This feature article was initially published in the fourth print volume of StyleZeitgeist magazine in 2013. We are publishing it online for the first time to coincide with the release of our podcast episode with Aitor Throup.
London – A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, at least in fashion terms, there existed something called conceptual design. The likes of Hussein Chalayan and Martin Margiela did things with clothes that rivaled art in its creative intellect. It was a time when the audience at fashion shows actually gasped and going to your local boutique at the start of each season was an exciting adventure.
That is not to say that we are all now ignorant peasants herding our sheep amidst the Roman ruins, but that the fashion universe has changed. It moves faster, leaving designers less time to consider ideas thoroughly before realizing them.
Aitor Throup, the young English designer of Argentinean origin, is one of the few people who have such a luxury. At thirty-three, without having made much product under his own name, he has been touted as the next big thing in fashion design by magazines from i-D to GQ, has made powerful friends like the journalist Tim Blanks, has designed the English national teams soccer uniform, and has held consulting jobs for C.P. Company and Stone Island.
What gives? How can someone who ostensibly has done so little garner such respect?
I met Throup at Dover Street Market, the mini-department store owned by Rei Kawakubo, the designer of Comme des Garcons, in the London’s tony Mayfair neighborhood last October. It was the day of special events at DSM during the Frieze art fair. For the first time in over six years Throup was presenting something resembling a body of work under his own name. He has not slept the night before, spearheading the installation, which included several of his handcrafted mannequins made from cotton mesh coated with thermoactive solution that renders the mesh solid but malleable. One of mannequins, a crouched man playing a saxophone, was sitting in the store’s ground floor window. Another one, a horse, was suspended upside down from the ceiling. The third, a man whose torso was crisscrossed with Throup’s scull bags was suspended by wires inside a display case that normally houses fossilized mammoth skulls and other oddities.
“The first time I walked into DSM, years ago,” Throup said looking at it with a sense of achievement, “I thought this was such a great shop and that if I ever make it, how cool would it be if I could put my work in one of these cases.”
We made our way to the top floor of the store and settled at an outside table overlooking the rooftops around us. In the background, Maurizio Altieri of the late label Carpe Diem, was hammering away on the roof, putting his own installation together.
In his black army jacket, a C.P. Company sweater and a baseball hat, Throup looked just like any kid from England. The only thing that distinguished him was a small bag of his own design in a shape of an anatomically correct three-dimensional skull. Though Throup was born in Argentina and lived in Spain for several years, his formative years were spent in Burnley, a small town near Manchester. There, Throup developed appreciation for clothes by Stone Island and C.P. Company, the unofficial football hooligan uniform. He was not a hooligan himself, but his analytical mind was attracted to the way those garments were constructed, treated and how they interacted with the body. To Throup, the clothes were objects worth consideration in themselves.
The fascination with objects rather than fashion per se is what sets Throup apart. “It just so happens that the way I want to develop is not borne out of being into fashion, but being into objects, the human body, the drawings, some garments like C.P. Company and Stone Island, anything that came from Massimo Osti and then Moreno Ferrari,” said Throup. Ferrari designs the more conceptual lines for C.P. Company, like the Transformables range and the Urban Protection range. “C.P. Company was really my first experience of conceptual design,” Throup continued. “And then Paul Harvey taught me a lot indirectly through Stone Island, when he took over from Osti, that in terms of designing it’s more about products and the components that constitute the product. It’s about elevating concepts through products, and thus about aspiration to create new objects.”
The path to creating new objects has been excruciatingly slow for Throup. Though his 2006 MA graduate collection, “When Football Hooligans Become Hindu Gods” and the subsequent, 2007 collection “The Funeral of New Orleans: Part One” have garnered rave reviews, he did not create any garments for sale under his own name until 2010, when three pairs of trousers were produced in extremely limited numbers. The second round, in 2012, the one that was produces exclusively for Dover Street Market, consisted of four pieces – a denim jacket and trousers, a t-shirt, and a huge backpack in the shape of an upside down skull.
This has frustrated some of Throup’s fans, but he was quick to point out that this is all a natural progression for him. “I am aware that I need to build a business model for my own brand that is sustainable, that could in a way borrow aspects of the fashion industry infrastructure, because there are bits that don’t work for me and bits that do work for me,” said Throup. “And I thought, ‘I can’t bring a new idea every six months just because I have to prove that I’ve been busy.’ I don’t want to do that but I do want to eventually evolve my ideas, once I get them on the conceptual level and in terms of product. And I’ve basically spent six years trying to evolve them to the right level of product.”
