Aitor Throup Had the Right Idea All Along

The conceptual designer has always eschewed the frenetic fashion week schedule and big city life. Now everyone else is catching up.

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Aitor Throup began 2020 on a high note. The designer had announced his return to fashion with not just one but two collections — an unnamed, conceptual project very much in his milieu, and a more accessible streetwear-friendly line based on his years of daily sketches. In January, he showed his accessibly-priced line, TheDSA, to buyers in Paris and garnered a bit of buzz in Vogue and this very site for his long-awaited return.

By now we all know the story: and then the global spread of the coronavirus pandemic struck down the fashion industry as we know it. Throup’s studio went into lockdown and both TheDSA and his larger-scale project had to be put on hold. Which would seem to be something of a death knell for a designer who’d spent five years toiling away waiting for just the right moment to come back. But not so in fact — for Throup, those three months of lockdown provided what he calls the most significant creative period of his career. Which is not to say it was easy.

“It was tough. I went in. I felt like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, you know?” he told HYPEBEAST. “Like I went in.”

As Series 1 of TheDSA arrives in stores today, we spoke to Throup about his return, how Brexit inspired him to set up shop in the small English town of Burnley, and his hopes for the future of the fashion system. There’s still more to come of course — not only for future series of TheDSA, but for the still unnamed line which Throup calls his biggest project yet. We just hope we don’t have to endure another global catastrophe to see it.

aitor throup the daily sketchbook thedsa archive studios paris menswear launch coronavirus covid 19 london burnley england the uk brexit

Aitor Throup

HYPEBEAST: How are things at your studio in Burnley?

Aitor Throup: So we had a lockdown, I guess it was for three months. We came back around mid-June. And yeah, it was a crazy time. But it’s been amazing to be back. And I mean, obviously we’re having to adapt. It’s not like it was, nothing is.

But it was a real kind of purge. Some people left and new people joined, and it really seems like a completely new start and new energy. And it was something that actually, I didn’t quite realize just how much we needed that. Things were delayed because of the pandemic and stuff, but when we came back, it was like, “Oh, sh*t, this is really happening.” The team as it was before actually wasn’t quite right to deal with what we’re dealing with now. And yet, the stars have aligned and honestly, it’s the best team I’ve ever had. I’m so happy. I don’t know what I would have done without them.

In New York, there’s been this feeling of, maybe I don’t need to be in New York City to do this kind of creative work. If things are remote, maybe I want to live in a smaller place. Are you finding more people wanting to leave London and come to a place like Burnley?

Well the thing is, I wouldn’t know. With some of my friends who still live in London, this conversation was had pre-pandemic because of my decision to move to a small town, to my hometown, and to settle the roots of the business where my roots were in England. And I think it planted a seed with a lot of people, that was like, actually, yeah that makes a lot of sense. You start getting people thinking about, well, why would we be in London, or in a big city?

Fast forward now two and a half years since I settled this studio, which really did feel weird to me at the time as well. I remember thinking, I felt a bit insecure, how is that gonna be perceived? But actually as soon as I got older, I remembered that pretty much all my design heroes have done the same thing.

“I’m an immigrant, but I very much resonate with Englishness and with Britishness and it definitely has become a part of my identity.”

All my favorite companies, from Massimo Osti with C.P. Company and Stone Island, to Steve Jobs with Apple, to Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman with Nike, they all set up huge companies as startups in their hometowns. Which have since become hubs of global design. Whether it’s Cupertino or Beaverton, or Ravarino in Modena, Italy, would have been unheard of places until these very significant pioneers in their field decided to be incredibly authentic and set up where they were from. I just felt there’s something great about that authenticity that I really wanted to emulate.

But then since the pandemic, I guess I’ve heard this same sentiment reinforced more. It seems more logical to everybody, globally, to do the same. And I think particularly in the U.K., for me a big reason for doing it was as a kind of response to the whole doom and gloom of Brexit.

