"The first time that I came in to contact with the work of Massimo Osti was in the mid 80s," explains Donrad Duncan over an early morning crackling Skype connection from his studio. It might only be nine in the morning in New York but one gets the sense that the founder and principle designer of Global Design and Innovation has been working for hours. His excitement for and knowledge of the design deity that is Osti drives our virtual conversation. "When I saw the product, I saw a spirit that I hadn't seen in any garment before. I immediately connected to it. From that, it awakened something within me and started a whole dialogue of research in to his work." Universally, men’s fashion owes Massimo a great debt and even today, thirty years on, his spirit lives on. No more so than with Duncan and John Sharp's MA.STRUM, a label that has evolved from the partnership between the designer and Massimo Osti Studio.
Few designers have had an influence quite like the 'godfather of Sportswear'. From his studio in the heart of Bologna, Osti led the industry thanks to his incessant invention, eager experimentation and depth of development. It's a testament to the man that the advancements that he was pioneering over three decades ago are still being appreciated, explored and furthered now. No more so than with MA.STRUM thanks to Duncan and his team's shared sensibilities.
Lorenzo Osti, Donrad Duncan and John Sharp
"Ever since I encountered his product, I felt as though I could communicate with this spirit. In a subconscious way, I felt that I understood what Massimo was doing. Then when I went to the archive for the first time, so much of it made sense to me, both in terms of his approach and the work itself." The MA.STRUM collection is inspired by similar principles, using innovative high-tech fabrics and technology to create quality products providing function, comfort and style.
However, the influence of Osti is far less than that of the men in Duncan's family. "My grandfather, father and uncles have had undoubtedly influenced my understanding and knowledge of craft and of style. I couldn't say that I was conscious of their effect on meat the time, it always comes after the fact that you realise that you know. Growing up in the environment that I did, it all becomes quite natural. My grandfather did various things; he was a furniture builder, he built houses and he still fixes watches. Understanding the fundamentals of putting structures together in theory was passed on to me. I inherited his specific reasoning and working with a sense of purpose. Tailoring was also extremely influential. I grew up amongst tailors. I understood the construction of a sports jacket and trousers in my early teens. I knew that I wanted to do something within a creative field. I had imagined being an architect but that never came close to fruition but in a sense I approach everything that I do in an architectural point of view, structure. I began making my own clothing when I was in my twenties just purely for my own personal wear. People used to stop me in passing and ask me where I had got them and this type of feedback encouraged me to move to New York and further myself in the design industry."
Duncan along with MA.STRUM's joint owner and CEO John Sharp and Lorenzo Osti.
Moving to the Big Apple, the budding design talent studied fashion design at Parson’s School of Design in New York. "I knew how to construct garments before I went to Parsons. I was very craft orientated. In Parsons I explored the theory behind everything. The experience developed what I knew already and I was able to build on my practical expertise. Construction was never really a challenge whilst I was at Parsons. It grounded me in what the industry was all about. It gave me a great foundation in launching into it." And what a launch. Today, Duncan is known globally for leading the apparel industry in introducing the hybrid concept of merging technical apparel with sportswear. Confidence gained with success with the likes of Victorinox led the launch of his Global Design and Innovation and ultimately, MA.STRUM. "It was only when I got the offer to form the design concept for Victorinox that I developed my own approach to form and function. I started to see a more distinct way of executing product for the consumer at large, understanding the importance of how a consumer thinks, how the society is structure and how we can create to facilitate to the changing environment that we had."
"Every designer that I know is working towards creating their own collection or brand and all of the roads led to this direction for me. The driving concept behind GDI is for it to have a creative collective of minds at its core. I see it more like a think tank of people who have a shared creative sense that is ready to burst out to create a new world, a new lifestyle. It's focus is to build on everything, not just apparel. It is still in its process of formulation. MA.Strum is under the umbrella of GDI and it was the first category that dealt with apparel. It was a lot of fun getting in to that aspect. When we launched it, Lorenzo (Osti) and I became close and started this whole idea. Given my hunger for function and form and how we worked in building from the fabric and sculpting from this premise, he understood the project.
I never even dreamt of working with the archive. It wasn't even a thought to me at the beginning. Access to it evolved from my talks with Lorenzo and my vision for building the collection. When he first mentioned that I could use it, I was in absolute awe."
