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SS: I've always been intrigued by the play between art and design in your work and the launch of your design manifesto plays into that. I remember you reciting a quote you had read at your talk with Sarah Mower at the V&A a few years ago, 'artists create problems, designers solve them'...
Aitor Throup: When I graduated, even though it was from a design school, I wasn't a designer, I was actually more like an artist. I don’t think that the things that got me noticed were about the design. I don't even feel as though I designed those things, that collection; it designed itself really. I ease my work into being but how could I design the jacket of a saxophone player which incorporates a deconstructed modular version of their saxophone case, for example? You can come up with the idea but all of those elements are already there, pre-determined. It's about not taking direct blame for the aesthetic components or results. I'm obsessed with the idea of justification. For example, with the New Orleans collection, it just had to be a double breasted peaked lapel jacket made from black wool suiting because that is what they wear, it is a contextual point of reference to make it relevant to my story. After that I'm just constructing it as the concept dictates. Everything is there, I'm just giving a skin to the idea and then it comes out and you're still left thinking 'wow, I didn't expect that'. That's the reward. The unexpected is the definition of true innovation.
SS: Everything you've worked on feels so new. This cannot be an easy process...
Aitor Throup: To achieve newness, you have to go through a process that's validated and justified before you know what the item will look like. That's what interests me and excites me - that true newness. It can be beautiful or ugly, it just has to be. Everything has to have a reason - that's the fundamental thing that I've realised. You don’t need a function or a purpose to validate; you need a reason. When I was doing these collections, my reasoning of the contextualisation of ideas were finished. They were perfect. That's why I was able to speak with confidence about newness and the process that I was going through. I wasn't designing products but rather designing processes, I already had my justified design philosophy and the idea of branding through construction and ideas of unique blocks that make an archetypal way of designing, but that was as close as I got to being a designer. All of that stuff was art - inventing new forms which were heavy with conceptual narrative - and then I felt that this could be important, if the same level of newness that I had achieved with the conceptual thinking and the creation of new forms could be accomplished through an equally new and unique methodology of product construction and manufacturing. At that point I shifted my focus away from Art, towards the mechanics and engineering behind true product design; in order for the overall ‘artwork’ to be about newness.
SS: It has been six years since your acclaimed graduate collection, 'When Football Hooligans Become Hindu Gods' and it has been a process of evolution to now. Could you talk us through this period?
Aitor Throup: At that point, six years ago, I had my concept and art and had to do one of two things. Firstly, figure out a way around the seasonal limitations because I knew that I didn't want to create bullshit newness every six months i.e. thematic newness, as it just didn't interest me and I knew that the concepts I was generating were so close to my heart that I didn't want to let go of them ever, especially after 6 months. Secondly, I needed the impact of the product itself and how it is constructed to be equal to that of the art and the new forms. In the pursuit for newness and new forms the beautiful thing is that regardless how much conceptual depth there may be behind a product, it should also be able to be enjoyed purely through its aesthetic value, without explanation. I guess that having that option is what defines successful Art. To appreciate great art, you can be well versed in the artist and their artworks; which is possible with my work and the manifesto, but a lot of people just know that it is good or right without knowing anything about it. Great artwork is penetrable on many different levels. I knew that I didn't have that level of impact with the product. You can't invent this new way of thinking and new forms and then stitch it all together with a cheap overlocking machine; it just doesn’t feel right.
SS: So you were conscious that it would belittle the concept and narrative. So much time has since been invested in the construction...
Aitor Throup: I wanted a complete experience. New thinking, new form and new construction - everything had to be new. It has to sort of feel alien, but not in a scary way; in an attractive way. It could be a simple t-shirt or shirt but it has to leave people wondering about it. My work can be misconstrued as a quest for perfection but for me perfection is a negative term because it is hierarchical. It leads to the attachment of words like good, better, best, perfect. To be honest, I feel like I will never have the resources to push myself to make things 'better' even. We have spent six years in the studio, not even having the luxury of working to good, better, best but rather just right or wrong. Once you get to right, which I often refer to as correct, then you can start thinking about improving it but to get to correct, it has taken us up to this point. Correct is so difficult to achieve because my thinking is so precise. People end up being lazy, so they concentrate on being ‘better’ without caring whether they are approaching the problem or the solution in the correct way or not.
