Katharine K. Zarrella speaks to menswear designer Craig Green about his design process, finding newness in fabric innovation, and inspiring emotion.
Craig Green is one of the most exciting young designers working today—hands down. Just look at his recently launched Fall 2018 Moncler Genius collaboration, which is being celebrated in New York this evening. It’s one part post-apocalyptic Michelin Man, one part outsized samurai warrior. Or his Spring 2019 outing, which combined boxy silhouettes, inventive fabrications, and wearable sculpture to a chill-inducing effect. The 32-year-old Central Saint Martins MA graduate has been the toast of his native London since launching his cerebral, utilitarian menswear line in 2012. Adored by fashion’s elite, street style stars, editors, retailers, and academics alike, Green has found a way to balance a conceptual approach with commercial appeal, and his work has ushered experimental menswear into the spotlight.
Green has been hailed as the new voice of menswear, proffering a fresh aesthetic rooted in honesty and emotion. Interestingly, however, his forward-thinking garments are born out of the past, inspired largely by traditional uniforms and workwear. “The main aim for a designer is to push things forward, but also to attempt to stand out while doing what is true to [himself],” said Green when interviewed about fashion’s relentless pursuit of newness, a topic that is explored via an in-depth essay in Document 13, out this month. “You can have influences and you can have references…but then it’s your job to take those references and that energy and do everything you can to push it to a new place.”
Here, Green discusses his design process, finding newness in fabric innovation, the importance of education, and why inspiring emotion is the best result a designer can get.
Katharine K. Zarrella—What does ‘new’ mean, as it pertains to fashion, in 2018?
Craig Green—That’s a big question. I think there’s that constant conversation of nothing is new, everything’s been done before. Which in some senses, I agree with. But that doesn’t mean you should stop trying to push things further. I think that’s the responsibility of a designer—to push and challenge and try new things. I always remember that Louise Wilson [the late course director of Central Saint Martins’s fashion MA program] taught me that to feel uncomfortable with what you’re doing is a good thing because it usually means that it’s something new. That is a really important lesson that I learned on the MA course at Saint Martins and I’ve held on to it. Usually, the things that I first think are a disaster or are really terrible are the things I look back on and think are great.
“I always remember that Louise Wilson taught me that to feel uncomfortable with what you’re doing is a good thing because it usually means that it’s something new.”
Katharine—Was there anything in your Spring 2019 collection that initially made you uncomfortable?
Craig—We were working with dying and acid washing, which is kind of a dodgy area to touch on because it’s linked with so many era-specific cultural references. The challenge was to do acid wash in a way that hasn’t been done before, so we took two layers of shirting cotton and joined them together with stitch lines, which make the fabric a bit bulkier—a little bit more like a denim weight, but it’s still shirting. Then it was dyed and acid washed, which causes the fabric to shrink. I thought it was disgusting at first—like a weird, horrible, fake, cotton lizard skin. But then, as time went on, I grew to think it was amazing and that it looked more like rubbings that you would do with paper and crayon on gravestones or concrete. When I started to see it in a different light, I saw the benefits of it. But the process of getting there took a lot of trials.
Katharine—Your collections are often very complex—both technically and conceptually. Can you speak about your process? Where do you generally begin?
Craig—I find a lot of newness can come through fabrication—that’s usually where we start. We start with material and technique and process. In the last show, we did something we called “vibrating florals”. A lot of people thought they were tie-dyed, but they’re not. It was three layers of printed fabric. The base layer is Lycra printed in a floral. Then the layer on top is a nylon organza printed in floral. Then the layer on top of that is power mesh, printed in the same floral. Then, you lay all three of them on top and move them off the axis from one another and then stitch them together. That makes it look as if it’s 3D, or like it’s vibrating. I thought, Wouldn’t it be amazing it looked like the person was a portal to another dimension? We liked that technique because it was made from things that aren’t hyper technological. It was made from fabrics everyone knows, but we twisted the way they’re used. Initially, we were playing with holographic printing and stuff like that, but all that technology felt almost old-fashioned, so we went back to craft.
Katharine—Lately, there’s been a lot of talk amongst fashion critics and commentators about reference. Do you think it’s possible for a designer to escape the influence of those who came before him? And do you think that’s necessary?
