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Andrew Groves: “Menswear is about finding individuality within uniformity”

The University of Westminster’s new show, ‘Invisible Men’, is the biggest exhibition of menswear ever to be staged in the UK.

“Most people think that menswear is boring,” says Professor Andrew Groves, ex-design assistant to Alexander McQueen and Fashion Director of the University of Westminster’s BA Fashion Design course. “But there’s a story that hasn’t been told.” For three years, he scoured eBay for Burberry and everything in between. Receiving up to 99 bidding alerts a day, Groves quickly grew a tiny backroom into an overflowing treasure-chest of menswear garments spanning 12 decades. It’s the only archive of its kind, featuring inflatable jackets, suede breeches and spliced tailoring; a testament to the diversity of menswear. 

Opening today, ‘Invisible Men: An Anthology from the Westminster Archive’ exhibits over 170 pieces from the archive, including COMME des GARÇONS, A-Cold-Wall* and Craig Green. It shows what happens when the rules of tailoring and functionality are broken. Even when they’re followed or the subversion is subtle, menswear has hidden depths that the untrained eye might not appreciate. “It is all in the details,” Groves says, pulling back the lapel on a black two-piece suit to reveal a tin-foil silver lining. Here, Groves walks us through the exhibition, pointing out his favourite pieces and explaining why menswear is about to have its moment in the spotlight.

Leather rocker's jacket, maker unknown (1980s)

‘Invisible Men’ is the biggest menswear exhibition ever to have been staged in the UK. Why has menswear generally received less attention than womenswear?

Menswear is not designed to get attention. Blockbuster exhibitions like ‘Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams’ and ‘Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty’ tend to focus on womenswear. It is far more decorative, with more embellishment and print. That’s what draws people in. Menswear is not designed to engage a mass audience, only a specific crowd who understand a specific garment and why it’s special. There’s a C.P. Company jacket from the Urban Protection line in the exhibition. I’ve got one myself, and when I wear it out most people think it’s just a security jacket. They can’t see the value or interest in it. But the people who know will say, ‘Ooh where did you get that from? Can I have a look at the inside?’ I think a lot of menswear is designed for a secret club of people who are in the know, which pushes other people out. In terms of an exhibition, how do you display garments that are purposefully not letting people in?

Has that been difficult to overcome during the curation of this exhibition?

Yes, the biggest problem was having to show garments inside out, because that’s where menswear’s magic is! For example, a pair of Aitor Throup x Umbro trousers look just look like a pair of joggers, but when you look at the inside, he’s really thought about the cut and fit and how to shape the knee. You’ve got to turn them inside-out for people to understand them — we were after them for ages!

Menswear is not designed to engage a mass audience, only a specific crowd who understand a specific garment and why it’s special. I think a lot of menswear is designed for a secret club of people who are in the know.”

Fire proximity suit, by Globe (2010)

You’ve scoured eBay finding rare items. It’s amazing that you’ve gone from nothing to over 1700 items in just three years — the exhibition shows just a portion of the entire collection. Why have you decided that now is the right time to stage the exhibition and what do you want people to take away from it?

After three years, these items needed to be seen. There’s no point keeping them in a cupboard! We’re only showing one tenth of our collection, which is both the challenge and the excitement. I hope it makes people ask why there aren’t more menswear exhibitions. We wanted to highlight the breadth and depth of our collection and show as many different garments as possible. But it’s important to remember that it’s called an anthology because it is incomplete. For example, there’s no Kim Jones. How have we ended up with over 170 garments and no Kim Jones? It just hasn’t fitted in. The exhibition is only a snapshot of our collection, but hopefully people will go away having seen something unexpected. It was never designed to be an archive of the best menswear; we have the worst of it too. We have some hideous designer things in here. It’s part of the story, so it’s important to preserve it. We’re also presenting designer garments and non-designer garments next to each other, showing they are equally valid. I can’t remember the last time that’s been done in an exhibition. Usually, curators try and communicate how exalted fashion is, how it’s on a pedestal and it’s unattainable, like the Dior show at the V&A. Menswear doesn’t do that.