There was a, at the time, a kind of impulse from people I knew to be like, “F*ck this, we need to we need to get out of England. We need to get out of the U.K.” And you know, the U.K. adopted me, England adopted me when I was 12. I’m an immigrant, but I very much resonate with Englishness and with Britishness and it definitely has become a part of my identity. So it felt like for me to turn my back on Britain, as much as I’ve struggled with adapting into Britishness and being accepted as an immigrant, I just wanted to celebrate it really. By doing the opposite of running away from it and celebrating a kind of positive, post-Brexit Britishness.

aitor throup the daily sketchbook thedsa archive studios paris menswear launch coronavirus covid 19 london burnley england the uk brexit

Aitor Throup

You mentioned some good things have come out of this, like getting a fresh start so to speak. Have these setbacks changed your creative process at all? Or are there other positives you’ve taken out of what was probably a very negative situation?

Oh my god, I mean I wish I could explain everything that’s in my head right now in one clear sentence. But I guess I can do my best to try and encapsulate it. But that lockdown was the most significant period of my creative career.

So we announced our main new project like last year, and towards the end of last year, we announced TheDSA. And then in January, we sort of cemented the announcement. We did a piece with Vogue and then we did a piece with you guys. So it was a really exciting time, but it was also a very confusing time. We’ve been away for five years or whatever, like I normally am when I do something, and then now we’re announcing this one thing, and then we were announcing another thing.

“I spent those three months just clicking those last two squares into the right place. I came out of it just so energized.”

And as it happened, as we got to the end of last year, TheDSA was ready to launch. But the main project, I just felt like I needed more time. At that point, the idea was to launch the main project around April. And as we left Paris, come February, I was like, “Ah, it’s still not quite right this main project.”

Throughout February, honestly, I was just thinking to myself, “What I could really do with is just three months away from the studio.” Just locked away, like finalizing this huge, huge narrative that I’ve been working on for years. There was something missing, that was just not fully clicking. It was still amazing, and I was so excited to share it. But it honestly felt like it wasn’t quite right, quite ready.

And then the pandemic happened. All of a sudden, we all got forced into lockdown. And I just embraced it. I just took the opportunity. Like, honestly, I savored it every single minute of every day, I was so blessed to have that time to finalize it without having the pressures of having to manage my operation as well on a daily basis.

I just went in so deep. It’s like I’ve been trying to solve this Rubik’s Cube. And I’ve got it to that place where there’s like a couple of squares out. And I was really happy with that, in January in February, I was excited to share that because, you know, people would get it, it’s still powerful enough to share. But deep down it was like the niggling thing. And so I spent those three months just clicking those last two squares into the right place. I came out of it just so energized.

The brands and companies that had been operating at a very successful level with the old system, they were all of a sudden challenged. Everything was taken from underneath their feet. And people were getting laid off, and it was a disaster for the old system. And then people like little old me, who had been banging on about how rubbish that system is for years, it was like all of a sudden I had all the opportunity. What I had been saying for years was resonating with people. And people were queuing up to come to move to Burnley, to get away from the city and to work on these mad projects. I just felt like I’ve got all these opportunities in ahead of me, it’s very ripe ground for this kind of thinking.

“The brands and companies that had been operating at a very successful level with the old system, they were all of a sudden challenged.”

It’s frustrating it took this global catastrophe to show that you don’t have to work in this way of showing a seasonal collection six times a year. But obviously a lot of brands — and even us as media — were very married to these intense, non stop big fashion weeks. Do you see that coming back at all?

I guess, I don’t care. It’s probably why I’m struggling to give you a clear answer. Like, I just don’t care about that system. What I feel is that there are certain types of brands and companies that probably need that system. And to be perfectly transparent with you, there are some brands and companies that I like because they’re in that system. So I guess what I’m trying to say is, I think that system has a place, for sure. But I’ve always known that it’s not my place.