Craig—I think it’s definitely necessary to actively try. That’s what I feel a designer is. You can have influences and you can have references and you can love certain things and art movements and designers of the past, but then it’s your job to take those references and that energy and do everything you can to push it to a new place. You can look at something that happened in the past, but you have to change the energy of it.
Katharine—Is authenticity something that you think about when you’re working? And what does it mean to be an authentic designer today?
Craig—There’s so much imagery around us. There are so many clothes and so many brands and there’s so much information. The main aim for a designer is to push things forward, but also to attempt to stand out while doing what is true to [himself]. Although, that’s sometimes impossible or sometimes it’s challenging because of the pace of fashion and there are certain things that you need to do to make it a viable business. But, I do think it’s always something you should be conscious of. It’s important, it’s something you have to assess. Not everyone can do everything, even if you think about in terms of a branding approach. I remember once we’d made a tailored wool coat. It was like a beautiful coat—beautifully made. I wanted it. And, for some reason, it just didn’t feel right. We kept hanging it on the rail and then saying ‘Erm, why does this feel so weird? It’s based around uniform and we are a brand based around uniforms.’ Then we realized that the reason why was because it was the uniform of the person who tells other people what to do, rather than the uniform of the person who does the job, which is very different. That’s why it felt alien. I just thought our brand was based around uniform and workwear, but I’d never assessed which specific part of uniform it was really about. It’s like a constant conversation and process, even though you’re trying to stay authentic to yourself. It’s ever-developing. Always learning.
Katharine—What questions do you ask yourself when you’re designing a collection?
Craig—I question everything constantly, which probably drives everyone mad. For example, at the beginning of the week, I’ll look at something we’ve made and say, “Oh my god, this is the best bit of the collection.” And by the end of the week, I’ll think it’s the worst. And then it goes in the cupboard. And then a week later, it comes back out and I’ll say, “Oh, actually it’s good again.” But everyone in the studio does it. I feel that nothing’s ever finished. And I guess that is how you push things further. Nothing can be finished.
“You can look at something that happened in the past, but you have to change the energy of it.”
Katharine—In a recent interview with The New York Times, Nicolas Ghesquière noted that there is a certain ‘sameness’ permeating fashion and dressing today. Do you agree? And if so, what do you think is causing it?
Craig—Fashion is reactionary and different people will react to the times in different ways. But I do think that there’s always a feeling in the air of a certain aesthetic that can permeate across a lot of brands and designers. Sometimes, it’s just what the reference of that time is, or the aesthetic that people might be drawn to. But, you know, I was thinking of this the other day—so many trends and aesthetics can be happening at the same time. Someone is always doing minimalism, or someone is always doing something ‘60s-inspired. People just focus on the mood of the time, but other designers [who are doing other things] still exist.
Katharine—What does it mean to create meaningful work in fashion today?
Craig—I feel like that’s the whole point, isn’t it? Like I said, a designer’s job is to try and do something new, or try and push something as much as they possibly can, or to make people think in a different way, or to make people feel something about what they’re seeing. Whether they hate it or whether they love it, at least there’s an emotional reaction.
Katharine—It’s like that famous Alexander McQueen quote. He said he’d prefer that people leave his shows feeling repulsed or exhilarated, and that if his work didn’t inspire emotion, he wasn’t doing his job properly.
Craig—Yeah. And I think there’s still a lot to be said about that approach, especially now. There’s probably ten times more to see. So, I would imagine for any brand, or for any designer, provoking an emotional reaction is probably the best result that they can get.
Katharine—What do you think is necessary to push fashion creativity forward right now?
Craig—Not cut funding of education in the UK. And not have university fees be so grotesquely high that you’re ruining any chance of things accidentally happening or of fashion coming from places that you never knew it could come from. I think that aspect is the number one. I know a lot designers working today couldn’t have gone through the education system if the fees were as high as they are now. The current state of what’s going on is daunting. People can’t make mistakes anymore. And every time I have an interview about my past, even when I hear myself talk about it, it sounds like I had no plan, I met some people, and then I went and tried out fashion, and I was like, “Oh, maybe this could be fun.” And then I started on fashion print because I thought if I wasn’t good at making clothes, at least I could paint. People can’t make choices like that anymore. People can’t react to a situation and change paths. They have to have a plan. They’re going to be put in loads of debt. They have to have a financial plan for education, which takes out the whole mistake and by-chance side of the equation. Especially in art and fashion. Mistakes are where all the best things come from.