Back around 2012 or so, the fashion critic Tim Blanks came up to me at one of the men’s fashion shows in Paris, handed me an invitation, and said something along the lines of, “You should go see this guy Craig Green. I think you’ll like it.”
I could not make it to the showroom, but I made a mental note, because when Mr. Blanks talks, I listen. A year later Green was already making waves in his native London and beyond, with menswear that had the familiar elements of workwear and uniforms—what Green calls “communal dressing”—so decidedly bent to Green’s creative will that it made them entirely his own. Such things are called “directional” or “conceptual,” the two lazy words fashion people reach for when they can’t quite understand what they're looking at.
Which suits Green just fine, because while he can explain a collection, he prefers to leave room for interpretation. In this way he reminds me of Thom Browne, another designer who has proven that he can produce fantastic and fantastical things taking uniform dressing as his base.
I kept Green on my radar, looking at the photos of each collection, and carefully examining the frustratingly mediocre store buys—a chronic illness that hampers most designers who try daring things on the runway. With each collection, the clothes grew on me—the carefully thought-out details, the seemingly quotidian but never pedestrian fabrics, the not-quite deconstruction that Green has become so good at, the undertone of darkness and depth that opened itself if you looked carefully enough.
Today, Green is presenting his menswear show at Pitti Uomo in Florence. We got on the phone two days before the show to discuss his work, his almost accidental fashion career, and his aesthetic philosophy. On the phone, Green sounds just like your one intellectually curious friend, ready to go on tangents and not stay on PR script. The below interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Eugene Rabkin: How did you get into fashion?
Craig Green: When I was at school I was always surrounded by people that made things—furniture and whatnot. It just seemed like the kind of thing I was good at, so I wanted to go to art school or study art in some way. First, I was planning to go to a university to study the history of art and fine art, but a friend of mine told me about Central Saint-Martins and said that it was the best school to go to in England.
When I was in the foundation course, I got to try a bunch of different disciplines, which allowed me to try different things. It was there that I met a group of friends that were doing the fashion course. I was attracted, because there was so much energy there. Everyone that was doing it were the first people in, the last people leaving at the end of the day, and we would all go out together. There was a feeling of community, and there was an excitement surrounding it. When I was doing the “art” part of the foundation, it was more self-motivated and people would be working from home for a week and people would be in and out, so it wasn’t really like a community. I think that was one of the main things that attracted me to fashion. Before that I had never even read a fashion magazine. I didn’t know anything about it at all. No one in my family was really interested in fashion until now. So, I was learning on the job I guess.
I applied to do fashion prints at CSM for my BA. I thought that maybe if I wasn’t good at making clothes, at least I could do prints, because I can paint and draw. Then I slowly shifted into menswear in my third year, after I discovered designers like Walter Van Beirendonck, Henrik Vibskov, and Bernhard Willhelm, all of those people that I guess were outsider designers in some way. But what I loved about what they were doing is that they showed me that fashion can be about anything; it can come from anywhere. Before that, I felt like a fish out of water. I thought that fashion couldn’t be about someone who came from a household of people who made things, and whose dad used to work as a plumber and whose mum was a nurse. They showed me that fashion can be about where you’re from.
ER: I think you have Alexander McQueen as a shining example of that.
CG: Yeah, I learned about McQueen when I was on the foundation towards the end. He’s also an example of someone who came from outside of fashion and had a way of drawing inspiration from his life. At the beginning I was trying to do womenswear, because it was very womenswear-focused at the time in London. I thought all high fashion was women’s, and that was what I was trying to do. Then I shifted into menswear, which made a lot of sense because it was something that I could directly relate to; something I was more naturally able to make. That kind of changed everything.
ER: Sometimes people, and I’m one of them, take a superficial look at fashion, and think how much of it is bullshit. It’s materialistic and dumb. But then when you start to take a deeper look, and start drawing the cultural connections, seeing the thought process, you see fashion’s deeper side.
CG: I think I was kind of lucky, because I didn’t know anything about fashion when I went into it. I was kind of naive and learned about it as I was doing it. It’s true what you said, the moment I realized that you can have an emotional connection to fashion, or a fashion show is, when I got my BA. I snuck into a Gareth Pugh show, because I was given a spare ticket by another student. There was so much energy, there were people pushing to get in, and the doors almost closed in front of us because there were too many people, and I remember it being so exciting and my heart was beating out of my chest. I found it amazing that you could create so much energy from just people walking up and down in a line to some music, wearing clothes.
ER: How did you develop and hone your aesthetic?
