Honest Expression | A studio visit with Greg Lauren
Interview: Nguyen Le | Photography: Ken Tisuthiwongse
Dialogue | Issue 03 | p.060
For some designers, their work is merely an extension of their lives; it’s something they do rather than something they are. For a shortlist of others, fashion, art and design wholly encompass their identity. Their interests lie first and foremost in the world of conceptualization and it’s a system within which they seek not only to express themselves, but also to ultimately define who they are. Immersed largely in mystique, Greg Lauren’s meticulous and qualitative brand has garnered the attention of art critics, industry insiders and devoted fans in a relatively short period of time. Borne out of a commitment towards experimentation through trial and error, Lauren’s eponymous label conjures a powerful feeling in its aesthetic and in its commentary, which are woven from his eclectic experiences as a young man searching for a voice to escape a world riddled with contradiction. Born and raised in New York City within one of the most prominent fashion families in the world, Greg grew up privy to the ins and outs of the industry and migrated west with an indispensible understanding of style and image.
It was another sweltering afternoon in Los Angeles and I’d been in contact with Greg’s team for a little over a month now. Amidst the chaos of finalizing their latest collection — set to show in Paris in a matter of weeks — we managed to schedule some time with the elusive designer. Hidden within an unmarked brick building centrally located in Hollywood, Greg’s showroom and atelier rests among others on a quiet and unassuming block. Its sole indicator is a matte-black wrought iron gate adorned with an antique gold door handle, which displays a weathered yet handsome patina. My photographer and I wandered in, unsure if we’ve arrived at the right location. Through a sea of fully stocked rolling racks and hangers in an unlit warehouse, I noticed a collage of paper scraps, handwritten notes, sketches, old keepsakes and photographs pinned methodically on a large wall in front of us. Like a moth to a flame, I drew in closer to scan through its contents. A voyeuristic feeling settled on me as a lot of what is on display came off as very personal. Like a ghost, Greg appeared in the room and we exchanged pleasantries as he gave us some insight on the wall.
"This wall, in various forms has traveled with me from its original installation as part of my first art exhibition in New York almost 6 years ago.It originated as a hub of the way I think about things, and from there it grew to be the catalyst for why I started a clothing collection. These are all my original drawings, my sketches, journal writings and ideas that have been rewritten.
I wanted this wall to feel like an artistic interpretation of what an inspiration board would be, and for me, this touches on all the things that I was exposed to growing up and was influenced by from a very early age. If I’m ever lost creatively or feel the need to reconnect with why I started doing all this, I come back to this wall."
Your showroom has a unique feel to it as well, kind of like we’re in the Batcave or a private lair.
I intentionally wanted a small showroom like this that felt like a hidden artist studio. When people come in here, I want them to have that same excitement that I experienced with people when they were visiting me as a painter. They would come in, wander around and ask, “Where am I? Am I supposed to be in here? Am I allowed in here? Did I just walk into a private club? Or an artist studio or is this a store?” They would gravitate to things that weren’t front and center, they’d explore and go behind a painting and ask, “What’s this one, what’s that one?” and I wanted the same type of feeling in here.
Greg took us on a tour of his personal studio, which doubles as a showroom and what looks like a small archive of pieces from previous seasons. He pointed out some of his favorites and shared a bit of history on his debut collection, which launched during the spring of 2011.
This is where it all started; I was exploring contrasting themes, playing with fabrics, and asking questions. Who are we? Who are we trying to be? And who do we think we’re supposed to be? I grew up exposed to classic imagery and classic American icons like Carey Grant and Ernest Hemingway, but as I got older I found I identified more with icons that were, in a sense, flawed. Like fallen heroes who share a kind of human side. Like this image of Batman, who really wants to just have a drink and a cigarette at the end of the day. For me it was always about the emotions a hero experiences when he’s not in a parade — what he feels when he’s hurt, or after a fight, when he’s alone in the locker room, bruised and battered. My favorite images of athletes are the ones that depict them with the towel around their neck on the bench after the game. That's what I try to explore and communicate through my work and that's what the collection was born from.