SS: This attitude, sheer focus and investment of time is rare in fashion...
Aitor Throup: What happens a lot and what is sad to me in fashion, is that it is widely accepted for people to utilise existing standardised solutions to ongoing problems. Even clothing the human body with a piece of flat fabric for example; the way I think, that is a problem because you have a three dimensional form that moves and changes and you just have a flat piece of fabric: which fabric do you use for what purpose, how do you cut it, where do you stitch, what shapes do you make, that is always where I start but so many designers just use specific existing blocks without questioning it to start their process, borrowing pre-existing forms. For them the true design process comes in the decoration of an existing form but that's not what interests me. I love a lot of fashion and I would never want to under-value it but it is not what I do, I wouldn't get a reward from operating like that.
SS: Given your desire to create truly new products, it can be all to easy to forget that you do look back...
Aitor Throup: I think all successful art and design that is truly new has to respect contextual points of reference and has to reference the history that came before it, other wise it is just abstract art. It is ego-centric, like painting with your eyes closed, and is the antithesis of what I do. You need to use the vocabulary of history to create resonance. It is why narratives are important because they are a design tool to allow me to tap in to points of reference. When I reference garments, it is a conceptual borrowing. For example, in the Football Hooligans collection, everything was a direct replica of a generic military garment because it is a reference to the most widely adopted and respected brands by the hooligans. That is sort of how Massimo Osti started C.P. Company and Stone Island, by exploring and re-creating utilitarian garments and making beautiful Frankenstein monsters out of them. I was effectively mirroring his own design process by starting with the military garments and transforming them in my own way which just so happened to be a metamorphosis into Hindu Gods. Every garment was a football hooligan transforming into a Hindu God. Everything I do is set out in the writing of the concept and narrative; it almost becomes a recipe.
SS: How would you describe your design process?
Aitor Throup: When I'm designing I am following my own instruction manual to create specific boundaries to focus and contain the work. The design process is in the writing. I don't generally use drawing to illustrate an idea. I use drawing to either inspire an idea or to draw from it after it has been made - it's weird. I don't know anyone else who works like that, I'm interested to know if anyone does, where they don't know what's going to come out at the end, and the drawing process itself results in a design.
SS: Having followed your work for some time with a keen interest, the presentation at London Collections: Men made complete sense to me but I'm sure a few people were left scratching their heads because it certainly challenged the norm. How has the reaction been to 'New Object Research'?
Aitor Throup: There were obviously a few head scratchers, but overall we've been surprised and overwhelmed by how instantly adopted it has been, whether in London, Paris or Trieste – the three places I found myself at immediately after the presentation. I've been to all of these places before and there are people in each who have continuously supported me, but this year was almost like; getting the manifesto out, has done two things. Firstly, it has put everything into one place where I can just point interested people to it because everything is there which makes me confident, and secondly, at the same time, the cathartic exercise of completing it has made me a different person, it has taken a big weight off my shoulders. When I started generating my design philosophies it was really in order for me to keep my sanity, a system of thought in which I could make sense of stuff. The ultimate is, if you're like a ball of energy that needs to be creative but at the same time you need to be analytical and mathematical about everything, normally they would contradict each other and that can't exist, so I went about creating these perfectly hermetically sealed perspex boxes which is my concept, the process, the design philosophy and narrative and once created I could then let my creative energy go - it can bounce around within it. I see it as these beautifully created boxes which contain the artistic mass, it can't escape from it, it is focused yet free to be.