What I would like to see is a natural, authentic evolution in terms of the types of brands and companies that decide that that is for them. In the past, my issue with it was that was the only kind of recognized and validated platform. So if it didn’t work for you, it was hard to be taken seriously. Like whenever for instance I decided to show something new, pretty much every time I decided to effectively hijack that system, right? And utilize a captive audience in one place. And therefore, make a bit of noise as part of that system.

You could be an artist or a film director or a musician, you could be one who does something new every year. And we know there is a system as well in all of those industries, and a musician could have a new album every two years or whatever. But you could also be a musician who is a more conceptual, deeper musician, and you get recognized for actually going away for 10 years to work on your new masterpiece. And actually, the fact that you were away for 10 years has this weight connected to it.

Although in that sense, what you present has to really live up to that weight.

Oh, for sure. There’s an element of that in what I do. Like, I feel there should be an expectation in people, if I’ve been away for five years or whatever. I want to create something that has more depth and more resonance than anything else out there. I have that level of ambition, something that’s more meaningful and more timeless. But the problem was always, and I feel like this is what will open up, the problem was always that whatever I would present within the context of hijacking a seasonal structure would be consumed in the context of that season. Not just as a body of work. Do you see what I mean? And that’s the biggest problem.

I think it’s something that should be there, but that should be used freely. I just felt like it was ridiculous to exist as an artist, as a creator in a system where it was required for me to develop a new body of work on demand, like twice a year. I honestly cannot compute how that is even possible. But I get it, I’m a big fan of some fashion brands and I look forward to seeing the things they do on a seasonal basis and it’s fun and it’s entertaining. And actually very meaningful a lot of the time. It’s just for me, I felt like I was like a musician, and I couldn’t give you two albums every year.

“I want to create something that has more depth and more resonance than anything else out there. I have that level of ambition.”

Imagine if the music industry worked like that, you had two seasons every year where every musician and every band in the world had to deliver a new album. It’s so insane. Not only that, like insane for the musician and the band, but insane for you guys having to listen to all these albums at the same time.

Yeah, to listen to all these albums and to find something new to say about this musician’s work every six months. Maybe there’s not really something new to say.

It’s a system that’s built from the outside in. It’s a capitalist system. It is what it is purely to make money, rather than a system that should be built from the inside out, which is to communicate a story, to be a platform for artists to present their creations. This is the platform for companies to make money. So that’s why I think the answer lies in this hybrid of, there’s this continuity in the structure in terms of a system, and that gives it like a solid foundation for artists and companies to make money. But it has a sort of flexibility as a platform to be available for artists when they need it, when they’re ready to say that thing.

Going back to the beginning of this year, pre-pandemic — if we can even get our mindsets to that time — when you announced you were launching new work, what was the reaction?

It was great, actually. It just felt great to finally be teasing a little bit of something. It’s tough for me and the team, because we were just holed up in here. And then season after season, year after year, we just keep going and it’s a bit like, “Oh, will they still remember who we are?” We just can’t release something until it’s ready. I just can’t do it. And so it’s always a bit nerve wracking to sort of like say something again, whether people care even.

And then when we did TheDSA in December and then the joint announcement in January, was literally the day we landed in Paris. We just had our humble little showroom in Paris for TheDSA. I didn’t do any press, I just did a silent little sales thing. And everyone wanted to know more about the other main project. But the people were just genuinely excited about the fact that what they had been waiting for was what we had been working on

aitor throup the daily sketchbook thedsa archive studios paris menswear launch coronavirus covid 19 london burnley england the uk brexit

Aitor Throup

The response to the DSA was amazing as well, because it was like, wow, finally, there’s not only you’re working on something that’s deep and conceptual, there’s also something that’s deep and conceptual but it’s also for the first time accessible.

I guess the challenging thing for us was the timing issue, that it would have been much cleaner as I originally intended to launch with a bigger, more conceptual, or sculptural, project first, and then to introduce TheDSA later. Because we definitely also experienced a segment of people who were more purist following my work, who maybe didn’t read the whole article, didn’t realize the two projects and just looked at TheDSA on a very surface level. There were definitely some people who were quick to kind of summarize it incorrectly based on their expectations on what I should be delivering. That part for me is a little frustrating, because it’s like, well, actually the reason I’m showing this first, and not this bigger project, is just because of how big it is. And because of how committed I am to fully resolving it before I share it.

