbering system when something comes in to give it a unique number, record how much you paid for it, basic information about it. But for me, despite the number of pieces I have I still have all of this in my head. It’s a bit nuts and that should also change.
AA: Do you ever feel like there is any kind of competition between other archivists globally, such as David Casavant? How do you see your approach differs from his?
MK: To be honest, when I was starting out and David was a customer of mine earlier, like a few years ago, I was like ‘ok this is annoying me.’ It was like, this guy who is the same age is using his stuff and he doesn’t have to sell it and is getting all the credit and I was the supplier. But after a few years where I also refined my craft, I realized that David’s approach is very different to mine. I don’t think there is a competition because David does something else. David has a terrific collection but I wouldn’t call him an archivist. He is more interested in the emotional response of his clothes. He is interested in having cool shit that people can wear and be rock stars. For me, it is very detail based and it is very much about restoring things and about having a more academic approach. It is totally much more about information.
I feel happy because I am doing my thing and people sort of respond positively to that and there’s enough fashion for everyone. Obviously now the interest in this [type of clothing] makes it harder for me to acquire new things, so in a way that is competitive. Yet at the same time, the same interest also drives more business my way. The landscape always changes no matter what you do you always have to adjust to new stuff coming in and people copying you or you copying someone else. When I was starting out I must have seen other things that I copied, I can’t remember but it happens. I totally try to have a live and let live attitude towards this.
AA: How do you care for delicate pieces?
MK: The annoying thing about delicate items is that they are delicate in different ways. Sometimes it may be a leather coat for example and the leather is very soft and it needs to be padded properly inside so that when it’s on a hanger it doesn’t lose its shape. You may also have a very light nylon top where what is important is that the hanger that you use is a plastic hanger that is very smooth so that the plastic doesn’t catch on it and make little pulls. Then you have things with lots of colors where you may have to re-dye something, but when you re-dye you may destroy things that you didn't want to dye. Sometimes you have to break the item apart into pieces and dye the pieces that need to be restored and remove sections where you want them to stay as is or remove sections that are not washable. So you may re-dye a cotton garment that has a leather trim but you have to actually unstitch all the leather bits and then put them back on. This is quite complex and has been the result of years of experience and quite a few mistakes in the process. To understand how each garment is structured, the specific care they need to bring them back into shape, and how to handle them in a way that sustains their shape for years to come—this actually one of the most enjoyable things about my work. For me it’s a nice break from talking to people and organizing work. I just sit in my space and I just do something with my hands. I really enjoy restoring things.
AA: Do you have any particular advice to offer to people who are hoping to start their own archive—whether it is specific to a single brand or not. What makes something worth archiving?
MK: If I were to give advice to people who want to start their archive I think people should first decide if they really want to do that. We now think of an archive as a one-word job that is curated. To really do a fashion archive it more than the stuff you like. In order to make it a resource that other people can see value in it has to be about more than what you like. A lot of people are interested right now in starting an archive but it is basically just a glorified take on their personal purchases. So, my advice would be to buy less and not buy trendy things; to not try to make up an archive that harnesses the moment right now, because that's like—you are late to the party. You need to redeem yourself if you are going to start a collection. You need to have insight where others aren’t looking. You need to be able to offer something new. People who are starting collections of Raf Simmons are paying thousands now because the items are so expensive—that is more belonging to a trend than starting an archive. In any kind of project that is perhaps a business, if you just do what is trendy you will be changing forever and I think the point of an archive is that you are claiming this stuff does not change—this is relevant.
AA: What do you think about the brand’s recent attempt at revival under “editor in residence” Isabella Burley and now Alix Browne?
MK: Alix Browne and I met yesterday and I thought she was very cool. As a person, I thought she was very capable and aware of the [the brand’s] situation. I would say Helmut Lang (the brand) right now is approaching the old brand’s legacy as a sort of trend. So, it is a bit like they are appropriating it in a way that is short term. I don’t know how invested they are in the actual legacy of the brand. I think they are more like ‘so this is what’s in’ and so ‘we are going to try to channel that energy’ like many fashion brands do—they see something cool and they try to make their version of it, you know? I think that it doesn’t really interest me so much, the current brand—its culture as a brand as well is really different from what it used to be because now it’s a big kind of corporate situation where the priorities are completely different than the old brand, which was very experimental. The old brand aimed to be unconventional, to be different, whereas the new brand, what they do in 2018 is not really unconventional—it’s hip and it’s fresh perhaps but it is what people are into. It isn’t changing the game.