A chilly industrial hall (and a January morning in London can be very chilly), some long, veil-like drapes hanging from the ceiling, concealing the view to all the other front rows and creating some sort of vaguely medieval feeling. And tons of anticipation. In winter 2018, CRAIG GREEN had already been awarded menswear designer of the year several times, and not one, but two of his designs originally shown on male models were declared dress of the year 2015. Critics had been praising him as the messiah of menswear. They hailed him as a unique artistic talent in an industry that has been steering away from any artistic ambition towards a social-media-driven market place of high-speed-turnover-drops. Quite some weight on the shoulders of a 34-year old who never read an issue of Vogue or Dazed in his youth. Too much praise can be a death sentence. It makes the critical mind suspicious and alert. It tends to see the flaws, disappointments, repetitions far more sharply than the beauty. But Craig Green did not let his fans down (and at that point, it felt like he had turned the entire fashion world into fans).
He showed intricately collaged tops, some of his signature boxy cut and pocket-covered suits, but the most spectacular looks at the end of the show made the models look like a half tent, half samurai. It was hard to tell where one piece of fabric ended and another began, but there was no doubt: There were an outstanding freshness and boldness in this collection. And the color combinations were sublime, e.g. olive, bright blue, dark brown beige. An almost painfully perfect combination of high concept and total desirability. In that phase, a major supporting role in Craig Green’s shows were played by abstract sculptures. “The sculptures are the storytelling part. They are not supposed to be clothes. The models are not wearing them,” says Green. Instead, they carried them like shamanic, ritual objects. Which gave the fashion show a quasi-religious air, a sense of deeper things being on display than just some garment for a season.
When asked backstage what he would do with these objects, he shrugged: “I don’t know.” Hard to tell if he was annoyed by the besides-the-point- nature of the question. He has his very own way of dealing with the artifacts that he used for campaigns, photographed by DAN TOBIN SMITH, one of his long-time collaborators. One season they were put into the water transforming them into floats, next season they were burnt, the one after blowing up. “We had no space to store them,” he said recently, “It may sound like a hippie idea. But when something burns, it’s not lost, the energy is just transferred. The sculptures took ages to make, they were made of jersey and they had to be symmetrical, and then we just burned them in about ten minutes. That is a torturous process.
But they looked equally beautiful destroyed. And: It’s important not to be precious about what you created. You have to burn it to move forward.” Craig Green is an unusually friendly person with the looks of an Alasdair McLellan-model: with strawberry-blond hair and a cute seriousness that people often associate with the British working class. He laughs easily and mostly about himself and has a modest, almost shy way of talking about his work. The razor sharpness of his determination and vision is somehow concealed under kindness and modesty. In other words: Not only is he a gifted designer, but his personality and approach are exactly what is needed at this point in fashion history: Not a trickster but an artist, not a social media personality but a real bloke from Hendon, London, who grew up with what he describes as a junkyard of a garden, where his family constantly “made things.” An unlikely hero in a world desperately looking for one just like him.
By now his CV is pretty well documented: Born and raised in Hendon, North-West London, “a very diverse neighborhood, none of my five best friends were British or white.” His mother a nurse, father a plumber, a small house always full of kids, the boy with no interest in fashion detectable during his adolescence, but an urge to create things with his own hands. One of his friend’s father told him that there is a thing called art school. And why not apply to the best, Central St. Martin in London? Craig wanted to become a painter or sculptor “or maybe ceramics.”
Art school was not quite what he had expected: “The students worked on their own schedules, would not come in for a month or two. Kind of broken as a community or a class.” One day he went out for a smoke and met a group of people from the fashion communication class. They told him: “Come and try, it’s really fun. We dress people up and take photos.” On one of the first days, Craig and the other first-timers were told that the fashion classes were highly sought-after. Without previous fashion experience and a hard-core interest, nobody should even bother applying. That somehow bugged him: How could he know he wasn’t interested if he never tried? But more than that, he was drawn to the people: “I was most attracted by the energy in the fashion course. They were queuing up in the morning, they avoided the security guard in the evening because they wanted to keep on working, and then we would go out at night and have a good time. And I liked the competitive energy.”
This rather random kind of decision making – Craig calls it naïve – shows a healthy appetite for overcoming obstacles and the search for like-minded people. Until today, Craig keeps his team small and likes working with the same people season after season. Other designers seem to constantly be headhunting for new (or rediscovered) talents to explore, to exploit, or to gang up with. KIM JONES at Dior is the perfect example. His list of allies is already long and impressive, if somewhat a little indulgent – from SHAWN STUSSY, the late stylist JUDY BLAME, photographer NIKOLAI VON BISMARCK, RAYMOND PETTIBON, DANIEL ARSHAM, etc. Craig Green named a few artists who he admires, as he told Hans Ulrich Obrist in an interview for System Magazine: the sculptor Rachel Whiteread, the painters Lucian Freud and Jenny Saville, the Swiss duo Fischli/Weiss, but, most importantly, he sticks with his collaborators for years, like the set designer DAVID CURTIS RING, who is often the co-creator of the sculptures. Also, his partner, sister, and several close friends are all involved with the business in some way.
