The Culture of Camouflage with Maharishi's Hardy Blechman

2 October 2019

Now in its 25th year, Maharishi has been redefining the way we view utilitarian clothing since its inception in 1994. Sitting down with the label's founder at his studio space in Soho, END. and Hardy discuss camouflage's pre-military use, the appeal of functional apparel and his fondness for hemp.

Maharishi's Hardy Blechman in his Soho studio space
A long-serving member of the London streetwear scene, Hardy Blechman's Maharishi has crafted a carefully defined set of aesthetic values inspired by the rich and varied history of military garb. Adapting functionality from a pacifist perspective, recontextualising how the clothing of the armed forces is perceived, the brand is dedicated to delivering a unique stance on all things utilitarian.

Building a visual code that combines army surplus with influences from Japan and India, Maharishi promotes its central core values of pacifism, ethical production and camouflage history, deftly negotiating the world of streetwear to cultivate a celebration of the beauty of utilitarian design. Having undertaken the monumental task of compiling "DPM - Disruptive Pattern Material, An Encyclopaedia of Camouflage: Nature, Military & Culture" at the turn of the Millennium, Hardy elucidated his ambition to change the way in which camouflage was perceived. Documenting camo's roots in art and naturalist studies - inspired by the work of the American painter and naturalist Abbot Thayer in the 1909 book Concealing-Coloration in the Animal Kingdom - the designer's 2004 compendium clarified the true history of the concealment technique in a bid to shirk camouflage's standardised military associations. A champion of camouflage as an abstract art-form and naturalist theory that was co-opted by the military rather than invented by it, the British designer's label showcases what Hardy terms "Pacifist Military Design". While on the surface it may seem like a paradoxical way of describing a brand that is wholeheartedly entrenched in an aesthetic of military and industrial influence, Maharishi's garments avoid the advocation of military action, instead offering an appreciation of exceptional design with an inherent understanding of the way in which military clothing pervades most corners of contemporary menswear.

Presenting practical clothing that offers the true combination of functionality and aesthetics, the label traces the lines of historical military garments to envisage a unique perspective of modern menswear. Infused with a dedication to producing clothing with hemp fabric and organic cotton, Maharishi maintains a strong ethos and attitude of respect for the natural world while employing the latest technology to create garments that are long-lasting with a powerful and instantly recognisable visual presence.

Sitting down with Maharishi's founder and designer, END. and Hardy discuss all things camouflage and utilitarian in this exclusive interview.

Maharishi's mosaic floor in their flagship Soho store
Authentic samurai armour in the Maharishi Soho store
What initially encouraged you to found Maharishi?

I founded Maharishi, which literally translates from the Sanskrit as “Great Seer”, in 1994, originally with the intention to only offer environmentally sound hemp and upcycled military & industrial surplus. Before starting the brand, I worked for a couple of different manufacturing agents. That’s where I cut my teeth understanding how to make product, and it was around that period I came across the 1985 book The Emperor Wears No Clothes by Jack Herer, which details the previous highs of the hemp industry, offering a conspiracy theory of how and why the hemp industry was made to disappear, replacing it with cotton. Cotton requires pesticides to grow tiny plants, while hemp plants are 15 foot high in three months and require few pesticides, so cotton is a far inferior plant. The book piqued my interest in hemp as a fabric for clothing production and I offered it to the companies I was working with and they all said no, because either it was a little bit more expensive, or they said that people don’t know or care about it. But the worst response was “if we do that little environmentally friendly thing in the corner of our store, all we’re going to do is bring attention to the fact that the other 99% of what we sell isn’t environmentally friendly. So, even if we did it, we wouldn’t mention it.” So I decided to start my own brand, producing with only hemp and recycled military and industrial surplus. That's still the most important thing to me.

What is it that appeals to you about military surplus and utilitarian clothing?

So much of modern clothing, especially menswear, is deeply rooted in military design; it’s hard to have an interest in clothing that doesn’t encompass military influence. The t-shirt, cardigan, trench coat, bomber jacket, tie, chino, the modern-day suit and so many other staples were all created for the military (as well as that massive memory, super small hard drive we all use, or even the Vocoder). There’s a certain purity and clarity of purpose when something is designed with such a utilitarian purpose in mind which really appeals to me. Of course, one of the primary reasons I was drawn to military clothing is that it’s mad utilitarian and it’s designed to be super hard wearing, which is one of the best solutions to fast fashion and short life span construction.

Blending distinctive aesthetic values with a rich context, your collections develop a strong connection between style and meaning. What comes first in the creative process, the design or the story?

In the early seasons, a series of core values manifested, and they form the basis of all collections at Maharishi, representing the duality of our universe, they are expressed through blending East and West, camouflage and 3M reflective, hand embroidery and sportswear, nature and technology - Pacifist Military Design.

Whilst these remain as perennial constants, it's useful for me to create a seasonal narrative, which allows a concept to form the basis of decisions on colour, artwork style and thematic. The core values and seasonal story are the best tools I have to focus the creative process.

Maharishi and Futura's collaborative artwork with 3M paint
There’s a certain purity and clarity of purpose when something is designed with such a utilitarian purpose in mind which really appeals to me.
Known for a specialising in a post-military use of camouflage, what do you think camouflage represents in the modern day?

