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Features / Fashion

Aitor Throup – The Anomalous Designer: We meet Aitor Thoup in his studio to discuss his unusual practice

First published in Printed Pages Spring 2014

Words by

Maisie Skidmore

Photography by

Dan Wilton

Since Aitor Throup first emerged from the Royal College of Art in 2006, his noncompliance with the unwritten rules of the fashion industry has caused curiosity and consternation. The media’s portrayal of him led me to expect an overly-intense character but when we meet he’s wandering blinking into the bright white of his showroom. “We’ve been editing a video for a musician,” he explains in a soft Lancashire accent. “You know when it gets down to that point in an edit, where if your frame goes 1/25th of a second one way or the other it completely changes the viewer experience? We’re there.”

This meticulous nature underpins every element of Aitor’s work; from his arduous design process through to the way he describes his role.“I’ve always said I’m not a fashion designer,” he says. “I’m not interested in fashion at all to be honest, but it’s all about re-appropriation; if you design an object that can be worn on the body then people buy it as fashion, you know? I believe that a fashion designer starts with an idea of what the end product is going to be, and that their design process is dictated by that. With product design, on the other hand, you start purposefully with an empty space at the end and you build a chain of problems and solutions. That’s definitely the way that I design clothes.”

It’s a confusing introduction; a clothing designer who’s actually a product designer and yet masquerades as neither, but Aitor has never really played to the fashion designer archetype. Born in Buenos Aires in 1980, he arrived in Burnley at the age of 12, where he found himself absorbed in football culture and the sartorial trends attached to it. “The reason that I first got interested in clothing was because of Stone Island and C.P. Company, all those clothes that were appropriated by the subculture of football hooliganism. That really fascinated me, and it still does. It’s a whole contradiction of these two things; one’s very avant-garde, the other’s very narrow-minded.” His fascination with this crossover and a compulsion to understand human anatomy through drawing led him to study Fashion Design at Manchester Metropolitan University before going on to complete an MA in Menswear Design at London’s Royal College of Art. His graduate collection was underpinned by a strong narrative thread of metamorphosis and met with resounding praise from critics.

But the fashion industry – with its perpetual cycle of renewed creativity – wasn’t one he found especially enticing. “I wanted to know how to make clothing, but I didn’t have any interest in the catwalk or seasons or models. I’ve never wanted to be a rebel or go against the grain or whatever, it just so happened that I ended up getting very deeply involved with an industry that I wasn’t actually interested in.” So instead of immediately creating an eponymous brand, Aitor set about working on a number of projects with the labels that had drawn him towards clothing design in the first place. He re-imagined iconic pieces for C.P. Company and Stone Island and designed the 2010 England football strip as creative consultant for Umbro, deconstructing generic kit design and reassembling it section by section to better fit the biodynamics of the human body during a match. He also branched into experience design and art direction, becoming creative director of Kasabian after a stint directing music videos and album artwork. This unique, multi-pronged approach has worked to his advantage, leading an incredibly diverse crowd to his clothing brand. “The people that have been interested in my work have ranged from all different industries, from football hooligans and that kind of subculture, to avant-garde, dark fashion guys and boutiquey Japanese high fashion. It’s had such an unusual reach.”

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Despite this range of interests there’s an overarching philosophy which has shaped every element of Aitor’s brand, currently culminating in New Object Research, the design manifesto he released in 2013. “I’ve been thinking about this a lot for the past year or so, since I’ve been nearing completion of something I set out to do 10 years ago,” he explains. “It was agonising, for the most part, but I realise more and more that it’s about purity, and there’s a responsibility connected to that.” What was it that he set out to do? “I wanted to create newness on every level. The conceptual thinking had to be new, which leads to new forms, which in turn leads to news ways of constructing and executing those forms, and then new ways of fastening them, labelling them, packaging them, displaying them. Everything had to be authentic. Otherwise it’s a waste of energy.”

First and foremost, he explains, he wanted to create an alternative to the shortcuts which pervade contemporary creativity. “My theory is that human beings have a natural instinct for survival, as all animals do, and the way that we exercise that primarily is through conservation of energy. All of nature does, because nature is inherently lazy. Even honeycombs are hexagonal because that’s the least amount of energy needed for bees to create the most structurally sound form. The problem we’ve got when that connects with creativity is that with laziness comes industrialisation, and with industrialisation comes standardisation, which encourages us to become lazy on a creative level. So whether we’re studying graphic design, publishing or clothing design, it’s very hard to step out of these conventions and stop using other people’s pre-conceived solutions.

“For example, if you’re going to make a jacket then you’re going to fasten it, so you’re probably going to need a button and a buttonhole, so you’ll use a buttonhole machine. It’s like a do-it-yourself kit based on other people’s solutions. I think that the moments in the history of art and design that have been really impactful happen because an artist or a designer has gone ‘pffffht’, and realised that they can move away from that ready-made idea. It empowers us because it wakes us up, and that’s why there’s a responsibility connected to doing something new. It seems quite ambitious, but that’s why I’ve pretty much nearly killed myself for 10 years.”