Going back to your inspiration wall, you said it acted as a catalyst for starting your clothing line. But what a lot of people might not know about you is that you began your career as a visual artist and sculptor first. Can you shed some light on this?
It’s funny because I came to Los Angeles originally as an actor, but what I ended up doing more often than anything else was painting. All of this that you see in front of us was originally formed on the wall of my painting studio, literally in 2009. And then it became sort of a centerpiece for my first art exhibition that I did called Alteration. With the same idea and themes that I still present in my work, the pieces I had on display were classic one-of-a-kind garments all made entirely from paper — there was a 3 piece suit, a toggle coat, a classic military parka, and the iconic perfecto riders jacket. It was my commentary on clothing and image; how powerful as tools they are, but how paper-thin it can all be as well. I had a sewing machine set up in the space that I was using every day during that exhibition, so it was almost like a performance piece as well. Some of my notes and sketches made it into the pieces and gave them an almost sculpture-like presence.
It’s interesting that I needed to explore the art of making these classic pieces that I loved growing up in order to find my own voice in this medium. Let me tell you, it wasn’t an easy process; the first jacket I was putting together took me 4 or 5 times to get it right. Initially, the sleeves didn't fit. I had dyed it, but I hated the colour and then I decided to re-dye it. I realized I had stitched it incorrectly, so I had to take it all apart. But when I finally got it right, I wore it with such pride and excitement. It made my friends believe it was special [laughs] and then they started asking me to make custom pieces for them. Interestingly I had art collectors come by and ask, “Can I try that on?” They wanted a piece that they could display and a piece that they could wear. So through requests from friends, art collectors, certain celebrities and stores, I decided I should start my own collection. That was the turning point for me.
The aesthetic you explore tends to lean more on the grittier side; this is a theme we see consistently in your artwork and throughout your past collections. What’s your fascination with this genre?
At the end of the day, I don’t believe we need more beautiful clothing. We don't need more clothing in general, but I think there’s always room for things that are provocative. What excites me are ideas that challenge the way we’ve seen things done previously.
I don't need to prove that we can make a jacket nicer than someone else who has been making them for a hundred years, but I’d rather challenge the idea of what a jacket can be, and make a piece like this [holds up one of his first wearable samples] that's made from vintage pieces of military fabric and used duffle bags, yet tailored like a 3 piece suit that you would see come of out Italy or England. I find that interesting, because it questions both the need for a suit and also our love and fascination with utility, and I believe it presents new questions on how clothing makes us feel.
Is it fair to say that, given your upbringing in a very predominate fashion family, it was natural to want to steer away from what people in the industry would expect from you?
This might be a bold way of putting it, but I stopped believing in the world that was presented to me when I was growing up. I feel very grateful to have been exposed to that world and I understood the beauty and the glamour of all of it, but honestly it didn't resonate with me. So to take those things and the imagery and to tear them apart is true to me and who I am. I mean, people are always going to want to dress up in some form — we’ll always want to celebrate, we’ll always want to gather and come together — and how we dress ourselves up plays a role in that. It’s human nature.
But what happens when people are trying to come together and have a dinner party, but they can only use found objects? What happens if they want to dress up and still fulfill that sense of ritual in dressing, and all they have are blankets, destroyed canvas and some rags? I believe it’s innate that we’d figure out a way to elevate it.
We did it once before, you know what I mean? Before people could manufacture, there still was the tradition of dressing up and, depending on the time period, it dictated what we were trying to express and what we were allowed to express. Clothing is the most immediate form of self-expression that we have, and what I’m excited to be a part of is — I think we’re in a time when it’s no longer about trying to be something for someone else but it’s about who we want to be, it’s about individuality and honest expression. I believe it's the most exciting time that we’ve seen because there are no rules. You don't have to wear a suit to work anymore, and if you’re wearing a suit, it’s because you want to say something.
Did you feel that designing a namesake collection was inevitable given your background?