The strength to follow his own path might have been triggered by his favorite teacher, the late LOUISE WILSON, and Belgian fashion designer WALTER VAN BEIRENDONCK, whom Craig interned for in Antwerp. “He was a hero of mine so I was scared before the interview,” he recalls. Because there was not so much
to do for a young fashion student in wintery Antwerp,
he ended up spending the evenings in Van Beirendonck’s vast library. And learned a lesson for life. 477 “Walter taught me that fashion can be about anything.“
PERFECT MATCH (MAKER)
That coincides with his appetite for exploring. He has collaborated with Swedish underwear brand Bjorn Borg, British shoemaker Grenson, RIDLEY SCOTT for his movie Alien Covenant, Italian megabrand Moncler for their ongoing and game-changing Genius project. And with the German sportswear giant Adidas. The Polta Akh II, a twist on the Adidas Kamanda, was presented last year and there was a spectacular new drop this year in six colors that are deliciously impossible to choose from (another one coming around July 2020). “It’s exciting to work with a brand with such a reach and so many options in terms of materials,” says Craig. He may come across as an artistic soul, but he has a keen eye on the product. Both it’s commercial prospects (his bestselling workers‘ jacket is continuously updated and sold throughout the seasons) and its cultural impact. “When we started developing the Adidas sneaker, our first question was: What can we do that is really new? If we put something new on the market, we want to push it as much as we can. To give it new energy. It’s like creating a sculpture and I like the scale. And the human foot never changes. There is only so much you can do with it. The first sneakers were Spring/Summer 2020. The collection was about anatomy and skin. So we worked with transparency layers, to show the anatomy of the shoe.”
His collaboration with Moncler has been equally in-depth and quite spectacular. The first collection four years ago was a shiny black down coat with straps pull- ing in the down. Some people saw a spaceman in it; others, fetish-gear. Craig likes to play with a balance between playful and dark. And prefers people to make up their own minds. “I admired his work since the beginning, the way he was reinterpreting Moncler through his rigorous point of view,” says CEO REMO RUFFINI, “When I conceived the Moncler Genius idea, it was natural for me to include Craig in the Genius team. I really love the way he works, his incredible taste, and the way he combines different arts. I appreciate the way he conceives collections that often are pieces of art, combining fashion with an architectural twist. The five Moncler Craig Green presentations are real art exhibitions, working with him is really exciting!”
Craig’s last collection for Moncler Genius was executed in the most high- tech way. There was a violent tenderness in the presentation that showed Green’s ability and willingness to turn everything he touches into a personal statement: “With Moncler, it’s a very special process. The collection has to be done six months before we show it. It’s restrictive because they have a very focused product: down jacket, skiwear, protection. How much can you do with this limited heritage and product range? We purposefully start with very obvious Moncler research: mountains, ski, functional wear. It teaches you a lot because it’s the first time we worked with a company of that scale. They have 25 people for the fitting. We have two. They are great to work with. Which is why it has lasted so long.” Asked if he believes his own brand could achieve that scale (Moncler made 1.62 billion Euro in 2019), he speculated, “That great? Not sure. In a couple of years. Maybe.”
After noticing that there were quite some women amongst the customers, and especially after being honored with the “Dress of The Year” award, Craig Green collections are worn by both men and women. There are certain pieces in each collection that seem more likely aimed at female customers. There is a stunning look from the Autumn/Winter 2016 collection that Craig describes with the tenderness and precision of a couturier: “This is a copper-colored, padded silk top. The central part of the piece is one single spiral around the body and you can button it together. I don’t know how many buttons we used. But a lot. The theme of the collection was things that were precious and things that were disposable. Half of the collection looked like hospital smocks. Alongside, we had things that looked old or like you had them for a long time, like a favorite bedspread or towel that your grandmother gave to you. This outfit references traditional Turkish men’s folkloric costumes. We liked that it looks like it is peeling away from the body. A creature getting rid of its old skin.”
