A conversation with Aitor Throup: the designer behind New Object Research and creative consultant to a new-era G-Star RAW.
For writers, the word provocative can be slippery. It lacks exactness, much like interesting or amazing, suggesting a blurry, nebulous ‘something’, but no precise image or sensation. Depending on the context, perhaps goading or vexing or titillating would be better; maybe transgressive would suffice. Aitor Throup—the Argentinean-born, Burley-raised designer—has worked in the darker, more complex corners of menswear for a decade now, and thus received his fair share of provocative-laden bios. Perhaps in his case, though, it’s the best word to use.
Throup’s designs are often like prototypes: arduously researched, sculpted precisely for and around the human form, reminiscent of trans-seasonal sportswear but somehow bigger, more poignant. They have inventive zipper systems and buttonhole technology. They are bags (like the Shiva Skull Bag), constructed to mimic a human skull, engineered through a complex network of straps and D-rings to be worn as a rucksack or a shoulder bag or an attachment on a belt.
In a review of Throup’s Spring 17 presentation for Business of Fashion (a personal cleansing of risst work, created in collaboration with puppet designer James Perowne), Tim Blanks describes the designer as a sort of frustrated genius; a sincere and sometimes misunderstood die-hard who treats parkas like couture. Blanks details one multi-layered jacket that morphs, with some careful tweaking of buttons and linings “into something that looked like a samurai suit with a Victorian bustle.” As arcane as all the re-organising might sound, it was, he writes, “sensational … using bar tacks instead of conventional seams.”
The following conversation with Throup traverses his feelings on England, Amsterdam, logo culture and denim. He speaks of his own ambitious project, New Object Research, and his ongoing relationship with the one of the denim industry’s most salient innovators—the much undervalued, and now Pharrell Williams co-owned—G-Star RAW.
LAURA BANNISTER You’re in Amsterdam at present, where G-Star have set up an internal innovation laboratory. Where exactly are you right now?
AITOR THROUP I’m at the G-Star offices. I’m basically inside this incredible glass box. You feel contained yet free to explore, visually and physically. It’s an amazing building, where every single material is incredibly considered. I don’t know if you know much about this building; it’s relatively new, about two years old. It was designed in collaboration with Rem Koolhaas. The whole concept behind it is about openness, creativity and shared process. They actually used the idea of an airport hanger—a place to make, design and build aeroplanes—in that that’s a metaphor for the necessity of shared-but-different specialisms in one place. There are beautiful semi-split levels with glass walls that allow you to see into the floor below. There’s no way you can hide yourself away really, it promotes complete openness.
BANNISTER How often are you in this building?
THROUP It’s a minimum of two days a week that I’m here; I’ve been based mainly in London for the past two or three years. We’re kind of enjoying each other’s company though, so it seems to be longer and longer that I’m spending in Amsterdam.
BANNISTER You were born in Buenos Aires and you have been in London for many years. I wonder how your relationship with the city has morphed since your days at Royal College of Art. The city itself is moving at a rapid pace. The skyline full of almost double the amount of tall buildings as two years ago, suburbs are gentrifying, that giant ‘London is Changing’ campaign by a Central Saint Martins academic argued all last year that the creative industry is being squeezed out. I mean, is it an easy place to maintain your practice in?
THROUP I feel very fortunate to say I feel exactly the same about London as when I first moved there. I still have that excitement about the city. I think that’s for a couple of reasons. I’ve lived in a lot of different areas—I started out in the far west, went north, now I’m east. There’s always freshness to my surroundings, which is in keeping with how my life has played out. I’ve been nomadic in my career. Even if I’m doing the same thing—designing garments—I’m trying to find new ways to do it, new perspectives and points of view on a theme. I like moving around in the one place. My experience of where I’m at—whether it’s my own studio in London or G-Star in Amsterdam—is not necessarily to do with the place; it’s vastly informed by whatever is happening with my practice. In the London studio, we tend to have a culture of being informed internally. We connect to the outside world, but we’re too busy trying to figure out what we’re doing to be too influenced by external things. We have an energy that keeps us going forward. Whenever we look outside, what we see is informed by that. I feel like I still have the same hunger I had when I first moved to London to do my MA. I’m fortunate I have that. I don’t ever want to become complacent.
BANNISTER Do you think your work (pending you possessing the freedom and economic means to do it) could occur in any city?
THROUP Yes, I would say so. You’d react to the surroundings, but the work would survive.
BANNISTER How was growing up in Burnley? Can you give me some sense of your teens there—what you loved, who you spent time with? Football always comes up in interviews.
THROUP Wow, my teens.
BANNISTER You were there, in Burnley, from the age of 12, weren’t you?