This desire for newness is most manifest in the studio’s approach to garment construction; the Aitor Throup brand prides itself on tiny technical revolutions. There’s the method they invented to join fabric seam-to-seam without any waste allowance, the sleeve designed with an intricate internal articulation to accommodate the wearer’s every movement, and the innovative fastening systems.

His reluctance to conform to the conventional catwalk format has set him apart from his peers just as much as these technical innovations. He is applauded for his decision to display garments on stationary 3D sculptures rather than in the fashion show format. “What I’m doing and what the industry is doing are very different; I’ll present something one season, but not for three seasons after. I think the psychology of presenting fashion is often quite hierarchical toward the creator; it’s like, ‘I’m the creator, and I dictate how long you see it for, and what angle you see it from,’ so you wait for an hour, and then it’s like bam! bam! bam! ‘Shit, it’s been and gone!’ I hate that ponciness. You’re hiding behind status rather than giving status to the work. It’s almost like saying, ‘trust me, it’s amazing!’ Whereas I’m not afraid to suspend it in the middle of a white room and allow you to look at it for 10 hours if you want to, in your own time and from every angle. Open it up! That’s the beauty of it. That for me means it’s complete.”

Another thread that pulls the brand’s work together is Aitor’s method of designing thematically around narrative concepts which recur and evolve with each collection, instead of starting from scratch twice a year. There are now five narratives in total, including one built around the disastrous effects of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans in 2005, and another, On the Effects of Ethnic Stereotyping, motivated by the shooting of innocent Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes in the midst of the London terror attacks in July 2005. This deeply affected Aitor, who also fits the stereotype of a man with dark skin, often wearing the suspect black rucksack, spurring him to create a collection around the politically charged status of that accessory.

The concept which runs most discernibly through his collections though, began while creating his graduate collection at the RCA; When Football Hooligans Become Hindu Gods. The story is focused on a group of five football hooligans who kill a young Hindu boy in a racist attack and, overcome with grief and regret, seek reprieve for their actions by devoting themselves to Hinduism, in turn transforming into Hindu gods – powerful stuff for an MA student fresh out of Burnley.

“Towards the end of my first year I had a friend at the RCA who was a really devout Hindu, and I’m really inquisitive so I was always asking him about it. All of a sudden I started learning about Hinduism and by the end of the first year I was really interested in it; I thought it was such a beautiful religion. For me it connected with my personal interest of design and art, as well; I believe that timeless product design looks a certain way for a certain reason, and religion, but particularly Hinduism, is exactly the same. There’s an authenticity to a character who embodies everything he represents through his physical appearance.

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“I’d actually started working on a collection that was purely a modernisation of the messages behind Hindu symbolism, and I thought, ‘there’s something inauthentic about what I’m doing here,’ because I first got interested in clothing because of Massimo Osti, who invented Stone Island and C.P. Company and made all those clothes that were appropriated by football hooligans, and I felt a responsibility to go back to that reference. So that’s how the story happened. It becomes a vehicle for me to convey that metamorphosis, if you like.”

The resulting collection, a selection of transformative pieces in stark black and white, is rich in military references and the skull motif which recurs throughout Aitor’s archive. “Every single piece originates from a specific military garment, which become symbols to represent the football hooligan, because Massimo’s work was heavily based on utilitarian and generic military archetypes. But then each garment can also transform into different versions of a Hindu reference too. Every single piece is either a blending of those two references that you can see very directly, or an object that has two states and actually transforms from one thing to the other.” As stories go, it maps neatly onto Aitor’s own. “I thought, isn’t it funny that this Northern guy who was born in Argentina ended up in the Royal College of Art surrounded by all these people really into fashion. I stumbled upon fashion because of football hooligans, that was my trajectory. I went from being surrounded by football hooligans to being surrounded by Hindu gods.”

Freshly returned from Los Angeles, Aitor tells me he’s been commissioned to create the concept direction for the costumes in a Hollywood film, where he’s integrating CGI with rapid prototyping to work alongside the costume design team. “It just seems very natural for me, because I think in very cinematic terms anyway. They still thought I was mad though for trying to rethink everything.” He has also been appointed creative director of Damon Albarn’s first solo album, creating visual concepts and artwork for the musician – which explains the intense edit I dragged him away from on arrival.

With so much going on elsewhere does he ever feel tempted to stop making clothes altogether? “Sometimes I’d really like to just leave it all behind, like it was just an idea that I came up with and sort of solved and now I can move on. I feel a responsibility towards making sure it continues though, in a way, and for the time being I’m interested in these new challenges.” And with that, he disappears back into the dark room he appeared from.