It's funny, my father is Jerry Lauren and he’s the head of men’s design — and has been for 45 years — for my uncle Ralph Lauren. I’ve always expressed an interest and enthusiasm towards the world of fashion, but he had encouraged me to do my own thing when I was still a teenager. One of the quotes that I always end up rewriting that finds its way on my clothing is “Al, you saved me, but it still hurt” because it stung emotionally to have my father say, “Go do your own thing.” It may have felt a little strange, and I remember thinking, “Why shouldn't I just be doing it there with them?” But that forced me to not simply rely on this thing that was already there, and by doing it this way — and I’m grateful that it happened this way — it enabled me to find my own voice. It allowed me to find my own style and empowered me to do it on my own terms. And to actually be recognized as not just someone related to Ralph Lauren. To be able to share my ideas and my vision with a great team and to establish a brand with a clear DNA that is uniquely me is something I feel very proud of.
Growing up around that world must have given you an indispensable education in clothing and style.
I would say that the biggest influence it had on me, and what is absolutely unique to growing up in my family, is this idea that everything that we did and everything that I was taught somehow found its way back to image and style. I remember as a kid, I think I was around 7 or 8 years old, I thought it was normal to wear vintage clothing. I was into nautical themes and I wore sailor shirts. It didn't quite make sense to my friends at the time. They would say, “You look like Popeye.” And my reaction was, “That's the point! I want to feel like a sailor!” I mean, a fun thing we would do as a family was watch Carey Grant movies.
It wasn’t just about the plot or the characters, it was also about how the actors looked, the way they carried themselves and what they wore. To me it became more important for me to associate someone with how they dressed, as opposed to what they did. For example, I knew of Ernest Hemingway because I saw images of him wearing intricate fisherman’s sweaters, cinched chinos and really cool safari jackets. I had only learned he was an author when I saw his name across one of the novels we had to read in the 7th grade. Through seeing images of him first, I came to understand that he was a figure symbolic of rugged American style. You know my family would show me pictures of JFK because the Kennedy's had such great style —the Ray Ban Wayfarers, the Paul Stewart shirts. All that stuff was part of how I learned about people. It was a great way of seeing the world.
Did you receive any formal training in garment construction?
My training in clothing construction is really all self-taught. When I started making clothing, what excited me was learning how to put things together. Previously I only knew what clothing meant from the outside and, now knowing how to sew it myself, I learned what it meant to be on the inside of it as well. I was excited about this because I was getting to know the real side of clothing. What’s interesting about fabric, especially vintage, is that you could essentially embody somebody else’s hard work if you got up early enough and went to the Rose Bowl or other flea markets before anyone else did. The badge of honour is the appreciation of getting to it first and finding the rare gems.
The bulk of your collection features distinct military and workwear inspirations with mixed-material construction. How did you first develop this concept?
The first time I started making these mixed fabric military jackets, I wanted to spotlight the non-glamorous side of clothing. Like, lets take some destroyed duffle bags and tents and make them into pique lapel jackets. This was before the rebuild term became sort of common vernacular. Part of the excitement that I get is seeing two fabrics come together that work well. We have meticulous methods of how we make these, but then we have to break all the rules in order to make them work because traditional ways of cutting and sewing no longer apply. So it’s kind of a combination of who I am, and these are tailored pieces deconstructed from fabrics that are the least glamorous part of being a solider. If this were 5 years ago, we’d be knee-deep in all these dirty duffle bags that smelled really bad — sometimes that still happens [laughs].
But I also like taking beautiful fabrics, or very fancy fabric that is almost arrogant and ostentatious in its feeling, and bringing some humility to it. For instance, taking Italian cashmere and washing it, distressing it to take the structure out it — this kind of humanizes it and takes it off its pedestal.
Now I’ve expanded the line because I’m drawn to things that have a past and have a soul, so I still try to reuse vintage fabrics as much as I can. For example, a lot of pieces from the last 2 or 3 collections use this 18th century French hemp and linen. I love that world, I love things that were made through hard work and that were maybe symbolic of a work force or work culture. I think that's why we’re gravitated to military and workwear so much. It’s fascinating; I believe psychologically people want to dress how they want the world to perceive them and I enjoy exploring that.
How do you feel about the recent popularity of garments like these that are rebuilt and deconstructed, which a lot of other brands are attempting?
I see a lot of people making these kinds of pieces, whatever you want to call it.
