There are few contemporary menswear designers who confront the conventions of the genre. While notable visionaries such as Rei Kawakubo, for Comme des Garçons, and Martin Margiela are revered for their radical approach to fashion, their main focus is still womenswear.
The German designer Bernhard Willhelm and the Belgian Raf Simons may be at the top of the current crop of menswear mavericks, but even they are, at times, rebuked for creating collections that are impenetrable to the average gent. In an increasingly vulnerable economic climate, designers are presenting commercial collections, since being radical in menswear is not now the favoured direction.
Aitor Throup's work is distinct, communicating a conceptual approach to design while still creating accessible garments. "My work is primarily based on exploring new structural solutions to clothe the human body," explains Throup, whose uncompromising approach to design and presentation has attracted the attention of influential names in fashion: Stone Island, the Victoria & Albert Museum, Topman, and the football brand Umbro are all eager to be associated with him.
Born to Argentinian parents in 1980, Throup lived in Spain before moving to Britain, where he grew up in Burnley. Graduating from the Royal College of Art in 2006, he received awards from Umbro, Evisu and Levi's before leaving college. His graduate collection, a synthesis of street sportswear and religious symbolism, entitled, "When Football Hooligans Become Hindu Gods", won the ITS#FIVE (International Talent Support) Fashion Collection of the Year Award in 2006.
Immediately wary of the cyclical nature of the fashion industry, Throup believes that the seasonal structure is liable to force ideas, which can result in collections that lack depth. "I'm not saying that all clothing should have a conceptual depth," he explains. "I'm just saying that mine does."
Throup's concept, Aitor Throup Tailoring, launched during London Fashion Week in 2007. His first clothing model was based on his distinct design process, which begins with his drawings of characters. These illustrations are converted into tiny sculptures, which then inform the patterns and shapes of the garments.
"Drawing has always been my main passion and interest," says Throup. "My work is about finding a reason to create or design anything. I am interested in justifying all design features and avoiding gratuitous detailing. I only believe in origin, process and innovation."
The Aitor Throup Tailoring concept involves the release of a single outfit every season, with the whole process becoming the product. So the final package includes a copy of the drawing, a replica of the sculpture, and the finished outfit.
For his first on-schedule catwalk presentation as part of the MAN menswear showcase at London Fashion Week, Throup created a film with photographer Jez Tozer. Entitled The Funeral of New Orleans, it was a response to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Throup's collection told the story, through clothes, of how five members of a marching band protect themselves and their instruments. The presentation confirmed Throup's radical approach to both fashion design and the communication of his collections.
Recognising Throup's talent, and inviting him to collaborate on a project, was the president of Stone Island, Carlo Rivetti. "He has an original and personal point of view, and to have both talent and ideas that are not mainstream, obvious or unrealistic is very rare," he says. "His theories have roots in design and engineering, and his fascination with shape related to anatomy and function are very interesting."
As one of the driving forces behind the Stone Island label is research into fabric innovation and treatment, Rivetti invited Throup to view the archive, find a piece of interest to him, and reinterpret it. The result, the Modular Anatomy Stone Island jacket, is a limited-edition version of a traditional down jacket, and as Rivetti explains, "is brilliant, both handsome and clever". Next season, the second instalment, Articulated Anatomy, will develop further, with the release of four garments. The aim of the collaboration is to compile an Anatomy Series, with a new approach each season.
Throup's latest creative collaboration is with Umbro. Previously, Kim Jones, now creative director of Dunhill, gave Umbro a stronger fashion identity, so an opportunity awaits Throup to innovate and stamp his design identity on the brand. Jones and Throup share a design sensibility that creates wearable clothes. According to Throup, the collaboration is still at the development stage. "Umbro has an incredible football heritage, which, as a football fan, is amazing to explore," he says.
The inclusion of Throup's work in the current Fashion V Sport exhibition at the V&A confirms the acceptance of his work by the design establishment. "It's a great honour. The V&A is such a landmark of art and design, and for me, a key source of reference and inspiration," he says.
Throup is comfortable with his work being viewed in a gallery, but aware of the issues surrounding fashion being presented as art. "I think it certainly can be, but only if the work has enough content to be viewed beyond its aesthetic values," he says. "There's fashion that proclaims itself as art, perhaps because it's sculptural or unwearable, but if the depth of the process or concept behind it doesn't stretch beyond its surface, it's probably fashion, not art."
Throup admits to having an issue with the psychology of fashion shows, where the viewer is passive and static and the work is active. "So far, I've desperately tried to force conceptual ideas on to a sometimes disinterested audience." With the viewer having no control over how long to look at something, or from what angle, Throup is keen to challenge and ultimately change the conventions. "I prefer the idea of my work being static, and the viewer being active around it, exploring and analysing at will. But I don't want the work to lose any of its validity in the fashion world either. I guess I just partly want it to be a new way to look at fashion."
More positively, clothing, according to Throup, can simultaneously be viewed as art and be practical. He gives Stone Island's Ice Jacket as an example. Also, the work of other conceptual designers, such as Carol Christian Poell, Issey Miyake and Hussein Chalayan, successfully bridge the gap between art and fashion and are inspirational figures to him.
Although Throup thrives on his work crossing creative disciplines, he has a commercial sensibility. He recently designed some trousers for a Topman project, and is eager to further develop his own lines. "I definitely see a product line in the near future extending beyond the limitations of clothing," he enthuses. "I want eventually to create toys, books, animations, sculptures and drawings. I want to show everything."
Modular Anatomy by Aitor Throup is available from Dover Street Market, 17-18 Dover Street, London W1 (020-7518 0680), and from Stone Island, 46 Beak Street, London W1 (020-7287 7734); www.aitorthroup.com
Majoring in menswear: the ones to watch
Graduating from the Royal College of Art with an MA in menswear and accessories, Long's signature fabrics include leather and sheepskin. He fuses them with modern materials such as netting and plastics, to create hard, graphic silhouettes.
Massey completed her MA at the Royal College of Art in 2005. Obsessed by detailing and avoiding man-made fibres, Massey's work explores the sartorial code of "what it is to be a gentleman", and how this has been appropriated during times of social or civil unrest.
Shannon graduated from Central St Martins with an MA in menswear earlier this year. He references Northern style "scally" dressing by reworking shell suits and classic sports garments.
HANS CHRISTIAN MADSEN
The Danish designer Hans Madsen graduated from the Royal College of Art in 2007 with an MA in knitwear. He is much admired for his well-crafted, beautiful clothes that reference Scandinavian knitting traditions.
Describing her design philosophy as "making real clothes that men actually want to wear by using a native approach to luxury dressing", the German designer Carola Euler graduated from Central Saint Martin's with an MA in fashion in March 2005. Her first spring/summer collection, for 2007, was called "Without a Ride", and was shown in September 2006 during London Fashion Week.