It must be hard for people to comprehend how camouflage was perceived in the '90s when streetwear was still in an embryonic stage. In ’92, trekking in full US Army ECWS Gore-Tex woodland camo in the Himalayas, an Israeli tourist cried and said I ruined her trip, reminding her of the never-ending conflict at home.  In ’95 an off duty British soldier whispered in my ear at the Tate’s Warhol exhibition asking me “where the blood was”, as if I shouldn’t wear camouflage if I wasn’t prepared to fight for my country. Today, camouflage is released by almost every clothing brand from every sector and welcomed by an incredibly broad band of consumers.

Despite the seismic shift in perceptions of the symbolic value of camouflage, where today it seems that camouflage is truly perceived as ‘post military’, the military continue to use camouflage. They sometimes try and make it newer or more special than the civilian market, but they can’t really keep ahead. The US Army wasted $5 Billion in the early 21st century, adopting crazy pixelated patterns to be different, before having to accept that whilst they were comparatively unique, they didn’t work very well, and soldiers were losing their lives. This did play out during a period where Osama Bin Laden appeared on TV, wearing US Army woodland surplus and so you can’t blame them for trying to create a new pattern that would signify a hyper modern US military power, which is no doubt what inspired the current US Army standard, also shared by the British, an all-terrain pattern (aka desert pattern, the terrain to which we are no doubt committed for some time to come) which has 9 colours and gradients, requiring some high tech specialist printing equipment, whilst most streetwear companies are still using old school rotary print drums and often limited to only 3 print colours on a 4th base.

Camouflage represents different things to different people, but the truth is, it has always been very pre-military. Camouflage, in truth, is an abstract rendition of nature. An art concept not existent before the freedom that Picasso’s Cubism allowed and not developed until many artists were forcibly conscripted in WWI and sent to work in the first camouflage divisions. Until 1900, weapons were so lame, there was little demand for camouflage, as you couldn’t shoot somebody from long range in any case.

The Maharishi military surplus archive
Hardy Blechman's ballistic and stabproof vest collection
Why has camouflage been so widely popular in commercial clothing?

The rise of camo has been within our lifetime (for my generation at least, b.1968), so it seems relevant to ask why it’s so popular, although who knows? Maybe looking at the general popularity of animal prints, floral prints, tweeds and tartans can help frame a response. If we live urban lives and are cut off from what is likely a reasonable desire to be connected to nature, we may look at any way to symbolically connect. Aside, the main colour of most woodland camouflage is green, and green being at the centre of the colour spectrum visible to humans makes it the easiest colour on the eye – in contrast to red for example, which may make us feel excited or angry.

Powerful colour combinations like red, black and white have been exploited throughout history. Until long range weapons were developed, the British Army were dressed in red coats with white breeches and high black boots. MacDonald’s, Marlboro and Coca Cola use the combination as well as the most popular football teams and Supreme. It’s a colour combination that shocks the eye and attracts us. The natural colour combination of olive with sand, brown and black represents this centre of the colour spectrum, this abstract rendition of nature and is attractive on a deeper sub conscious level.

Why hasn’t camouflage’s history been more openly discussed when it is so prevalent in the contemporary fashion landscape?

I’m not sure why people aren’t interested in understanding why they wear what they wear. I assume almost all the people who buy the latest camo drop aren’t into war and I can’t blame them for not wanting to dive as deeply as I did for the research into DPM, the camo encyclopaedia I published in 2004. It’s been a while, likely time for an update to raise the discussion again.

Samurai embroidery and upcycled kimono fabric detail on Maharishi snopants
If we live urban lives and are cut off from what is likely a reasonable desire to be connected to nature, we may look at any way to symbolically connect.
What do you think of the recent hyper-utilitarian “war-core” trend?

I don’t think that the message given is the message received, and the people making these clothes are coming from a lot of different angles. Terms like “norm-core” and “war-core” are quite newly coined definitions, but people have always dressed like your dad and they have certainly dressed in a way that was influenced by the military for a long time. It may be a bit more impactful with brands like ALYX because as military uniform becomes more technical, that street interpretation of it appears to be more hardcore war inspired. But the same could be said for something like a trench coat; 100 years ago a trench coat was designed and worn for one purpose, to be worn in the trenches. Just after the First World War, if you wore a trench coat on the street you’d probably look as hardcore as you would wearing a chest rig today. Also, the military push forward technology so much with massive state budgets, and young designers go to a trade fairs and pick something that has been designed by a massive military team – it’s quite organic and normal really.

Your latest collection, “in Heaven, as it is on Earth”, examines concepts of paradise and Heaven and whether they are physical places or more of a state of mind. How would you define paradise and Heaven?

The mind can make a heaven out of hell, or a hell out of heaven.

Heaven and Hell are places created by the mind, on Earth.

Has Maharishi always been connected to notions of spirituality?

Everything we make is infused with compassion and an intent to put something positive into the world; that in itself is enough for me and if it resonates with anyone that’s an added bonus.

Korg Vocoder and Maharishi archive at their Soho design studio
Maharishi's Hardy Blechman in his Soho studio space