Throup’s problem is actually the reverse of intellectual laziness. He tends to overanalyze everything, which ostensibly slows him down. But he is not the type of a creator who wants to build mystique through inaccessibility. “I don’t really like the approach that some designers, and they are really good designers, have to protect their integrity because the work should protect itself,” Throup told me. “I am happy to talk about my work to anyone, really. I think to not want to share your thoughts is actually the definition of being pretentious, because you are pretending not to be interested that someone else is interested in your work. Why do anything then? It just promotes this idea of being elitist or niche. My work is niche enough because of how messed up my brain is.”
What Throup wants to build is a serious of archetypes, cornerstone products that he can continue perfecting. This is a different way of thinking and to sustain it, Throup first needed to come up not only with a good theoretical framework but also with a viable business model. “I always knew that I wanted to create archetypes, constants, but that they can evolve through different variations. As long as everything is justified, you can evolve it infinitely without thinking up new ideas. So, I’ve built up a business model that would allow me to have this luxury. It’s not really a luxury but it’s a benefit you earn by wracking your brain all this time. As soon as I release something, I already think ‘this could be better,’ which is great, but it’s the first time I’ve really thought like that. Before I’d think, ‘It’s not nearly ready.’ For years we’ve been going through ‘A’ to ‘Z’ back and forth. Now I still think, ‘Oh, we should’ve made this or that element differently,’ so the evolution is very natural and it’s really rewarding for a product designer. And if people are into the clothes that’s really rewarding as well.”
The crucial difference that helps understands Throup’s slow evolution is that he considers himself a product designer and not a fashion designer. This allows him to be both inside and outside of the fashion realm. The minute you think of his creations as products, they leave the fashion cycle and take on a life expectancy of their own. It also helps Throup slow down his racing mind. “There is a difference between product design and fashion design. I can believe that I am not a fashion designer. I’m not saying that there is no fashion in my work; there is, because we’re choosing to put whatever it is we make into the fashion industry and it’s going into fashion stores. It’s easy for me to see how these products can be directly re-appropriated into people’s fashion through personal style,” said Throup. “But my work does not follow the fashion process. I’m not predetermining design; I’m allowing the process and the concept to dictate the result. In order to do this I have to build a theoretical framework; I have to produce a manifesto that really highlights all the different philosophies and methodologies that I use to design. That’s my protective, mental fortress, which I can easily navigate. I know what each room represents but I’m not allowed to go out of that building. Otherwise, I wouldn’t do what I do because it would just drive me insane.”
Throup is thoroughly aware that such a slow evolution may seem rebellious or self-indulgent and it’s an impression he rushes to dispel. “The main misconception about my approach is that it’s reactive or rebellious. But it’s exactly the opposite. It’s meant to be as natural as possible. It’s about authenticity and the natural order of things, including creativity. It all stems from the fact that I’ve always been lucky in this industry, even when I was studying, because I fell into it. I had no aspirations towards fashion or fashion design. I was interested in certain products, certain garments, as objects. When I was a kid when the first Batman movie came out, the Tim Burton one, I was obsessed with the Batman mask. Or I’d be obsessed with certain toys. It’s the power of the interactive object that eventually grew into figurative objects, like my drawings. I got into comic books, not because I was really into comics, but because I could study the figure in motion. So, that’s the thing, yes, the result of how I do things does go against the norm of the people who are also designing garments, but it’s not because I started with thinking about how the industry works.”