It surely can't be surprising that Duncan felt a heady mixture of excitement and trepidation. The thousands of swatches filed and kept by Osti in his extraordinary Archive tell us about the fashion and textile history of the last thirty years: from the most classic and timeless fabrics by top-notch textile companies to the rarest and most unusual and innovative samples, they have been assembled and reinvented to become the basic matter and primary element of his insatiable creative research. Five thousand garments, fifty thousand fabric swatches, hundreds of accessories and original sketches give precious evidence to the uncountable field works and avant-garde experimentation conducted by the design maverick in three decades of bustling innovation.
"My first impression was being overwhelmed. It contained so much. There were so many fabrics, so much development. So many trials and research went in to just one fabric. It instantly showed how meticulous he was and how determined he was in realising his vision. There was little compromise. To me, it was a monument to his great body of work and spirit. In every specific fabric development, there is scope to explore it further. Everything he worked on and started is a seed." With MA.STRUM these seeds are growing in to something truly special. Far from being overawed by Osti's shadow, Duncan's own design vision is blooming. "Being a part of the studio, it could be seen as a burden but I really don't see it that way. I'm there, I understand the history and move on."
I ask Duncan how the archive has influenced him and MA.STRUM. "The studio has a certain spirit. I walk in there and I'm immersed in that world, a creative state of mind. I would leave, travel back to New York but that fire remains. It creates a magnet, ideas just go through your mind. It often works as the ignition, a key. It's not about duplicating or even building on what's in the studio but rather, it is about growing using its spirit." Osti took function and utility and twisted it until it fit in a jacket in order to add a benefit to the wearer. Whilst at the archive, he has the advantage of seeing products in their infancy and is able to develop them with what is available today. Even though he was ahead of his time, Duncan and his team now have fabrics and technology that go even further than even Osti could have imagined.
"Going through the archive, you only see the end product and glimpses at the experiments. You can't see Osti working so you can only imagine what the process was. There are numerous paths to get there. Meticulous, steadfast determination, multiple research, numerous development, trial and error, errors that could became the masterpiece. He was on a journey and you can never know what else Massimo would have done. What if Da Vinci had only painted? Massimo's approach was so vast that I think its application was potentially limitless, it permeates much more than apparel. So how would I compare? We are certainly like minded. We both tend to start at the base, the foundation, that is the fabric but I would never feel comfortable comparing myself to him any deeper than that. He set the stage."
"One of the reasons why I started this concept. It's not about what the military means and what it does but rather, it's about how the products have a function and form, they have a purpose. With MA:Strum, I wanted something that dealt with mastering form and function. The rhythm of life. In everything that we do, if we understand the rhythm, you can never lose the beat. There's a clear direction that MA:Strum follows but as we're in a changing world, the label is free to explore its principles. People change, lifestyles change and the label has to evolve season to season but rather than coming from me, it informs us. I'm not seeking, it is free. I don't design seasons ahead. It's when I sit down, look at the products of the past and start to analyse where we are today, how we are living as individuals and what are our interests. Everything informs this process. Today, the world is becoming so much smaller and we are so transient and mobile. The key is creating products that facilitate this changing world and our changing needs. We have to take so many factors in to consideration from weight to the opportunity of multipurpose. We want to create products that can offer as much as possible whilst always striking the right balance throughout a collection. I approach it as growth. It has to evolve consistently.
For me, the learning process will never stop. I see it as growth from season to season. As long as you stay open and malleable, you can absorb as much as possible. There is definite growth for SS13. There are fabrics that we have used previously, for me it is not always about change. If you have a good thing and there's a window of improvement, then why not?"
In fashion there is always a sense of striving for new. This always disturbs me. Menswear doesn't have to be different from season to season, it should evolve. Duncan agrees. "For me, some of the best developments are a combination of old and new - the balance often speaks to you. With having something that is already good, the question should always be, can it be better? For example, we have a parachute ripstop, it's a fabric that the military originally used and I usually highlight its strength and how lightweight it is but we've treated it so it is breathable and waterproof. The drive is to create products that are durable, lightweight, make a statement in a subtle way and at the same time give a sense of sophistication and presence. It is more about the emotion. I want to offer the same emotion that I felt when I encountered Massimo's work for the first time." To end our lengthy discussion, I ask Duncan how he'd like MA.STRUM to be remembered, without missing a beat he answers succinctly and confidently: "for offering product with form and function, product that make sense."