“The thing about menswear is that it has certain rules, but you can choose to follow or break them. Without those rules, you don’t have anything to subvert.”

Three-piece suit, by Alexander McQueen (1998)

Menswear is more about practicality and function rather than spectacle. As you mentioned earlier, that is why it’s been left out of so many exhibitions. Can you think of any specific examples of the erasure of menswear?

In fashion, we go backwards and forwards about gender, but you can’t understand womenswear without telling the story of menswear. Someone must have had that conversation for ‘Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty’ and decided not to include menswear. For me, it felt vital to include a Savile Row suit from his beginnings, because you can’t say McQueen was a genius and not look at half of his clothes. Even if you want to dismiss that other half, and say well it’s rubbish and not as good, you have to understand that in order to understand the womenswear. I recognise the womenswear was doing all this fantastic stuff, but the menswear was doing something different. Shouldn’t we be looking at that and trying to understand it from a design point of view?

Of course, I guess it’s more of a quiet spectacle. Which are the stand out pieces from the exhibition for you?

Because I’m a bit of a C.P. Company nut, I’m so excited that we have almost got the whole Urban Protection collection. It was thought to have been designed between 1998-2002, but about three months ago we found a bit from 1997— on eBay! And what’s lovely is, back then, the buttons used to have the year on, so you can definitely date it. So that’s already re-writing the history of that collection. For that period, it stands out in its technicality and functionality. There are jackets with pollution readers built in and jackets with inflatable collars. One even has a Sony voice recorder built in. It was just an amazing period for one company to really explore this language of design.

Munch Jacket, by C.P. Company (2000)
LED jacket, by C.P. Company (2001)
Beekeeper jacket, by C.P. Company (2002)

They show an entirely different approach to menswear design and that should be recognised and celebrated. 

Exactly! I want people to realise that menswear isn’t all the same. I find it so interesting when people say menswear is boring and it’s all suits, because it’s not. There is loads of variety. I mean, just look at Craig Green. If he were doing womenswear, he’d be up there like McQueen. But because he’s doing menswear, he’s not. I look at some of his shows and I just think this is insanely amazing. No womenswear designer is doing anything on a par with what he’s doing for menswear. We will all look back and marvel at how he’s made his own design language.

Just look at Craig Green. If he were doing womenswear, he’d be up there like McQueen. No womenswear designer is doing anything on a par with what he’s doing for menswear.”

Hand-painted canvas jacket, by Craig Green (2014)

Are young designers today also changing the design language for menswear or keeping to tradition?

Well I think they are doing both, because the thing about menswear is that it has certain rules, but you can choose to follow or break them. Look at Charles Jeffrey’s work: he references those menswear rules of tailoring and suiting — or what we may think a kilt is — and subverts them. Without those rules, you don’t have anything to subvert. Gaultier did this as well, taking a design language we understood and turning it on its head. This is why I like the language of menswear, because it quickly changes from something very understated to, ‘Who would wear that?’

Do you think changing views on masculinity will impact menswear?

Yes, because it has historically. I hope this exhibition shows that there are different modes of masculinity. It’s like when you put on a navy suit and you totally disappear in the city and no one can recognise you, which in a way is camouflage. I think a lot of menswear contributes to this role so when there’s a hint of personality, it’s so subtle you really need to understand it. The exhibition I want to do next centres around ‘allyness’, which is how people in the army dress to look cool as fuck by wearing uniform from the 1980s — even on duty — and you can hardly find any reference to it. The men who dress like this get given leaflets saying, ‘do not adopt a pose just for its allyness.’ So it’s about pose, and I think that’s a very male thing: showing your status, subverting that status or regulation, and finding individuality within a uniformity.

All images courtesy of Westminster Menswear Archive