Not that Throup does not have a rebellious streak in him. While earning his BA in Fashion Design at Manchester Metropolitan University, Throup constantly clashed with his teachers who were trying to cram traditional clothes making methods down his throat. “I just couldn’t deal with the standardized curriculum-based teaching methodology – ‘Here’s the pattern cutting book, follow those twenty pages and you’ll have this perfect traditional shirt,’” he said. “I would have massive arguments with my teachers, ‘That book was written in 1952; it had patterns invented hundred and fifty years ago. That’s someone else’s idea. I am interested in doing new things.’ Here is a body, and here is some fabric – that’s a challenge! I didn’t want to see how others have done it. I did not want to be influenced. So I just started flat pattern cutting, making all the fundamental mistakes that you have to make in order to learn, ‘Oh, that’s why I need a dart there, that’s why I need a gusset here, that’s how you drape or construct.’ This self-teaching process was very three-dimensional and it really clashed with everything else. People were saying, ‘Who is this guy? He’s straight, he’s into football, he doesn’t get fashion, and he’s cutting these weird patterns.’ But in a year it was like, ‘Wow, how did you make this?!’ Well, it was through things you only know when you experience them. This way I started building my system and I felt more and more protective of it, because I started from nothing. But from my second year in my BA I started getting recognition. For me it wasn’t a risk to argue with a teacher, I did not think I’d last in this industry anyway and was ready to go do something else. I also realized that through inventing new construction methods my ideas were becoming more detached from simply constructing clothing.” In 2004 Throup graduated with first class honors.
By the time of his graduation from the MA in Fashion Menswear program at the Royal College of Art in London, Throup had a clear idea of what he wanted to do. He would create concepts first and clothing second. He would tell stories through garments.
Throup’s MA graduate collection, “When Football Hooligans Become Hindu Gods,” was based on racial tensions in England. “When I was doing my Masters I started thinking more about my roots and I thought, ‘Isn’t it mad how I got here by looking at football hooligans and their uniforms,’” said he. “I’ve always loved that style, the big collars and big hoods and baseball caps, kind of military and sporty footwear, and that’s what I wore. But I was also sitting in class next to this Hindu kid with whom I became friends. We’d be on the tube together every day. And it happened by chance that in that moment in my life I was interested in Hinduism. So, if he was fasting or was going to some Indian festival, I’d needed to know why. It’s such a symbolically rich religion, every god represents something, and it reminded me of comic book characters whose appearance conveys their powers or abilities. What they look like is what they do and what they are about. A Hindu god can have four arms, because they are needed to hold the four things that represent the different attributes of what that god represents. It’s that system of symbols that I really fell in love with. It was an amazing trajectory from football hooligans to Hindu gods. I was never a football hooligan and I was never a Hindu God, but I was surrounded by both.”
“So,” Throup continued, “’When Football Hooligans Become Hindu Gods’ became a concept that I used for my Masters collection. I built a narrative that communicated a positive message through negative things – a story of football hooligans that killed a Hindu boy and their realization that they cannot bring him back to life. Imagine if you kill someone, the only thing you want to do, if you regret it, is to bring them back to life. But if you can’t bring them back to life then all you can do is respect theirs. If you kill who you are in order to become the one you killed, you give up everything about yourself. So the football hooligans try to become Hindu gods. Each garment is thus a metamorphosis representing something from a football hooligan and something from a Hindu god.”
To achieve the metamorphic effect, Throup took military gear, often a preferred choice of football hooligans, and fitted it with sartorial representations of Hindu mythology. In one instance he reconstructed the hood of an M-65 American military fishtail parka into a three dimensional lion’s head, the symbol of Narashima, the half-lion, half-man incarnation of Vishnu. The white fur trim of the reworked hood resembled the lion’s mane. He fitted all of the outfits with three-dimensional skull bags. In Hinduism skulls represent time and death of all beings.
Meanwhile, offers to collaborate kept rolling in. In 2008, Throup worked on two special edition projects with Stone Island, created a special edition Mille Miglia jacket for C.P. Company, along with curating an exhibit on the occasion of the jacket’s 20 year anniversary, and held a consulting gig at Umbro, where he designed the English national team’s soccer uniform.
All this work has allowed Throup to take his time with his own work. He recognizes that he is in a privileged position, but the lack of output is a sign of exclusivity. “I am interested in making my work accessible, not inaccessible,” said he.
Still, the feats of sartorial engineering that his products are may be prohibitively expensive because of their work-intensive construction. His large upside-down three-dimensional skull bag takes two weeks to make and retails for 2,200 British pounds.
