Through a Lens Darkly
First published by Sevenstore to coincide with the exhibition C.P. Company Cinquanta
The importance of outerwear for Northern men has a long history. The emergence of the Scuttlers, style-conscious adolescent gangs in 1870s Manchester, coincided with the emergence of 'monkey parades' in which working-class men took to the streets each Sunday to parade in their finest attire. A century later, with the rise of the Perry Boys, Dressers, and Casuals in the 1970s, Northern men continued to flaunt their best rig-outs on football terraces. Due to their inherent competitiveness, it was not long before these men discovered and adopted the latest Italian outerwear from C.P. Company.
It is a relationship that has lasted 50 years and is currently explored in the current exhibition CINQUANTA in Darwen, Lancashire, as part of the British Textile Biennial. The exhibition demonstrated how skilfully the brand has navigated the inherent demands of time within the fashion industry to develop outerwear that has outlasted the mere vagaries of fashion to become timeless.
Given the time-based nature of fashion, it is probably unsurprising that most brands prefer to operate within a linear understanding of time. In this system, fashion is highly regulated and adheres to a strict timetable for its creation, production, and consumption. This temporal regulation demands that each season brands present themselves to the consumer as being at the forefront of endless innovation and advancement. However, this fabrication of time within the fashion system simultaneously elevates the new and dismisses its past. It means that fashion companies rarely reflect on their history without revising it.
However, while C.P. Company appears to follow a similar linear approach to time, with seasonal collections included in the fashion calendar, many of its design approaches are purposely antilinear. It has continuously looked to its past to imagine the future, and in doing so, has evolved a fashion-specific perspective to how it interprets time.
The anniversary book C.P. Company 971 – 021. An Informal History of Italian Sportswear made this evident. Fifty individuals wore their favourite garments from the brand's history. Despite featuring clothing spanning five decades, the men managed to look both modern and contemporary. C.P. Company's CINQUANTA archive show in Darwen, Lancashire, exemplifies their antilinear approach to design. Rather than being shown in chronological order, the garments are categorised by referencing their materiality. Sections are devoted to Nylon, Rubber Flax, and Tinto Terra. Alternatively, they are presented to examine ongoing design methods, such as Hybrid Outerwear or Continuative Garments, emphasising the circularity of these approaches to design.
The exhibition's layout further emphasises this analysis of the clothing as evidence of their antilinear approach to design. Each garment is presented forensically, mounted between Perspex sheets like massive slides to be examined under a microscope. Giant racks allow the viewer to move each slide, and in doing so, illuminate a large digital screen with additional information about the outfit.
This scientific approach enables the connections across the decades to be revealed. This detailed analysis allows visitors to understand how the company has continually revisited and refined materiality, processes, and garment research over the last five decades. Indeed, it enables us to see that even at their most imaginative, such as Moreno Ferrari's Transformables collection, in which clothing metamorphosises into tents, kits, or chairs, these products remain within the logical constraints of product design. Indeed, the more one examines the clothing on display, the clearer it becomes that the conceptualisation of time and its relationship to fashion plays an intrinsic part in C.P. Company's history.
In 1988 Osti designed a jacket inspired by Italian racing car drivers, with lenses embedded into the hood and a lens mounted onto the left sleeve enabling the wearer to view their watch. At the time, this iconic jacket was referred to as the Mille Miglia after the famous endurance rally was established in 1927. It has since been revisited throughout the company's history and is now referred to as the goggle jacket. However, the inclusion of a lens on the left sleeve of this prototype garment is significant. While it undeniably serves as a functional aspect of the jacket for racing car drivers, its conceptuality exemplifies C.P. Company's approach to design and temporal matters. When wearing this jacket, we witness time through our attire, both physically and metaphorically. Further, given the mythical nature of the Mille Miglia rally, time is framed as neither linear nor antilinear but as uchronic, referring to a hypothetical or imaginary time.
Later, in 1991 Massimo Osti famously devised the production of Continuative Garments, removing himself from the intolerable pressure of the linear timeline of the fashion system. Items under this range would be reproduced season after season, allowing for changes in colour or materiality, but without the need to constantly reinvent garments that were already resolved. In this respect, parallels can be drawn between the Mille Miglia and Christian Dior's Bar Jacket presented in 1947 as part of the 'New Look'. Both revolutionised their respective fields of womenswear and menswear. Both set a framework for each new creative director to work within and explore their interpretation of these garments. In the CINQUANTA exhibition, there are multiple examples from Aitor Throup, Massimo Osti, Paul Harvey, and Alessandro Pungetti. It is fascinating to see how they compare to each other and the subtitle reinterpretation that each designer brings to this continuative garment.
The Urban Protection range from 1997 onwards is also on display, and with the advantage of hindsight, we can see how this radical departure for C.P. Company was also concerned with time. The collection focused on the impending arrival of the twenty-first century, proposing a series of interventions to mitigate perceived threats from man's urban environment. It echoed the uchronic future-time depicted in films like 2001 Space Odyssey and Star Wars and the utopian vision of clothing anticipated by the Italian Futurists in the early twentieth century. In particular, the Italian Futurist Ernesto Michahelles, working under the pseudonym of Thayaht, designed the TuTa, or what we now have come to call the boiler suit or overall. This revolutionary intervention by an artist to create a rational and utopian garment can be seen as a direct forerunner for the Urban Protection range in its attempt to make clothing that aimed to be functional, democratic and transcend the restrictions of fashion. This reoccurrence of time being seen through clothing can also be seen in the introduction to the C.P. Archivio book published in 1994. The opening paragraph reads:
Imagine stopping time. To go back to the past to browse the culture of the years spent. Imagine, then, to discover an archive that contains more than 20 000 items of clothing that have made the history of recent decades. Imagine passing them one by one under your eyes and reliving the sensations that made them born and the stories that made them unforgettable.
For ten days, we don't need to imagine stopping time. The CINQUANTA exhibition is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see all of these artefacts simultaneously and discover how they interact across the decades in a considerably more complicated vision of time than we may ordinarily understand.