Craig Green on the Lost Romanticism of Uniforms

END. sits down with menswear wunderkind Craig Green to talk design processes, problem solving, and the lost romanticism of uniforms.

Craig Green AW19 Core Editorial END.
In his essay 'The Philosophy of Dress' for the New York Tribune, infamous writer and notorious aesthete, Oscar Wilde wrote the following: "Fashion rests upon folly. Art rests upon law. Fashion is ephemeral. Art is eternal. Indeed what is a fashion really? A fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months."

Best known for his wry wit and biting critique of the contemporary issues of his day, Wilde is celebrated as one of the most brilliant creative minds of his generation. But what strikes me most about this quote is that some 125 years later, with all that has changed in between, the basic structure of this industry has remained fundamentally unchanged. It might seem strange, quoting a centuries-dead literary icon in a story about a contemporary menswear designer, but after spending a morning sitting with Craig Green - his studio on lockdown making the final preparations for their imminent SS20 show - I found myself thinking back to this quote and smiling to myself. I think Oscar Wilde would have loved Craig Green.

The parallels between the two are myriad: both heralded as masters of their respective crafts; both emerging as vital voices of their generation; both questioning the rigidity of traditional gender boundaries in their respective eras; both producers of work emotive enough to bring an audience to tears; and both sharing a keen fascination with religion as an anthropological phenomenon and musing in their work on how we use religious symbols as important marks of personal identity. But it's not these curious similarities between Wilde and Green that makes me think the former would have been a fan of the latter. It's that Craig Green's work is the complete antithesis of every criticism Wilde had of fashion and its constant hunger for reinvention. Rather than caving to industry-norms and altering his approach each season, Craig Green has continued to evolve his story each season since emerging in 2013. And, like all great stories, it's one his audience cannot get enough of; eagerly anticipating each new chapter and devouring it with a fervent passion.

In an era when our attention span has been reduced to the length of an Instagram story, it takes a special kind of courage and conviction to subvert the status quo. But every so often - maybe only once or twice in a generation - a designer emerges with the power to change perceptions by sheer virtue of their genius. They create stories we want to follow, and give their ideas the space and time they deserve, in turn bringing us the product we didn't know we were looking for. Craig Green is that kind of designer. Famed for his meditative collision of workwear, uniforms, and quasi-religious vestments, Craig Green has bared his soul to become one of menswear's most important voices working today - not just in London, but on the planet.

In this exclusive interview to mark the arrival of CRAIG GREEN Core AW20 - the label's solid foundation of timeless staples - END. sat down with Craig to learn more about the mind of menswear's newest wunderkind.

There’s been such a diversification of job roles and titles in the industry over the past decade or so: designers, creative directors, artistic directors, and so on. I always find it interesting to learn how people prefer to characterise themselves. If you had to pin yourself down to a job title, what would it be?

Craig Green: That’s a really difficult question because you kind of have to switch hats and adapt very quickly to situations. I always say my main job is problem solving, which I guess doesn’t really fall under the typical artistic/creative director role traditionally, but I think most of design and most of the day-to-day running of the business is all about coming up with solutions. I suppose I am a creative/artistic director too, but ultimately, I’m a problem solver and solving problems is all about being creative anyway, I think. That was one of the great things about studying at CSM – you’re kind of left to your own devices and have to figure out how to get through the course for yourself which I think is really good preparation for what it’s like when you come out into the industry.

You have a remarkable ability to diffuse something highly conceptual down into clothes that are wearable and desirable to (for lack of a better term) ‘real men’, but at the same time, the pieces that arrive in stores still feel imbued with the weighty ideas and narratives of the runway collections; how do you achieve this balance?

Craig Green: In the development of every collection – every garment even – there’s a battle between creating something that people want to see and something people want to wear. There’s always that push and pull between the ideas. Sometimes things become too simple or sometimes they get too conceptual and we’re always working to find that balance between the two. The narrative of the brand centres on ideas of uniform and workwear and, even in the very high concept show pieces or the things we show on the catwalk that are absolutely not wearable, they’ve all been inspired by something at the beginning that was very traditional and it’s developed and developed until it’s something unrecognisable. I think with menswear you always have to start with something traditional or you end up with pieces that don’t really have a grounding element. I think having that basis in the traditional is what allows us to experiment with conceptual pieces but always translate those into pieces that are wearable. I feel like a show should be a show, people go to a show because they want to feel something. I got into fashion because I went to a fashion show and I was amazed that something so simple – people walking back and forth to a soundtrack – could really make you feel something. That’s what we want CRAIG GREEN shows to be like, and then we also have that inform the wearable elements for the ‘real man’ as you said.

Where does the creative process begin for you - how do you approach a new collection?

Craig Green: It’s quite fluid. It always starts off with things that feel right, but you’re not exactly sure what they’ll all mean together quite yet. We usually start with a technique we want to make use of, and we always start with some sort of uniform reference. Whether that be something as abstract as a single use hospital smock up to a historic military uniform, or even just the idea of a uniform. Then we introduce a fantasy aspect that runs alongside it, and sometimes we don’t know how it will meld together, but that’s part of the fun, I guess. I’ve always loved the idea of making something out of nothing and I think that things are at their best when their made from a material that’s almost forgotten or not considered worth anything. Then we focus in on textile work and techniques to transform something almost quite throwaway into something really valuable. There’s no set process really, but those are some of the ways we tend to work most.