THROUP Yeah. It was a tough time. I got to England when I was one month from 12 years old. By that time I’d already lived in two countries. It’s not like I was upset about having to move countries again; I was really excited. But I’d come from two big cities, from Buenos Aires to Madrid, and that formative age of 12, when you’re almost a teenager, that’s socially … a more difficult age. My sister and I, we didn’t speak English. We got thrown into high school and we had to try and survive. It’s a working class town. It was a real culture shock; one that I embraced only through surviving it. It’s really shaped and informed me as a person, and my work. If it weren’t for Burnley, I wouldn’t have become a designer—I’m pretty sure of that.
Burnley made me realise the value of expression for people. I don’t believe in ‘artistic expression’ used to build the ego of the artist, I see it as a possibility to inspire and motivate people who perhaps don’t have the ability to express themselves [overtly]. I think the reason I’m obsessed with newness is because I believe it can be empowering … It reassures the world that we’re not stuck, we can keep growing and evolving. With Burnley, it goes back to football. The collectiveness, the uniformity, it’s a social and cultural phenomenon. That group of fanatics, who dress the same, buy the same clothes … as a kid I was surrounded by football hooligans, both scared and subconsciously fascinated by their huge investment into these brands. I saw violent working class guys expressing themselves through incredibly avant-garde garments, garments that changed colours, that had maths [equations] built into them, you know, Stone Island and C.P. Company pieces. Culturally, these men were not allowed to express themselves in any other way.
BANNISTER Let’s talk about the logo mark as a streetwear institution, a cultural signifier. It’s almost like a team name. In the G-Star RAW Research collection the logo appears very clean, black-and-white. Do you see the logo as another graphic element, or a cryptic code, or an affront to other types of culture? And how do you feel about logo culture and corporate influence—after fashion largely rejected it in the 90s?
THROUP It’s so interesting you asking that. I’m really interested in branding—not in a commercial sense, not a brand growing through better branding, obviously … though I’m not afraid of or anti branding at all. I think branding, in fashion at least, should be in the way something is designed and constructed, the reasons it takes on a particular form. Three years ago I published a manifesto. There’s this section where I talk about the idea of branding through construction—I’m really obsessed with that in my own brand, where there are signature details, signature ways of construction. You might see a plain white t-shirt, but you can tell it’s a garment by us; it’s branded in its execution.
Incidentally, we’ve achieved that with the RAW Research collection, down to white t-shirts too. Following our presentation in Paris, we were talking about branding in general and looking at the prototypes. And we actually decided to take the branding off. So, the large G-Star RAW Research writing you see on one of the denim bags and one of the t-shirts will be gone gone. It was to unify the pieces more. It seemed like there was a lack of balance between them.
If you’ve seen the collection, you’ll know we’re striving for every piece to be hyper-connected: the fabric, the darkness, the lightness. I loved that connectivity, but the logo created this lack of balance. We felt like we hadn’t distilled the branding enough, so we fixed it. What we presented, it’s essentially a capsule of prototypes to inform next season’s collection.
BANNISTER Is the logo removal indicative of a long-term shift at G-Star RAW?
THROUP I’m not sure. If a brand is being responsible to what it represents, doing things for the right reason and in the right way, I still love the fact that the ultimate way to capture all that is a logo. I love this idea of merchandise retail culture, of merch. Or souvenir retail culture—you know like a souvenir shop—where the brand is bigger than the item you purchase. You begin buy into something that represents the brand—even if it’s a key ring—you buy into the things it represents. It’s about meaning through consistency.
BANNISTER The collection you’ve just presented, G-Star RAW Research, presents Italian selvedge denim as this dark-light dichotomy, a palette of extremes. Can you give me an example of certain conventions around denim you worked to bend, and where you think it can go?
THROUP We’re investing a lot of money, time and energy into working with different mills, exploring new possibilities of denim and indigo. If you start exploring what denim means—the whole history of denim—it offers up endless possibilities. We consciously didn’t want to bring the idea of fabric innovation into this capsule, because we want to be very pure about what ‘raw’ means. We’re really interested in the word raw, obviously, and trying to capture our internal feelings about it. G-Star began using the word when they began using raw denim, at a time when the market was flooded with washes. Metaphorically, raw means your true self, your raw self, before anything is added. It’s an inclusive term. In that presentation, we showed a dichotomy: stripped-away, essential raw denim, and the super washed down version of the same fabric, something fully deteriorated in terms of indigo and colour. I believe in this process, the denim that sits in the middle—the one we’ve excluded—is actually planted in your head subconsciously. I think that’s where the human fascination with denim lies. It grows with us. As we move and live inside of it, it shifts its shape, colour, feel. You decide what part of its spectrum to enter at.