Rebuilt or pieced together — I feel that anybody can cut two things and slap it together, anyone can cut up an old piece of fabric and repurpose it. What I’m after is the quality of how it’s constructed. I feel we’ve elevated this category where it can look raw and be deconstructed to pieces that not only looks cool and mixes these different themes, but also actually fits well and fits properly.
I can put a piece of ours right next to a garment that has been made on Savile Row and it would fit right in. It’s meant to still feel utilitarian and rough, but we respect the way things are supposed to be made in order to last and function like a piece of clothing should. I was taught that tailoring is a skill that can be elevated to a craft, so it’s important to me that this ideal is preserved throughout our collection.
There is definitely some crossover or shared DNA in what you do and what is synonymous with Ralph Lauren and RRL. Is this intentional?
Yes, of course! When RRL was first created, that would have been a line that I could have been right for if I chose to go and work for my family. RRL was very exciting at first because I saw it as this platform to recreate all the wonderful things that we had grown up loving. I mean, they keep an amazing collection of vintage pieces that have been sourced through decades from vintage stores as reference. The aesthetic and the DNA are there, and the people who appreciated it are now the people that have an appreciation for my collection.
The difference is that their goal is to create something new, but looks period-correct like a WWII bomber jacket, or something artificially faded yet almost indiscernable to a vintage piece. I am not interested in doing that. I’m not trying to create something that fools the eye or the senses. I don’t look to remake a specific aesthetic; I’m not looking to take a vintage piece from the Air Force and try to mimic a pattern for that. I’d rather use fragments of the real thing and put into something entirely new. The code, the colours and the look still comes from what I was exposed to, but I’m trying to communicate a message that might be a little strange, that hasn’t been explored yet.
I feel like there’s a degree of social commentary that might be hidden within your work. Is there any truth to this?
I’m always playing with the concept of duality; whether it’s west coast vs. east coast, dark vs. light, vintage vs. new or traditional vs. modern, I like it when things that don’t necessarily connect start to mix, and that all ends up materializing in my work. For my men’s collection, I’m taking certain male archetypes and redefining them or seeing where they fit into today’s world.
The approach and application in my women’s line is very similar as well. I feel like women have it just as hard — if not harder than men — where they feel like they have to be a certain way in order to be appreciated, so there is definitely a connecting line in my women’s collection about bringing out individuality, bringing out the badass. There’s a little bit of a masculine warrior side to the women’s range. I always like to play with elements and take away a bit of the softness or add an edge to it. Even in my spring ‘16 show, it was all about the diversity of what women are doing and this kind of global community of women, wherein they’re almost setting the pace in the world now more than men. They’re involved in groundbreaking strides within music, the arts and politics. You know, women are now the ones who are being really innovative in all these major fields, in a way that we’ve never seen before or in ways they haven't been allowed to before.
Is there a new narrative that you’ve been experimenting with in your recent collection?
My latest collection for Spring ’17 is the first collection where I’m really playing with colours. In the past we’ve mostly been using dark and muted palettes. The aesthetic really speaks to my new sensibility right now; it’s still very military, but executed in faded, beach-y colours with an east coast sensibility, which makes it interesting. It takes all the things I love about the west coast and summer, and combining it rather than doing a layered look. Even now, if I’m using lux fabrics or heritage fabrics like Scottish tweed, I’m reinterpreting them in a way that is not typical to the English countryside — it’s more of an immigrant style. I like to go back to where it all began for my family. I get really excited when I see images of Ellis island or images of the Lower East Side because I feel like the generation before my dad and my uncle was really interesting. They were coming from an old world and trying to settle into a new world and with that comes contradiction and challenge. I feel like so many of us now are trying to understand where we came from, and I put that all back into the collection.
Greg mentioned that they’ve outgrown their original studio and atelier quicker than anticipated. "What started across the street as my painting studio used to be enough to handle our operations, but now I’ve taken up the floor upstairs and another studio on the main floor." He led us through to each section, expressing a child-like enthusiasm and excitement as he introduced us to his staff and team members that we met along the way and shared a little story about each individual. He showed a strong sense of pride in having a talented crew that he believes would rival any European bespoke. We walked out through an alley to a small shed they’ve set up outside that curiously resembles a military bunker. He explained a new process developed to treat a capsule of custom wide brim hats that will debut as part of his upcoming collection.
