130 years of Hanro: Archive in progress

Hanro archive Liestal museum Baselland

Fashion archives have become quite a thing in recent years. But have you ever wondered what goes into creating them? It’s something I’m a little obsessed with. When I ask brands about their archives, I usually hear either that everything is kept in an off-site, temperature-controlled, white-gloves location (think heritage luxury brand) or, more commonly, “it’s all stuffed in a back room full of jumbled up rails and we’d never allow visitors inside.” In reality, archiving is a recent thing for most fashion companies. When a designer starts a brand, they don’t know what to keep, nor have much space for this future treasure trove of inspiration. They’re most likely just trying to keep their overheads low and get their collections out.

So it was an exciting moment when I got the call from luxury underwear pioneer, Hanro asking if I’d like to visit its archive. Mainly because said archive is in the process of being created and as such, now is the best time to see it. (Especially if like me, you’re an information geek and a fan of the Swiss underwear-makers). If you’re not familiar with Hanro, here’s the low-down. Established 130 years ago by knitwear visionaries Albert Handschin and Carl Ronus (hence ‘Han’ and ‘Ro’), the brand has become the go-to for those seeking precision-made basics in cotton, wool or silk. I rely on their spaghetti strap vests and ultra fine tees for layering in the winter and they’re part of every stylist’s kit for those times when your minimalist-luxe shoot calls for a visible silk strap or a barely-there cotton-knit tee. (They’re popular with men too, Mr DRG bulk buys his mercerised cotton tees in the Harrods sale.) But that’s about all I really knew about Hanro. And of course, when you visit the archive, you get a much bigger, clearer picture.

To Liestal Switzerland, then, a small town an hour outside Zurich where the brand began. While the main headquarters are now housed in Austria, the original premises have been repurposed as ‘TextilPiazza’ a multi-functioning concept space that serves as a home for the archive amongst other interesting community-conscious things (of which more later).

My tour guides are TextilPiazza’s Claudia Ott and the knowledgable Saskia Klaassan Naegeli from Liestal’s Museum Baselland. Once complete, the archive will be handed to the museum as a gift from Hanro to the Swiss Federal State Basel-Landschaft. But first, the painstaking process of sifting, sorting, describing, labelling, photographing and indexing several thousand pieces of textile and paper materials. I imagine frequent wails of ‘whose idea WAS this?’ and hair-pulling near-breakdowns.

Ott explains that there’s a team of experts and freelancers working on the archive, powering to get it completed for handover on 1st January 2015. As such, things need to be coordinated, planned and carefully orchestrated. Thankfully, this is what the Swiss excel at, as masters of precision and organisation. Amongst the challenges are identifying certain pieces and then describing them. “Some of the earlier pieces are hard to describe as the terminology and techniques of the time aren’t well known now,” explains Naegeli. Then there’s the matter of the print archive whose contents have been scattered in various offices. In short, it’s been quite a feat getting everything in one place.

At Textilpiazza, following an initial meet-and-greet, I’m shown into a workroom where rails of clothes and underwear are being studied and labelled, ready for their close-up. A make-shift photo studio houses a camera on permanent standby in a corner of the room. Already an impressive hive of industry, this room I realise, is nothing. Along a corridor I’m led into a vast room where endless deep open shelves groan under the weight of folded, tissue-sheathed product from decades past, plus equal numbers of rails of hanging knitwear.

At the entrance is a small display of archive photos, books of knitting and lace samples and brand ephemera to set the scene for visitors like me. Here you can get a potted history of the brand, from its post industrial revolution beginnings, where its iconic knitted underwear took over from the S-shaped corsets of the Belle Epoque, to the colourful knit combos of the 1960s and the cool wellness-wear of the 80s, 90s and noughties.

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Here we find early examples of the lace-edged rib knit vests worn by our Victorian ancestors. As the 1900s progressed, the softer silhouettes created by Paul Poiret and his contemporaries in turn required less rigid underpinnings. By the time the 20s came around, and with them, the free-thinking ‘garconnes‘, Hanro’s flat knit camisoles were quite the thing, with Coco Chanel recommending them as perfect partners to her sporty jersey casualwear. Hanro is known for underwear but it has made its fair share of outerwear too. The most surprising and vibrant examples are from the 1960s and 70s when Hanro dabbled in bright colours and florals. As bikinis and swimwear became highly fashionable, underwear started to resemble it, in soft triangular shapes which would be worn by mothers and their youthquaker daughters alike.

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The late 70s-80s is when things start to get more glamorous. There are great sketches and illustrations from that time – the paper archive is a brilliant source of reference materials in terms of advertising, editorial and packaging imagery. The classic 1601 seamless camisole can be seen below on a model image from 1980. Two decades later Nicole Kidman made it famous when she wore it in Eyes Wide Shut.

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Until you see an archive in progress like this, it’s hard to compute just how much stuff there is to be catalogued. This room is huge and jam-packed but further down the corridor is another huge warehouse-like room. As I enter, I’m hit with the smell of old, dusty things, a reminder that some of these artefacts are over a hundred years old.

In this room, still to be sorted are paper files, ledgers, shop dummies, even the odd ancient sewing machine. All have a relevance in some way but everything can’t be kept. Mostly this room is full of paper products – packages of duplicate posters and visual merchandising displays, company documents, look books and so on. It’s a reminder that a fashion company isn’t just about its clothing products but all the other things it does that makes it unique. An archive this rich (it looks like nothing was thrown away, ever!) is valuable for researchers and students of all kinds. Not just fashion, but anthropology, history, sociology, there’s plenty of deep insight buried in this stash. I also couldn’t help wondering what future archives will look like. So much of what we do is digital now, will there be much to put in a physical archive in years to come?


Aside from the immense archive, Textilpiazza also hosts workshops and a big event space to serve the local community. In the bright and airy atelier pictured below there are sewing machines available to be used by students, textile designers, dressmakers or people wanting to learn sewing skills. There’s even a Hanro sewing club. There are mini tours of the Hanro archive for locals who used to work here, or just those who are curious. The main room can be used for product launches or fabric fairs. It’s a nice way to underscore the heritage of the building and give something back to the community and it feels very much like a vibrant hub, even though it’s quiet on the afternoon that I visit.

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What’s impressive in all of this is how the Hanro name has endured for 130 successful years. There have been fashionable forays into outerwear, swimwear and other innovations throughout the decades, but at its heart lie understated basics made with state of the art techniques to exacting standards. And it has stayed true to those roots. Practical underwear in the purest fibres, finished with Swiss lace or satin edging are as key to the brand now as they were in 1884. It’s the best kind of heritage brand that survives because its product is just so good, it can’t be improved upon by the competition. And of course, now is a good time for Hanro with its eco ethics and authenticity chiming with this decade’s appreciation of such classic values.

To mark this year’s 130th anniversary, Hanro is elevating its classics with a special ‘Universe of Hanro’ capsule collection in October (below). A little more dramatic than its core range, it includes lingerie, nightwear and loungewear in premium cotton-cashmere, cotton tulle and art nouveau lace. Selfridges is also joining the celebrations with a two-month Hanro pop-up on 1st September. Alongside an edit of Hanro favourites, it will be selling the ‘Universe of Hanro’ collection when it lands on 6th October. If you’re not au fait with Hanro (and you really should be if you’ve read this far), now could be the time to explore…

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