Ultimately, I used London Collections: Men to remind people of my concepts and explain why I hadn't fully launched previously. The reason being that I hadn't figured out a business model that allows me to keep expanding ideas whilst producing products at the same high level as the concepts themselves. I wanted to make sure everyone came for an hour and I engineered a way for that to happen with the BFC thanks to Tim and Sarah's presence. Really, in addition to acting as a re-introduction to the industry, it was subverting the power of it, just like I did with Legs: the idea of the newest designer on the block launching their brand with a retrospective. Ultimately, my point is to show people that they can do whatever is right for them. If everyone did then it would be amazing, far more exciting. It was a little frustrating because we had a number of products ready by the time June came around, but it was all about restraint and making the event all about launching in six months and showing and selling just one piece, the Shiva Skull Bag. Presenting one piece only is a great way to force people to consider you as a product designer.
SS: Buyers and consumers alike are attracted to the confidence of Aitor Throup...
Aitor Throup: I think so. When we went to Paris we had a list of all these incredible stores we wanted to work with, but we ended up having to turn some of our favourite stores down. It is testament to the fact that these perceived boundaries and rules don't really work. Some of my favourite designers in the history of fashion have been victims of the indoctrination of the industry, the fact that they were forced into doing things a certain way. If they had done things in a slightly different way, their output might have been more prolific. It is what my manifesto is all about, it is my instruction manual of the ways in which I can protect and communicate my true art within the limitations of the fashion industry. My particular approach is all about creating timeless product archetypes extracted from non-seasonal continuous concepts, but imagine what some people could come up with as a unique system and business model of design more suited to the way they naturally work. I want to encourage that and empower people if I can, as the prospect is truly exciting for me.
SS: You chose to unveil the ‘Shiva Skull Bag,’ a completely functional military bag constructed in the shape of a human skull, as your first archetypal product but I'd like to talk a little about its larger cousin, the backpack.
Aitor Throup: The backpack is from one of my concepts: 'On the Effects of Ethnical Stereotyping.' It was all about how a black backpack can represent terror and death when you look at it in a certain way on the wrong person. It stems from the terror attacks in London in 2005. Through personal experience, people would get off the tube or bus I was on because I had a black rucksack, a beard and a bit of a tan. The project was about political fashion and at the time, and perhaps still, the most political item of apparel was the black rucksack. It was about conveying that sense of terror through product design in a second; so, it became an upside down skull: representing death, but only when you look at it the wrong way. I love the simplicity of a message teamed with the complexity of the product. So much effort went into designing this beautiful thing but ultimately it is so simple, an upside down skull that's perfectly functional that conveys this real, moral and political message in its very form. It's an artwork but it is all about product design. It had to be the best rucksack in the world that just so happens to be a piece of art. A marriage of art and product design. I love the balance: you don't know why you like it, it could be its form, function, meaning, construction, you love it all, that's the feeling I want to capture.
SS: Even hearing you talk about that feeling is exciting...
Aitor Throup: It is kind of like how you used to see a new toy, it's the closest feeling I can think of. When you're a kid and you get a new toy, everything about that toy excites you. It's the form, the shape, the name of the character, the smell, the colours, the joints, you love everything about it. I want my work to be like toys. There's as much value in the object as in what it represents, the character and where it comes from. If you get an articulated figure of Spiderman you don't just say *dons serious voice* 'Oh yes, this figure articulates well, it is made solidly," it is heavy with contextual value, it's Spiderman! You've read a thousand comics, watched the cartoons and all the films and all of that is embedded in this object. It's as much about the non physicality of it and what it is about rather than just what it is as an object. My clothes are like toys, that's the philosophy.
SS: That's a lovely analogy. What were your favourite toys?
Aitor Throup: I never grew out of toys really. I still play with them. I picked up a few Starcom ones recently actually. They are amazing, so cool. They pack so much in to these tiny cubes; they contain so much thought and functionality. I want to collect all of them now. They just transform. They are similar to my clothes in a lot of ways, the fact you can stow certain functional elements away and their systematic aesthetics, they look like that because of their activation - just like the feet on my trousers for example.
There are more talks with Aitor Throup that are not formatted like a typical interview, but they have some more insights and sound bites from the designer about his work and influences on the same website.