Aitor Throup is an English designer with quite the impressive Curriculum Vitae. A graduate of the prestigious Royal College of Art, his senior year collection was titled “When Football Hooligans Become Hindu Gods” and informed by brands like C.P. Company and Stone Island in addition to Indian mythology.
He later went on to work for those brands, and is known for his unique illustration style and unconventional design approach, eschewing the common practice of releasing collections per season in favor of special projects. However, it was his 2009 redesign of England’s home football jerseys for Umbro that brought him into prominence.
Focusing on a tailored fit and designed with the players’ body movements during the game in mind, the kits were a hit for their balance of tradition, aesthetics, and performance. His most recent capsule collection for Umbro, the Archive Research Project, delves into the 87-year history of the brand with key pieces inspired by heritage but revolutionized through modern construction and design.
Complex talked with Aitor about his design process and signature illustration style, as well as what he hoped to accomplish with the Archive Research Project.
I’ve always drawn, that’s the one constant thing I’ve always done since I was a baby. That’s always been the one thing I’ve always loved since I was one.
What was one of the first things you remember drawing?
It’s funny because my mum and my family always talk about how it’s crazy because I always drew the body basically — always moving, I never went through that stage that most kids go through where you draw the body still. I never did the stick man, you know?
They were a bit freaked out by it when I was really little because I was obsessed with detail and movement. I would make fingernails on my drawings and they would always be jumping around or running. It’s really post-analytical. I don’t draw that way because I’m fascinated by it — well, I must be if that’s all I draw — I guess it’s just boring to draw a body without any detail or movement. It’s just way more interesting.
Stylistically, I suppose my drawing has evolved over the years, but I definitely learned a lot about human anatomy from three sources growing up. Obviously, from real life — I’ve done small bits of drawing from real life like from a model, but it’s really just observing information from when you’re walking around or sitting on a bus and you’re reading information and mapping the body, and then doing it from memory, which is why my drawing is allowed to go beyond anatomy in a way. I don’t actually understand anatomy 100%, I know the basics and principles, but I don’t want to draw anatomically correct all the time.
Going with that, your designs have been lauded for their marriage of form and functions, while your illustrations often toe the line between technicality and grotesque/abstract imagery, so in addition to anatomy and movement, what kinds of aesthetics do you think about when it comes to garment design?
The thing when you talk about performance specific to a sport is that it really doesn’t inform the aesthetic. It justifies me exploring motion, a very specific motion in my work and drawings. I explore motion in general, and working on a project for a specific sport allows me to focus on that range of movements. I think aesthetically it works because I draw the body moving in my own stuff. I have an understanding of that and not just a three-dimensional understanding of it.
What really interests me is having a reason to invent something new, something that didn’t exist before and having a valid reason behind it. It doesn’t need to be something functional; it needs to have a conceptual, artistic, narrative-driven reason with a model point-of-view behind it.
Yeah, for sure. If I hadn’t been able to accomplish it, it wouldn’t be out. I have to have a valid reason for everything I do, otherwise I just can’t work in that way. It’s a really personal thing: I’m not interested in myself being a “tastemaker” or something, making something and being like “this is great because it looks cool.”
For me, I enjoy following fashion and buying certain brands and following what they’re doing and consuming it, that sort of stylistic and aesthetic level of fashion. I don’t have anything against it at all; it’s just not what I do. What I do is enjoy the idea of creating a product that comes with a story where you get the product because you engage with the process.
Ultimately, because you’re creating a product that has an aesthetic value, it can be read as purely aesthetic. You can consume it without understanding the concepts behind it, I can’t control that, and that’s fine as well. But that explanation, backstory, and process that went into it is also there for you to consume. Just having it there makes me feel assured. I don’t feel comfortable making aesthetic decisions, so my work process is all about blaming aesthetic decisions on something. So it’s like “that looks like that because of this reason.” I design the concept and I design the process to resolve whatever problems the concept caused. The product designs itself.
If the “Tailored By Umbro” collection was defined by a return to smart-fitting garments and also channeling Umbro’s heritage as a tailor of sportswear in the days before a “sportswear” industry existed, what would you say the design philosophy of the “Archive Research Project” is?
We talked about doing a collaboration early on, but it didn’t make any sense to do a sort of fashion collaboration but I wanted to explore the brand and the game of football really deeply. I wanted to be able to say that I was involved in something that was important to the game of football.
“Tailored By Umbro” was the way we started the label in 2008, when the company started changing its creative direction around 2009 when we launched the England home kit.
A.R.P. was born out of two and a half years of performance research and brand research. We went really deep into the 87-year history of the brand, and into the history of football. Which for me was justified because I’m really, really into football, and I’m really into the brand. It’s got performance and cultural heritage, and it’s so exciting. So we developed this really focused vision on making something that could be the best-performing football kit in the world but doing it through a unique Umbro lens that no one else could do.