With TheDSA, when you say accessibility, is that both in terms of price point and how widely available it will be?

We’ve been very conscious to not make it too accessible, I guess. We were only working with stores who have a real deep and shared understanding of the meaning and the value, and the concept of it. And so it’s really important that it’s properly represented. But even then it will be available at multiple retailers around the world.

I had a few different objectives with it, but one of them was I wanted to build my level of conceptual thinking. I feel like as a conceptual designer, I actually don’t really design garments, I design the concepts. It’s like I take a narrative or a concept and I design a system around it. And the system is what designs the garment. So if I’m doing my job right, I’ve got my hands tied behind my back when it comes to the final product. It is like going through a machine. It’s kind of like I’m designing a conceptual algorithm. And each product just has to go through the algorithm and it comes out how it is. So that’s essentially a way to describe what conceptual art is. If it’s truly conceptual, is limited by the concept. For a lot of years, I was thinking about designing a system that would result in fundamentally minimal and accessible garments.

“If I’m doing my job right, I’ve got my hands tied behind my back when it comes to the final product. It is like going through a machine.”

[TheDSA] actually is a system, a conceptual system, that will just continue. Like I can tweak it, I can tweak the algorithm, I can evolve it. But it’s fundamentally this kind of organism that just exists. It can only exist from me building this huge archive — now it’s eight and a half years — of daily sketches. That basically results in you buying into this living, breathing organism, this world that continues to evolve every day.

But in terms of how that world is translated into a consumable product, it has this sort of conceptual design architecture, that is that sketch with its relative number joined together on the back as the primary print, then the number itself becomes the logo. And I just love that systematic thing. I just have this vision of people who start to collect it having these collections in five years, 10 years time, where they have all these white garments hanging up with the black numbers. I’m a little bit obsessive about things like this. I just love that idea of the same thing, but different.

You’ve been doing sketches every single day for eight years, and that it’s a form of therapy for you — even if it drives you a bit insane. What is that ritual like for you and how does that influence your creative process?

It’s really key to my creative process. In the very beginning, I actually started them as more like a daily gallery. So I was using old sketches and posting them every day. And only occasionally would I do like a daily sketch update.

A couple of years in, I was struggling with self doubt. And once a kind of depression, I would say, part of it based on my work. I felt actually trapped by my own work, if I’m really honest. Because of the daily sketches, I have this very clear recognition between my left brain and right brain. The left brain being logical, strategic, systematic, structural side, right brain being my imagination, my freedom of expression and more rebellious side. At that point, I had just released my Manifesto, I had released New Object Research in 2013. And it was really well received, however left me feeling very down about myself. I realized that it was because I was only expressing one half of my identity.

And there was the kind of punk side of me that just wanted to rebel, and just to be a kid, and actually rip up the manifesto and contradict everything. And it was my daily sketches that really allowed me to explore that. The more technical my product work became, and the more black and white and perfect, the more my sketches became colorful and more scruffy, like more raw. And then that’s when I really realized like, wow, there’s a real difference in my identity, I’m exercising a different muscle. And so the sketches became a real key thing to explore my imagination and my more expressive side. And they still are.

That’s why I really want to promote it for the sake of people’s well being and mental health, because it has helped me so much. What I realized is that the practice of sketching in itself can be a real tool to help balance our left and right brain. Your left brain is basically using your intelligence, things you have learned from the past. Your right brain is battling with that half and trying to be rebellious. And ultimately the battle becomes a dance.

So it’s like you’re not in the past, and you’re not in the future. You’re just in the present. And you’re just there. So that’s why I call them daily meditations because they literally take me into the present moment. And then I could never tell you what’s going to come out after.

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