"So this is a hat that is made and shaped to our specs and this is my process in how I like to stain each of them which gives off a really unique look." Like a painter prepping a blank canvas, he gathers a set of 4 or 5 different spray bottles, each filled with a different treatment or colour. "These are a mix of different fabric dyes, paints and stains that I’ll apply to create the effect I desire. We’ll use the same treatments on the footwear capsule that we make as well. These hats will receive patchwork and stitch detail after the drying and curing process."
He’s free and un-calculated with his movements, which draws my attention to his collection of oxidized wrist bangles that clatter and chime as he moves. As if reading my mind, he shares the origin story on them unfazed.
"My mom always wore bangles; she had a collection of gold bangles that she picked up from different places throughout the world. As a child, I always loved that classic kind of style that they held and that they also incorporated a nomadic way of life with them. I felt that these would fit right in with our collection, and we make them all in house. These are all based on hand-sculpted pieces that we’ve cast and molded here, then we have them plated, hand-painted and stained."
Everything you make is basically a one off, what challenges do you face when garments like these go to production?
We’ve figured out how to turn a concept like this into multiples, the only difference is they’re not factory made. We’ll make roughly 50 to 60 of these kinds of garments each season, and they’re all done here in LA. It’s funny because I’ve been turned away from more factories than I’d like to admit [laughs]. The conversation will usually start like this, “So we want make 100 of these, but I want every garment to have a different button or slightly different stitch.” I’ll get a long pause and then they’ll say, “Goodbye.”
But now I’ve found a couple facilities locally that are catching on to it and are willing to work with us. We still carefully prep everything in house and I trust my team to be able to carefully hand-pick pieces of fabric that will end up in the final garment. Most of the time we’ll know the anatomy of something like a tent or a duffle bag, but it has to be the right quality, it has to have the right detail. We have a shorthand now, so if we make 50 units of a certain style, on a rack they’ll look identical, but if you look closely, they’ll each be different like a finger print.
Are there plans to scale up production and offer more accessibility to the line moving forward?
That is definitely something I’m interested in but that’s an entirely different conversation, like what do we need to account for in order to make 1000 or even 500 units? It’ll be difficult because I’m very strict on not compromising the quality and the aesthetic. It’ll be challenging because the way we price a piece is based on the difficulty and the time involved in creating it — a lot of time is spent picking out the fabric, treating them, washing them, making them one at a time and applying processing techniques to get them right. But there are ways to achieve this that I’m now exploring.
I was recently approached by the CDFA to perform an initiative focusing on fashion manufacturing in LA. What we ended up doing was a capsule collection that Banana Republic and The GAP are underwriting. It’s a men’s collection entirely made in LA and based on some staple pieces from my mainline collection that I plan to release through Banana Republic stores — 2 in NYC and 2 in LA. The whole experience was a great lesson in learning alternative ways to manufacture clothing with our aesthetic.
But at the end of the day, my goal is not to blow it out and exploit it. I mean, people are starting to recognize our work and the response has been really positive. It’s important to me to offer garments that are a little more accessible; not only where you’ll be able to find them, but in price point as well. If people want it and if there’s a demand for it, nothing would make me happier than to have a broader audience experience it.
Greg’s presence in the atelier naturally attracts a lot of attention from his team, and I sensed his attention being pulled to different areas of the demanding process he just described. I didn’t want to take up too much more of his time, so I left him with one last question concerning his thoughts on the future of the brand and what he aspires to leave behind as his legacy.
"My personal mission as an artist has always been to create work in any medium that evokes some kind of emotional response, or makes a person think a little bit differently about the world around them.
Specifically as a designer, my goal is to create a body of work — through the perspective of an artist — that hopefully challenges the way people look at the meaning of clothing, and in turn, aid in bringing more of an individual’s true character out from within. I believe that clothing shouldn’t dictate who you should be or who you want to be, but rather, it should help bring out who you actually are. That’s what I hope."
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