Traditional haute couture, which officially does not exist for men, entails 1. exclusivity (each garment is unique and custom made); 2. excessive and exquisite craftmanship (the famous petites mains houses like Chanel love to brag about); and 3. otherworldly storytelling (you can be a princess or whatever your wildest dreams might be about). With his highly ornamented, often outrageous clothes, Craig Green comes as close to couture for men as anybody these days. But even if his clothes are not cheap, he is not interested in the concept of luxury: “We don’t start with using materials that are seen as luxurious. The first three collections were made of the same fabrics: cotton poplin and synthetic lining material. If anything, we understand luxury as a craft. We use embroidery, weaving techniques, special detailing. We start with simplistic fabrics and change the vision of it through craft.”
LI EDELKOORT, who many consider one of the top trend analysts in the world, just declared that fashion would enter a new era of craft. A top from the Autumn/ Winter 2018 collections shows how well Craig’s work fits into that category. “It is a collage made of five different knit jumpers and hand crochet panels. It’s meant to look like you are making something from a photograph and you can’t touch it so you get it wrong. Or making something from memory. There are so many different garments on top of each other. And an underlying dancewear costume. We wanted the men wearing it to look like they were molded in 3D or look like they were made of concrete, with the leftovers from the cast still attached.” In men’s fashion, which is currently embracing the good old tailored and slightly tired suit again, this is quite a stretch. And Craig, who personally rather dresses down, is realistic about it: “Before buying experimental clothing, guys will buy experimental sneakers. It’s socially acceptable to express yourself through footwear. No matter your age or body type, everyone can access them. A pair of trainers is maybe easier than the pink coated suit.”
Another core and couture-y element, hard to miss once you’ve noticed, is Craig Green’s incredible sense of color. His skillful matching and mismatching of colors rival the masters of this craft like Yves Saint Lau- rent, Dries van Noten, or (if he is in a good mood) Raf Simons, another colleague that Green respects deeply.
META-FUNCTIONALISM IS THE NEW FUTURISM
Just recently, a fashion magazine published a story with young boys in Craig Green dresses from the SS 2020 collection, wearing headscarves and looking like Polish farmer women on the field. The photos looked hilarious and yet did not come across as if the imagery or the outfits were pushing the gender fluidity agenda too hard. When asked about the Dress of the Year, his main point seems to be being part of the museum collection in Bath (his work was also included in the MET’s China Through The Looking Glass and Heavenly Bodies).
“In most of the world, men are wearing dresses,” Dries van Noten once told me about why he included skirts and pieces in his collection. This non-ideological and quite offhanded attitude also seems to be Craig Green’s strategy (or rather, the result of his multicultural background, the generation he grew up in, and the current gender political climate). The miracle of Craig Green is that there is both in his collections: ornament, playfulness, exuberance and, if you will, femininity. And a strong and confident dash of testosterone. That has to do with his silhouette: “A disregard for the anatomy is a negative way of putting it, but we are not celebrating or sexualizing a particular type of body shape,” Green says.
That might be a personal thing. Craig is an adamant fan of horror movies. His graduate collection was based on The Village of the Damned from 1960 (as a true nerd, he stresses that he is not talking about the remake from 1995). According to him, references to the original Wicker Man can be found in almost every collection. “Horror keeps my focus. I like something that is intense and suspenseful. Something that makes you not look at your phone,” Craig says, “Horror movies are about phantasy, hope, desire. There are always light and dark aspects fighting with each other.” Which is a perfect description of how his aesthetic works. He makes coats and jackets from traditional buffalo plaid with very visible white slashes, half child’s play, half Freddy Kruger. Or he has prints of gigantic water paint flowers on white dress-like robes: “Some people think they are romantic. But they are so big, they make the man seem quite small. They are more War of the Worlds than a tender gesture.”
Even the most typical characteristic of his work has a certain ambiguity: all those strings, pockets, straps, and things you can adapt. “That’s all part of the brand language,” Craig says, “Some of the straps and strings don’t do anything. Sometimes you can’t even put your hand inside a pocket. Or you put stuff in and can’t get it out. And that’s what’s great about them.”
He has always worked around the idea of the uniform – a priest’s robe, a hospital gown, a cleaner’s smock. “People who are not fighting, but actually working. We don’t reference uniforms of status. Not the general in the army. Not the person telling people what to do, but the people doing it.” He is fully aware that his intricate clothes take that as a starting point, but explore utility as a fantasy: “There is a romantic idea of a group of people all wearing the same clothes. Even if clothes don’t need to function anymore. If the workforce people are not needed to work, they would not need so many pockets. It’s kind of redundant technology.
Details that did something in the past, but not anymore.” While functionalism has been a huge thing lately, mostly deriving from sportswear, outerwear, and army uniforms, Craig Green deals with something you might call metafunctionalism. Function as a fairytale. Which is why you find laser-cut plastic robes in his collection as well as ensembles made of what look like medieval carpets.
By allowing this kind of simultaneity of contradictions that feed from each other, Craig Green shows us, well, past, present, and future.
Text: Adriano Sack