One of Throup’s challenges is to bring the same level of care and concept to a broader audience. “Expanding integrity by expansion of accessibility, that’s my ultimate goal,” said he. “One of the concepts that I want to work on now is to explore commerce and to prove that you don’t have to defuse to be more commercially viable. If you know your goal in the beginning is to create products with complete conceptual integrity, validity, and aspirational value that keeps true to your artistic thinking then you want to explore if it’s accessible to everybody; that becomes one of the boundaries that you are working within creatively. When I designed the England kit, I had commercial boundaries. I could not make it cost five hundred quid. But I absolutely imbued it with as much conceptual integrity as my other work. There is a whole universe in those two kits that I did but it cost the same as the last one and the next one. I want to create a whole brand as commercially successful as anything but be as conceptual as my other work so no one can say, ’Oh, he sold out.’”
Rest assured, Throup will not be coming to an H&M near you. When I asked him about fast fashion, he said, “It’s just stuff. It’s poison. It’s pollution. It’s just not ethical to design or consume that way. You’ve got to be connected to design in every respect.” This is a powerful theory and its power lies in its self-evidence across all consumer products. One can simply see a badly designed, shoddily made thing; it doesn’t take much design expertise to notice a plastic zipper or badly glued plywood.
To keep himself uncompromised Throup follows his theory of “justified design,” meaning that every single design decision, no matter how minute, has a reason for existing and a thought process behind it. Years ago you might just call this idea “design,” but these days virtually everything is marketed as designed and any generic v-neck sweater wants to be called fashion; hence “justified design” makes sense. “All my work comes back to my lack of confidence in my esthetic decisions,” said Throup. “I am really self-conscious to say, ‘I designed that pocket because I thought it looks cool.’ I’d feel empty and embarrassed. I have to give it meaning. Everything is in its place for a reason. If it looks weird, it’s the fault of the concept.”
But, if it ends up looking good, Throup is all for it. Throup’s ambiguous position in the design world allows for his unique operating approach. Having taken his essentially streetwear background and elevating it into high design, Throup can move fluidly between the worlds of designer fashion and streetwear without being pigeonholed. His method is as functional as that of a designer of military garments and workwear but his conceptual and esthetic sides sit comfortably within the fashion realm. “When I design, it is always with a sense of utility. But, I like it when we do something with a sense of utility and then we look at the final product and realize, ‘Hey, that looks cool.’”
Throup now has four major concepts that he has worked out in his head – “When Football Hooligans Become Hindu Gods,” “Mongolia,” “The Funeral of New Orleans, Part 1” and “On The Effect of Ethnic Stereotyping.” These seemingly disparate stories are connected by Throup’s imagination, “They are really reactive to things that I am really interested in, the specific contextual points of reference. The starting point is always very honest and naïve, like when you fall in love with something and you can’t help it. So you commit yourself to knowing. You get it; you might not know why, but you still keep hold of it.“ In order to hold a concept down, Throup creates a narrative around it, like a screenwriter and then tries to build garments to fit the narrative. This is an exhausting process and Throup made a conscious decision to limit himself to four conceptual ideas and concentrate on creating products that would manifest his thoughts. “At some point I felt like Stanley Kubrick writing a script, so I said to myself, ‘I am not writing another film until I learn how to produce it, how to location scout, how to film it,’” Throup told me. “I needed to become the master of it and to reinvent how to build product so that everything has my own way of doing it. I couldn’t just use traditional construction methodology. My conceptual thinking was so personal that I wasn’t doing the garments justice by stitching them out with a normal machine – it would take them out of my universe.
Throup is now concerned with digging deep and refining his ideas. “Once I get the product to the same level as the concept then I will allow myself to do my next concept with product in mind,” said he. “The creative process is basically spinning a narrative, like one spins the yarn. It’s not an outward exercise, but an inward one; you go into the microscopic detail, looking at each fiber that constitutes that thing. You are getting to the yarn not by pulling it apart but by looking at its DNA. That’s the creative process; you take the anatomy of the idea and build a structural system of thought and reason and moral value out of it.“
It may come as a surprise to hear the words “moral value” in conjunction with clothing design, but the ideas Throup tackles reflect moral awareness in his thinking. Sympathy runs through Throup’s ideas. It is especially evident in his collection titled “The Funeral of New Orleans,” which Throup conceived after hurricane Katrina.