I think that your characterisation of uniforms as romantic - especially the everyday uniforms you often reference - is interesting as those are the uniforms people wouldn't necessarily think of as romantic?

Craig Green: I guess we could talk for hours about it. I’ve always found uniforms of people who do things are more inspiring than uniforms that are symbols of stature. I’ve always been interested in clothing for function so it’s those types of uniforms that I’m interested in most. My MA collection was all about the relationship between religious-wear and workwear and the similarities between the two. I found it so interesting that so much overlap existed, but one served a physical purpose and the other a spiritual one. In terms of the romanticism of uniform, I think one thing about it for me is that we don’t really see uniforms as much as we used to. It’s really rare to see five nurses sitting together on a train for instance, or five mechanics all in overalls. People don’t even really wear suits to work in offices as much as they used to. I think that the idea of dressing as though you belong to a group or a workforce is a romantic idea. I also think uniforms are protective in a way, and that’s another theme that runs throughout the collections. I guess some people see uniforms as oppressive, or as though they sort of strangle your individuality. I don’t see them like that. I like the way they equalise people. I think more and more the idea of belonging to something is a romantic idea because we’re witnessing the loss of subcultures, the loss of workforces as a result of mechanisation. Uniforms are a reminder of times where people belonged somewhere. There’s a beauty in that.

There’s an enduring sense of symbolism throughout the CRAIG GREEN story. From the emblematic structures you show on the runway to the recurring theme of the circle. What are the origins of these symbols and how do these ideas translate across into the core collection?

Craig Green: The circle for some reason has always felt right as a symbol for the brand. We’ve never really had a logo as such because we’re not really much of a ‘branding’ brand. I think there’s an equilateral element to a circle that fits the story of what we do: tying into that communal way of dressing again. The circle always creeps back into the collection in some way. In terms of the sculptures we show, they’re like emblems of the collections. It’s the structures that almost tell the story; the sculptures are symbols of the overall idea.

The idea of religion comes up frequently in your work. Does this come from your own relationship with spirituality, or is your interest more anthropological than personal?

Craig Green: I would say it’s more that I’m just interested in it overall. I love the simplicity and the utilitarian aspects of religious dress and that you have this one-size-fits-all idea which links into uniforms and workwear. If I try to analyse it, I did grow up in a very multicultural area and I have a lot of different religions within my family, so I think that probably had an influence. But I think it’s a general interest rather than coming from a place of personal spirituality. I think the way men dress is also quite religious in itself. Men like to see things on other people first before they’ll adopt it themselves. That’s why it takes quite a while for new styles of garments or new fits of trousers to creep in. It’s almost like men are converted to new styles by the people around them.

A core collection from CRAIG GREEN feels more substantive than it might from other labels that are constantly reinventing their aesthetic and the stories they are telling. Every season has felt like you continue to evolve the narrative and ideas you have been discussing since your first collection. What does the core collection mean to you from a design standpoint?

Craig Green: I think there were loads of reasons that we wanted to start doing the core collection. I always felt sad that you had this pressure to change every season or that people don’t want to see the same jacket over and over again on a catwalk show. I understand it, but I’ve always respected brands that have always had that core single product. If you have a single wardrobe staple that you’re known for, I think that’s the true strength of a menswear brand. Like a Moncler down jacket or a Burberry trench, those classic men’s pieces. The core was about this idea of focusing on certain products that me and the team still love to wear every day from previous seasons or from the archive. Pieces that I think still need to be around. I get annoyed if I go back to buy the same pair of jeans I already have from a store and they’ve stopped making them or I’ll go and buy the same pair of trainers every 3 months because I like how they fit and I don’t feel the need to have new ones all the time. The core collection is about that idea of creating a uniform and focussing on what our key silhouettes are. The worker jacket is the core of the whole label. That is our signature garment and the aim is to build on that and focus on the quality of it and the fit and develop it to the point that it’s our contribution to the men’s staple wardrobe. It also allows for the mainline collection to be a bit more expressive because we have that core base of uniform items.

Following our conversation, Craig quickly returns to the hubbub of his studio to pull together the finishing touches of his upcoming show. It feels poignant to know that a fresh expression of the symbols, the stories, and the sculptures Craig talks about so articulately are being brought to life in real time, just feet away.

The fashion scene has always rested on the shoulders of an alarmingly small subset of people across the world; an inner-sanctum of truly gifted minds who have what it takes to remain creative under the pressure of a breakneck schedule. And there will always be a place for designers who have a propensity for saying something new each season. What sets Craig Green apart is his singular mission to do what feels natural to him, to hold fast to his ideas and give them the requisite space to exist and develop over time - in doing so producing work that feels eloquent and substantive, and completely essential.

Since Oscar Wilde made his cutting remark about fashion more than a century ago, there have been a select few designers whose work has brought the age-old question that remains unanswered back around: is fashion art? Or is it something else? I wouldn't say I'm qualified to answer that question. All I know is that Wilde said "art is eternal," - and so is CRAIG GREEN.