THE WESTMINSTER MENSWEAR ARCHIVE: Artefacts for Future Possibilities

15 July 2022

END. visited the Westminster Menswear Archive in London to discuss the importance it holds for students and the wider fashion industry.

Historical and progressive design, despite on the surface seeming opposing, are two things that work together harmoniously in fashion. From Massimo Osti and the pioneering ability to delve deep into archives and reappropriate unique, functional elements in forward-thinking contexts, to Samuel Ross and subverting elements of working-class uniforms through social commentary, tracing designs back to their roots isn’t strictly about looking to the past, but rather a springboard for future possibilities.

This idea of utilising physical forms as a tool for inspiration is something integral to the Westminster Menswear Archive: a vast, 2,000-plus collection located in London, providing its university students, the fashion industry and the wider public access to coveted pieces and original artefacts. With rare garments ranging from fashion houses like Alexander McQueen and Burberry, to obscure utilitarian pieces like fire proximity suits, the Westminster Menswear Archive is all about capturing the diverse nature of menswear, pulling back the veil and telling a story that is often left untold in the wider sphere.

Despite only being founded in 2015, the Westminster Menswear Archive has represented a vital source for contemporary menswear, forging strong relationships with key industry figures who utilise the archive as a catalyst for inspiration. While fashion can often be associated with exclusivity, the Westminster Menswear Archive is the antithesis: an accessible tool centred around creating a community, one that eschews the notion that fashion design ought to be shrouded in secrecy.

END. visited the Westminster Menswear Archive to sit down with its Director and Curator, Professor Andrew Groves and Dr Danielle Sprecher, to discuss what the archive represents, the importance of community and why tracing designs back to their original forms is paramount.

To those that don’t know, what is the Westminster Menswear Archive and how did it start out?

Andrew: It’s primarily a teaching collection at the University of Westminster. It started out in 2015 with a very small collection of around 40 garments that various members of staff had brought in.

Danielle: We then successfully applied for some internal funding, which was £350,000 for three years to build the collection. The aim of it was not just to build a teaching collection, but to engage with the industry as well.

Andrew: It wasn’t about telling the history of menswear, rather it was about which garments or artefacts would be useful to show students or industry for design inspiration. So, it might be the most iconic thing, but if you can’t use it as a design tool for something else, it isn’t worth us having.

Designers from the industry also hire from us — it’s an income, but it’s a really good way of seeing how designers work with things, giving students an insight into their processes. Also, the fact that brands come back every season, it gets students to realise that, although the collection is growing, there is still stuff from the season before that they may not have looked at and are now really excited about. It’s not necessarily about lots of things, rather the variety.

With an archive that’s so vast and varied, ranging from high fashion products to utilitarian garments, how do you go about sourcing pieces?

Andrew: Originally, it was eBay. I think what makes this collection unique is that you wouldn’t be able to put it together, certainly not in the time it was taken. Most archives are typically an original collection.

Danielle: My background is in museums, and the way they historically build their collections is through donations over a long period of time, whereas this has happened really fast, comparatively. Because of the nature of the funding we were given, we were able to buy on eBay, and again, with museums there are a lot of rules on provenance and where things come from. To some, eBay isn’t considered an appropriate place to source things.

We’ve also been really lucky to receive donations — some really great, notable donations. Liam Hodges offered us pieces from his early collections; he graduated from Westminster and then went to the Royal College of Art, so we’ve got pieces from some of his RCA work right the way through to 2017. We’ve also got around 60 pieces of Calvin Klein, which all came via donation from the brand themselves. Then we’ve also received donations from private individuals; after we finished our Invisible Man exhibition, someone got in touch who had John Paul Gaultier that he had bought in Paris in the late ‘80s, as well as Vexed Generation and various other pieces.

THE WESTMINSTER MENSWEAR ARCHIVE: Artefacts for Future Possibilities

Is there a particular garment you’re still searching for to add to the archive? 

Danielle: A pre-1940s Trench coat, preferably World War 1. The archive has been built around these archetypes in menswear — there are these particular types of garments that act, as Osti mentioned, as a continuation that’s been readapted and redeveloped by different designers over time. A lot of that comes from military uniforms, hence why we have so much of it. To have a really early trench coat would be amazing.

Andrew: An MA-1 by Lion Uniform — they were the very first people who produced the MA-1. Sometimes you might think: “Oh, just any old MA-1 will do”, but then you start getting obsessive looking for a particular one.

Danielle: There’s also a couple of bits of C.P. Company’s Urban Protection we don’t have — we don’t have the scooter, for example. We have the coat and the harness, but not the scooter that went into it.

Which designers do you feel have had the biggest influence on the archive and its curation?

Andrew: Massimo Osti, easily. It started because of a couple of researchers came around in 2014, who had been speaking to Lorenzo and the Osti family about what they might be doing with their archive. They were asking me about what our methods of teaching were, and they went away and I thought about how exciting it might be to work with Lorenzo. But then I thought: “Oh, we don’t need to wait, we can just do something ourselves”. It really started because of that, in terms of realising that’s how everyone designs, and we need to change the way we teach and need the garments to be able to do so. So yeah, Osti all day long — he’s influenced everyone else and how they work. I think the interesting thing is that so many people don’t want to talk about how they design, there’s a lot of secrecy, whereas Osti was very open about everything.

Giving back seems to be a fundamental part of the Westminster Menswear Archive – being the first to be publicly accessible is proof of that. How important is this sense of community for the archive? 