“When hurricane Katrina happened I was devastated,” recalled he. “I consider it visually and culturally one the richest places in the US because they have built their own iconography. The visuals of the marching bands, these black guys in military caps, double-breasted pique lapels, the black suits, white shirt and a black tie, the shiny brass. This heavy heritage and iconic imagery, just wiped out, and it just didn’t’ seem fair. So, I thought this iconography has to be highlighted. Again, the idea felt right and started spinning the narrative, which eventually became a message of hope and reassurance to New Orleans. I started building this system of symbols and metaphors through a collection.”
The result was creating a series of suits for an imaginary marching band where each suit is structured specifically to fit a different type of a musician. “I knew I wanted to show how specific and singular that iconography is, which to me is more important than exploring different things. You can earn to not have variation if that one thing is imbued with the heaviest concept and meaning. You want less because there is so much to understand. So I wanted to build a collection that is really one outfit repeated. The only change would be the structure.”
The variation of the suit depended on the instrument each musician plays and each suit would be seamlessly integrated with an instrument case. Thus a saxophone player’s suit would differ functionally from that of a trombone player, but not by much. Many aesthetic elements were already in place because a marching band wears a sort of a uniform. “This collection was amazing because I hardly had any decisions to make,” said Throup. “It had to be a double-breasted peak lapel jacket, black wool trousers, a white cotton shirt, and a black tie. The generic components were already decided, which was a massive way off my shoulders. All I was doing, creatively, was reshaping them.
“I ended up reforming each suit in two ways – one is an idea of exaggerated functionalism. For example, if you are a saxophone player, most of the time your arms are bent, so the jacket’s sleeves are curved. Then, I wanted to create the instrument cases out of the same material as the suits, so that in itself unifies the musicians with their instruments. They are both equally important. The instrument represents the musical heritage of New Orleans and the musician represents New Orleans. “
“In the video we did for the collection when the hurricane hits the musician realizes that he has the option to save the instrument, therefore the cases were done in a way that they could be worn on the body and interacting with the jacket, so they could protect the musician and also the instrument. So, however many people die in this terrible disaster the iconography, the music is protected forever.”
Building this metaphorical system of design when you commit yourself to them, it results in new things. How does anyone know what a saxophone musicians suit jacket in that pose with a deconstructed version of the case attached to it would look like? It’s really inventing new things but for a morally right reason. Completely new object that is valid.”
This moral validity takes on a whole new level in Throup’s last concept, “On the Effects of Ethnic Stereotyping,” based on a shooting of a Brazilian immigrant Jean Charles de Menezes by the London police on July 22nd, 2005. It was a stereotypical case of mistaken identity, a dark-skinned man taken for an Arab terrorist. The shooting affected Throup, a dark-skinned immigrant himself, enormously. Again, it took him a while to come to terms with a senseless death. And again, clothes became a sort of catharsis, a way of putting meaning into an absurd situation. The four-piece collection at the Dover Street Market was based on what de Menezes was wearing when he was shot – jeans, a denim jacket, and a t-shirt. Even more interesting were two pieces that went with the outfit. One was an upside-down skull backpack. The skull, of course, is the symbol of death. Throup turned it upside down to show the difference between who de Menezes was and how he was perceived by the police officers that shot him. This misperception continued in the “Veil Jacket,” (a prototype that Throup wore himself to the DSM event that night), a black lightweight mesh M65-style military jacket that fastened on top of the denim jacket with a series of thin ropes. The overtly militant jacket acts as the symbol of the menace that the police saw in de Menezes, when in reality he was wearing a harmless piece of denim.
I visited Throup’s East London studio mid-January. The ground space was bustling with activity, assistants putting final touches on pieces for the Paris Fashion Week where Throup would present his first 20-piece range. Throup himself seemed relaxed as we sat down in his second floor office for another conversation. The bookcase behind him was stacked with old issues of Arena Homme Plus and i-D and a completely black BMX bike from the new Kasabian video that Throup directed stood elevated in the corner. At the opposite wall lay a bunch of his by-now-famous sketches.