CR: I have always liked workwear and other clothing made to serve a purpose; there was simplicity and beauty in both their construction, and in the idea that those garments were made to do something. So my graduate collection was about the relationship between workwear and religious wear, and I always thought it interesting that one was for a physical function, and the other for a spiritual one, but there were many similarities in their construction, patterns, and fabrications. I was also very interested in sculpture at the time, so I was very much into that idea of creating a visual world. It’s almost like I make the clothes because the people with the sculptures would need something to wear. (Editor’s note: Green’s shows often feature wearable sculptures made only for the runway.) It’s the visuals first, and then the clothing.
ER: They’re both uniforms. Even though they serve different functions, there’s a concept that surrounds them: The rigidity, the discipline, the belonging.
CG: Yes, and the clothing is designed to last as well. As I went on, the brand was becoming more and more about ideas of uniform and communal ways of dress, which is probably how I could describe it in the best way. I remember once we made a classic tailored wool coat that was very military in feel, and for some reason it felt so wrong, and we couldn’t figure out why until we realized that it's the uniform for the person that orders you what to do, as opposed to the person who does something. So it’s that aspect of a uniform I think that we’re actually interested in.
It’s uniforms of working, not uniforms of stature or importance in that way. Those are the ideas that we constantly play with. It always starts with the idea of tradition, or traditional dress, and then it’s developed and explored over the course of six months that we make a collection to the point that it becomes so fantastical and so far removed from the original idea that maybe it’s not obviously there.
At the same time, our ideas are constantly changing; it feels like nothing it finished until the end. Even after a show sometimes we think, well that felt right, and everything is up for discussion. For instance, it took me a week after the last collection to realize that it was about the idea of time in some way. When we made latex sculptures for it, it didn’t even dawn on me that latex is perishable and would rot over time; we just thought it was an interesting texture, but the collection was about how everything new is old and everything old is new. I guess it’s a messy way of working but it works.
ER: Do you ever have the materials dictate the ideas and not the other way around?
CG: Always. We’ll have a plan for a fabric, but as soon as it arrives and we take it off the roll, we will realize it is not the fabric for what we wanted, but it can work as something else. Just feeling a fabric or seeing what a fabric can do will inform a whole new development in terms of garments. I find that exciting, because I always like to play and experiment. The studio is filled with half-made bits of experiments that no one will ever see. I think that’s maybe where my textiles part of the education comes in.
ER: Do you draw inspiration from culture?
CG: I watch a lot of film. My MA collection was partly inspired by the film Village of the Damned. I just love that film, because of the children that were all wearing the same school uniform and hair. I love horror films in general. In the studio, if we make something that is too approachable, there’s usually the discussion of how do you make it dark, how do you make it feel terrifying in some way? I like the interplay between reality, fantasy, horror, but also keeping it approachable.
ER: Is darkness a motif for you?
CG: It’s just something that I have always found interesting. If I’m picking a film to watch I will first go through the entire horror section, until I’ve exhausted all options and then maybe move on to thrillers. I think the last thing I would ever watch is a romantic comedy. I’m drawn to the idea of what people find terrifying. I also love the idea that you can think of the most terrifying monster, but nothing is as scary as reality. It’s like a constant tension in life, and that’s why nothing’s ever really finished.
ER: Let’s talk about more about how nothing is ever really finished.
CG: I like the idea that clothing can look like something trapped on top of someone; it’s more like we’re chopping and collaging. I also think it’s always interesting for clothing to be adaptable, that you can tighten it or pull it in. It goes back to that workwear idea of one size fits all. You can cinch it to your shape or you can let it go. And I love the idea of lacing as well. Like undoing a garment and lacing it back up or being able to adapt it in your own way.
ER: As far as your career goes, you’ve come a long way in a relatively short time. Was there a moment when you thought, “I’ve made it?”
CG: I am not sure. Sometimes I look around and think it’s amazing that we have an actual team now and a studio. But if someone asked me what the plan is for the next few years, I’d have no idea. You could have a plan and something terrible could happen in the next two months, and then everything just shifts direction. I think that is probably why it’s such an addictive industry and process because you never really know what could happen. So, I could never really think I’ve made it. What I do think is that it’s amazing that I can do this now or I have the ability to say this isn’t working, let’s try something else.
I mean yeah, it’s amazing to be able show at Pitti Uomo, to be included in a list of people who have been a guest designer. That’s a huge honor, and it feels sort of surreal. Because our work is so fast paced, you don’t have many of those moments where you stop and think “Oh isn’t this amazing? We’re here.”
Now read about why Craig Green keeps revisiting workwear in his collections.