Andrew: There’s no point having things hidden away in a room, it’s got to engage people as much as possible. Anyone can visit, students from any university or course can come — and they do. It’s also open to industry professionals. When I started this, I hadn’t realised how much menswear has just been completely ignored in terms of fashion history — it’s getting better, but it’s not on the same level as womenswear. So, in a way, that’s been a bit of a crusade as well. When we did Invisible Man, we said it’s going to be the biggest exhibition on menswear ever, but it could have had 50 things and it still would’ve been the biggest. It’s still bigger than the V&A’s current exhibition, in terms of number of garments. There’s a really good story about menswear to be told, and you tell that through objects and having access to them. Having designer things next to industrial things gets people to see that there’s a narrative between both.  

Danielle: I studied menswear in terms of the history of it, and people have these misconceptions of what menswear is — they just think it’s businessmen in suits. But even with businessmen in suits there is a huge range — there’s a difference between an off the peg and a Saville Row £3,000 bespoke. To be able to show this range with objects is really amazing.

Andrew: Every year, we also buy one outfit from the graduate BA and one from the MA, so we have the narrative of how students have used the archive to inform their work. So we’ve got things from Priya Ahluwalia, Robyn Lynch, Robert Newman and Steven Stokey-Daley. I think it’s good as it’s a way of showing students that these are the very first collections these graduates have done, allowing them to see the influence they have had from the archive. You can also see that they’ve done it a way that’s very much their own aesthetic.

What do you think up-and-coming designers can learn by being able to trace designs back to their original forms?

Danielle: So much. We have some amazing McQueen tailoring from the 1990s, and you can see in the details that he was looking at historic examples of tailoring — 18th century and early 19th century. You can really see the history in the way the details have been brought up to date and put into a fashion context, rather than just historical replica costumes.

Andrew: Also Samuel Ross, when he came to the exhibition, we’ve got this GPO postman’s PVC coat, and he was like “Wow, look at how they have made this”, and it was because it was a new way of working with PVC in terms of making clothes — they hadn’t quite worked the language of it out. In that sense, it’s good for designers to be able to see the materials they often use but in their much earlier forms. Designers are problem solvers, and the manufacturing is key to that.

Danielle: With the Osti stuff, like Stone Island and C.P., being able to see the military uniforms that those garments were based on. There’s a huge amount of research and development goes into military uniforms – it’s based on utility. Designers and students can look and see the originals, rather than the designer interpretation of it, which is really valuable.

THE WESTMINSTER MENSWEAR ARCHIVE: Artefacts for Future Possibilities
"In that sense, it’s good for designers to be able to see the materials they often use but in their much earlier forms. Designers are problem solvers, and the manufacturing is key to that."

What contemporary brands and designers do you feel are leading the way in terms of progressive design?

Andrew: I really like what Samuel Ross has done. We’ve got some of his earliest pieces; his graphic sensibility and his references really excite me. When I’m in the archive, or when I look at things online, I’m looking for 99 different things. When teaching, you almost zone out what it is you like — you’re responding to an individual student’s aesthetic. It then becomes very difficult to tune into things in shops and think: “What is it that I like?”.

Danielle: I would say Craig Green.

Andrew: Especially when you look at the stuff he’s done with Moncler — you can see he’s really pushed things in an exciting way.

Danielle: We’ve really been focusing on Black British designers recently. i-D did an article on how important Black British designers have been in menswear, and not just in recent terms, but also designers like Joe Casely-Hayford — so we’ve been buying some of his earlier work. He was doing really interesting things in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Are there any products from designers within the archive, perhaps those that are relatively unknown, that you feel aspiring creatives can learn a lot from? 

Andrew: Carol Christian Poell, I always think; it’s one of those things that looks quite normal maybe from the outside, but on the inside it’s completely different. The industrialisation of the manufacturing of clothes means more and more products look the same internally, because of what’s the easiest way. Paul Harvey once said at a C.P. Company talk, that because the minimum for linings is x amount, everything ends up being lined in black — so an industrial process ultimately informs the design decisions.

Danielle: So that’s the reason why C.P. Company does garment dyeing, because it means there’s infinite options for everything on the garment, otherwise you’re limited by the buying of fabric and its lining. So, you can be really limited by this, especially when you’re not doing huge runs of stuff. Also military uniform, especially in terms of the research and development that goes into them — they’re designed to be protective, lifesaving garments.

Andrew: That’s why I think it’s good to show people the prototypes we have. We have the Swiss version of the C.P. Company Miglia that they did — that’s always eye opening for students to get them to think: “Oh, actually, these are sort of similar objects but they have different functionalities.".

Danielle: Or by looking at things from Craig Green, like the patchwork Parka – it’s related to the M1951 American anorak, with the fishtail at the bottom, so you can see where that relationship is and what he’s done.  

Andrew: And there’s scrubs. We’ve got three pairs of scrubs from Covid: Burberry, Barbour and Private White. I love those because, a bit like the facemasks we have collected, you think there’s no design, or we’ve just collected them because of the brands they are. But then you look at them and you realise they are completely different in design, because even some that are meant to have a standard of how they should look or be produced, are made differently. So even the simplest of things can have a point of difference with them.

THE WESTMINSTER MENSWEAR ARCHIVE: Artefacts for Future Possibilities
writerJack Grayson
|photographerMaria Purdy