We took those years of research and decided to expand on them rather than start from scratch. Take all that valid material and be able to expand them without the limitations of when you’re designing for a football team: certain colors, price points, or ways of construction. We wanted to elevate those concepts, and that’s where the thinking for this capsule collection came from.
There was this huge advantage of the fact that we were working with the archive of a British company who decided to start making football uniforms before there was a sport industry and therefore, were by definition experts in tailoring for the body, which was a big moment for us. It got everybody talking about my work and fascination with motion and the human body.
People had been kind of referring to my work as a “modern way of tailoring,” which is true in some ways because tailors don’t design things two-dimensionally. They don’t start with a drawing and figure out how to get there, they design things on the body. What I’ve been trying to do for years is figure out new ways of making clothes and questioning the standardized way of making clothes and reasons to make clothes, whether it’s to tell a story or for function. It all made sense to all of us that we collectively had this right to unite football and tailoring and that together we could create a new way of looking at both. Out of that we went into a new way of designing, just building things on sculptures and kind of think without thinking of how football things should look like. I think we really achieved this way of innovating and creating new ways of construction in a true Umbro way and a true British way. It’s more sophisticated.
It’s not really the subculture that influenced me but the fact that I was in a place where I was surrounded by people dressing in a certain way. In areas that don’t have a lot of ways to express their creativity, it’s interesting how certain uniforms come about, like a history of different cultural movements. It’s sort of like power in numbers, I was surrounded by a lot of the same.
I’ve always been fascinated by comic books, and when I was talking about drawing from life and memory, I was also informed by comics books in general in terms of exaggerating the human anatomy.
A lot of the garments in that particular subculture reminded me of superheroes. The goggle jacket had that mask with big eyes with reflectors, pilot’s jackets, big pockets, big hoods, and these rugged workwear boots. It was a really futuristic, superhero kind of look. It just spoke to my aesthetic sensibilities, I didn’t really get into that clothing due to the subculture or anything, it was just around me.
My friends and I got more interested in the actual clothes than the lifestyle, of course most of those people were into football, but we got really deep into who was making these clothes, collecting them, and finding out everything we could about them.
Massimo Osti became a big influence on me because he was behind C.P. Company, Stone Island, and other smaller brands that he developed, and I still can’t explain why he was able to achieve something in his work that spoke to me and still does, and I feel really passionate about it.
And through that passion, I kind of went through another transformation in these clothes, and soon people started dressing more like me in a way. That helped cultivate this obsession of having that one jacket nobody else had. I mean, it was a small town, everyone’s into the same labels; everyone goes to the same shop. You want the piece that no one else is gonna have.
I got this idea that I could take this jacket to the seamstress and she could make me one, which never happened because she couldn’t do it. So because of that, I went and studied how to make a garment. I didn’t know anything about fashion, I didn’t know what a catwalk was, I just wanted to learn how to make a jacket.
Where do you see sportswear headed? You've said in the past that a focus on technical fabrics have overshadowed fit and have resulted in gear that performs well in theory but is badly cut, do you think we will start to see more garments made custom for players? Is it far-fetched to think of athletes and weekend warriors taking their activewear to a tailor to get fitted?
I think the aesthetics of traditional tailoring that we’ve tapped into, which has been great and really relevant, is largely misunderstood. When I speak about tailoring in general and with Umbro as a brand, it’s really about tailoring for the body in general and not for an individual. Tailoring for the individual is relevant and something that I think will become more relevant in sportswear and performance wear for the highest level of performance, which to some degree already happens.
But what I’m really interested in is questioning the shape of garments and the way in which they’re engineered. That’s what I call “tailoring.” I can study a sport like football and analyze how to optimize where the fabric needs to be, how it should look, whether we should introduce a secondary fabric, tertiary fabric, where they should go and why, and inform that by data.
We took a brave step to let go of those tools that have made the garment industry so easy to create within and start from scratch three-dimensionally: with fabric, with the body, with sculptures. That’s really what we mean when we talk about tailoring.
A.R.P. is a really good example of that. What we set out to extract from that is a method of construction, we sometimes call it a “blocking system.” It’s generally a way of constructing any garment with a new set of rules that we invented, and I elevated those rules with A.R.P.
A “block” means a nondescript garment, so imagine a crewneck, white garment with sleeves, something that as a block you can convert into any garment. We have a block for the upper body and a block for the lower body. We’ve optimized those construction lines and the materials involved in key areas to be the best ergonomical construction for the body.
So that’s what A.R.P. is: we generate the block, that’s one half, and then exploring and furthering this really rich archive that exists in Umbro’s heritage. We can bring up any garment in the archive and fuse together these pieces with blocking construction. The fusing together of those two things is where my aesthetic sensibilities come in, and there are certain decisions I make to keep everything within a certain look. We’re effectively branding through construction — even if we didn’t put an Umbro logo on there, the idea is that you can tell that’s an Umbro A.R.P. garment, and that’s what we’re interested in doing is building focus and equity into the way garments are made rather than the way garments are branded.
The Archive Research Project is available at West NYC.