Our conversation turned back to the concept-product duality of Throup’s work and the challenges of turning theory into practical results. “ Creatively, the structure of my studio is now split into two, to visualize how I overcame the conundrum of being in a position where I can have a product line where some are developments and evolutions of existing products and some are actually new product. But all of them are derived from constant, continuous concepts,” said Throup. “So the idea is I’ve got an art studio and I’ve got a product studio. In the art studio – and this is the ultimate conundrum – I’m an artist. I don’t want to do new ideas, new concepts every six months. It’s just not going to work. You know, when I’m like making a pattern for the saxophone and figuring out how that can deconstruct and go to a musician and build the best fastening system to use. That alone took me two months, and now I need to do a trombone, then I need to do a trumpet. I almost died doing the first fucking iterations of that concept! So I realized, I’ve got these massive, emotional, personal concepts, like an epic film, but at the same time I don’t want to show it to anyone because it’s not ready. The concept is perfectly defined, but it’s going to take me another X amount of years to make the product innovation as pure as the concept innovation. Obviously I can’t do this every six months. I can’t even do it every ten years!”
So I thought to myself, I know two things. One is, I’m not quite finished with my concepts and, actually, I don’t think I ever will be. So I want to keep exploring them and I love the idea of using the same points of reference because then you become an expert. It is the antithesis of fashion where you’re covering a large surface area but really thinly. I’m covering a really small surface area and every season I’m going deeper and deeper. The work itself becomes more and more heavy with concept and content.”
The product part of the studio is devoted to realizing Throup’s conceptual narratives. Throup has made a conscious decision to stop creating more narratives, at least for now. “What I realized is that I want to work with those four [concepts] forever,” said he. “And if I do, I better fucking slow down and not do another concept yet. So, in 2007-2008, I stopped thinking about new ideas and I thought that now that I’ve nailed my conceptual artistic thinking I’ve got potential to not defuse these ideas, but elevate them to a product level that as exciting to me as the ideas. So, I focused purely on elevating the product. It’s conceptual innovation and product innovation together. The idea now is that every six months we can dip into the system and bring out new iterations, say, a new product from The Funeral of New Orleans that you haven’t seen before. For example this season we’re doing the saxophone suit. Next season we might do a trombone coat. We’ve never done a trombone coat but it’s something you already recognize. So it’s still a new piece.”
The rest of the second floor was occupied by a huge cutting table with unfinished samples on it and a long rack where the garments hung ready for the presentation Throup would do next week during the men’s fashion week in Paris. Throup briefly returned to the large upside-down skull backpack, already reworked from the one he showed at Dover Street Market several months earlier. The changes were subtle but important (to someone whose attention to detail borders on obsessive). The skull’s nose was now anatomically correct and the inside of the lower jaw that doubles as the opening was curved to perfectly accommodate a 15” laptop.
Throup also showed me a coat from the Mongolian collection. Done in a subtle dark gray Harris Tweed houndstooth, the coat was designed to reflect the idea of the rider interacting with the horse. Throup has never been to Mongolia and is not a horse rider – but his mind zeroed in on imagining what the wearer would want from his clothes if horse riding were central to his life. “I was imagining a very physical interpretation of the connection between man and horse because of how important that is to the Mongolian people in terms of survival and spiritually,” he said, unfolding the coat on the cutting table to display its construction, “but always curated in a way where all the details are derived from an analysis of Mongolia as a country, its history, culture, geography, tradition. So it’s, in a way, reimagining traditional Mongolian clothing, utimately resulting in these objects that are a representation of the human body and the horse body together.”
The construction and the details of the coat made sense and it was obvious that the function of the coat dictated its design. The hood of the coat was the same shape as a riding helmet. The inner sleeve, instead of the traditional lining, was a bit shorter than the outer sleeve, thus bending the arm slightly, as you do when holding the reigns. Embedded in the torso was the same feature as in Throup’s version of the goggle jacket he designed for C.P. Company. Undoing the two horizontally aligned side-zippers freed the extra fabric that dropped the sides of the coat. Now when you sat (on a horse or in a car or anywhere, really), the middle torso bulge was gone and the newly elongated coat also protected your thighs. You could fasten the sides of the coat with elastic straps around your legs and fold the padded inner center panel under your bottom for additional cushioning and warmth. I thought about all the times I have sat on cold concrete and wished for one of those.
Next week in Paris, the British Fashion showroom, sponsored by the British Council of Fashion, was teeming with visitors. Throup’s collection was hiding on the top floor. Everything was finally arranged, his first body of work in six years. Throup was relaxed and confident in his unasked-for role of a boy-genius of British fashion as editors and buyers were popping in and out. Will Throup’s conceptual vision find commercial success? Will his experimentations add excitement to fashion? Time will show.