University of Westminster’s Incredible Archive

On a rather damp and decidedly autumnal day, RangeRoom’s menswear department hopped on the Metropolitan line and took the short journey north to the Harrow Campus of the University of Westminster.

Why? Well, it was that keep an appointment with the curator of the world’s only public garment archive dedicated to Menswear. I met head Curator, Dr Danielle Sprecher, for what was going to be a real eye-opening experience.

Started by the Course Director of BA Fashion Design, Andrew Groves in October 2016, the archive has grown from 50 to around 1000 carefully selected pieces of menswear specific garments. They are all carefully labelled and stored in a purpose-built room, protected but crucially, interaction with the garments is positively encouraged.

First and foremost, the archive is a fantastic teaching aid and Andrew is keen to point out the clear benefits to the students, “we can send students into the archive to examine the garments they are drawing direct inspiration from”. This of course exactly replicates the common design practices happening in the fashion industry today. “Details are such an important part of menswear and you just simply cannot get the right level of information from just a photo” mentions Danielle.  The archive facilitates students allowing them to draw on real 3 dimensional experiences to which they apply their own aesthetic within their designs and concept development.  The links to industry practice are clear to see and the archive offers students a real insight into their future working practice.

Danielle, who has studied at the RCA and recently completed a PHD at Leeds University forcing on the important contribution of the Leeds tailoring industry and the rise of Leeds based Montague Burton Ltd and Joseph Hepworth & Son during the post war years, has a well-placed obsession with fabric, detail and menswear.  She is keen to point out that “not every piece in the archive are shining examples off a brands history.  We wanted to include pieces that represent where brands have been in terms of design and aesthetic and this has not always a good place!”

The Archive features pieces from roughly 1900 onwards. Designers and brands include Alexander McQueen, Craig Green, Stone Island, CP Company, Jean Paul Gaultier,, Adidas, Nanamica, Belstaff, Barbour, Burberry, Jeremy Scott, Vexed Generation, Comme Des Garcons, and Aquascutum.  Alongside these recognisable names are pieces of workwear and uniform both vintage and modern.

Key pieces in the collection are a twill lined wool over coat worn by a British Rail station master complete with leather details at the cuff, dating back to the 1950’s. Next to this you can see an up to date lightweight fleece as worn by a London Underground worker. Clearly highlighting the change in clothing need as job roles evolve.  Police and firefighters’ garments are also featured, stab vests and utility vest in high visibility fabric provide a particular source of inspiration to many students in both the men’s and womenswear departments.  There is a fascinating 50’s Japanese firefighters jacket in woven twill that was dipped in water before going to fight a fire.  This sits alongside the modern British Fire Fighters jackets that are mixture of Nomex, a cutting edge flame-resistant fabric, and details in durable Nylon with 3M reflective strips. The contrast is huge!

The archive is funded by The Quintin Hogg Trust, a fund dedicated to specialist causes within the University of Westminster. However, it has also benefited greatly from generous donations coming from key industry figures.  Friends and acquaintances who simple would like to support the archive have also made important donations.  British designer Liam Hodges has donated his entire MA collection as well as key pieces from recent collections.  “One good thing about clothing is its relatively cheap to acquire, when compared to something like furniture anyway!” Danielle mentions. “We are looking at ways to make the Archive self-funding and are hoping to offer a service to designers and the wider fashion industry to generate an income.”  Said Danielle as we left the archive.  I certainly hope so, as the University of Westminster’s Menswear Archive is shaping up to be a very important contribution to the history, and future, of the fashion design industry in the UK and globally.

Check out their Instagram feed: @menswear_archive

Thanks to the team at Harrow campus for giving us the unforgettable chance to see everything that this great Archive has to offer!

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