Greg Lauren: True Soul

Artist. Philosopher. Style royalty. The California designer, during his last visit, offered LECLAIREUR personal insight into his life, his passions and his process. Enjoy the video for the abridged version, and indulge, at your own leisure, in the long version — well worth your read.

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Every story has a beginning… 

The way I like to think about my evolution as a designer is that it absolutely is a product of my life. Starting with my childhood, because I had a very wonderful and unique kind of childhood. From an extremely young age, I was brought up around clothing, and fashion, and style, and image references. My uncle is Ralph Lauren and my father is his older brother Jerry Lauren, Ralph’s head of men’s designs for 43 years.

Being part of a fashion family was a really interesting way to learn to see the world because I was taught about things often through clothing. I learned about iconic and historic figures through what they wore and what it meant. I’ve told this story before, but Ernest Hemingway, for example, was someone I learned about through his fantastic shirts and singed pants. I knew he had great leather belts he wore while he was fishing. I saw pictures of him in his wonderful fisherman hand-knit sweaters. I had no idea that he was an author, I just knew he was this amazingly interesting looking guy who wore things and became a symbol of rugged adventurous masculinity. It wasn’t until much later, when I was in school, that I understood he was one of our greatest authors of all times. I learned about Vintage clothing when I was 5 or 6 years old, I learned about the power of what we wear and how it affects us, and I saw old movies from a very young age so as a child. When my families got together, we’d watch old Cary Grant movies with my uncle and my cousins, and Fred Astaire movies. Their heroes, as well as mine, like Batman, Superman, and other cartoon characters, influenced me equally.

You were a visual artist, a painter. You became a designer. What triggered the transition?

When creating visual art, I’d always explore themes such as identity and image development. I was drawn to the pain beneath the beauty, the other side of heroes and heroic culture. At one point, as an artist, as a visual painter, I decided I needed to do a body of work that turned the microscope on myself, on my deepest, own essence. So I learned to sew. I learned to sew, as a painter, so that I could do an exhibition of the 50 most iconic men’s garments that I had learned to wear as a child, as a teenager and as a young adult. I was going to make them entirely out of paper, the same crinkled Japanese paper that I used in my paintings. And that, well… that was the turning point. I basically excavated my childhood and all of the references I have in terms of identity and masculinity, all through clothing, exploring this notion that image is powerful, potent, but that it’s also paper thin. And yet, the pieces were meticulously crafted – I hand-painted each one. In a way, I was interrogating and examining identity through clothing. In order for this to happen, I learned to turn a lapel, how to set a sleeve. I made a three-piece paper suit that would have looked perfect on Cary Grant, had it not been made of paper. It was almost like a cathartic process. And soon enough, I decided I needed to make an actual suit, a wearable piece, that wouldn’t fall apart.

The first jacket I ever made was literally the destroyed paint-splattered drop cloth I was standing on. I grabbed this destroyed fabric, cut it up, and used the pattern that I had imagined to make my first wearable jacket. It was terrible, I had to reset the sleeves, but when it was finished it was so fabulously, perfectly imperfect, that I loved it and I wore it with the same pride that I would have if it had been a custom-made suit from Saville Row. The amazing thing was, people responded to it immediately. That moment is when my voice emerged. I realized that, whether as a designer or an artist, clothing was the medium for me to really express myself, and to really put my unique ideas into something that was very immediate, that people could see, that they could wear, that they could touch, that they could be moved by. That has since been the foundation of every one of my collections. I put that artistic spirit into everything we do, whether it’s a fashion show, a presentation, an installation, or how we show the clothes in my showrooms, even.

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Tell us about your studio, your actual work studio.

It’s an absolute mess, I will tell you that. It’s an extension of my initial artist studio and I love it, it’s where I feel most at home. The truth is that, from a functional standpoint, given that the collection has now been around a few years, we are ready for a larger space. The great thing, when you come see us at the studio is the palpable creative energy. I think that’s what becomes contagious. It’s a mess, things are everywhere, I can’t even find a pencil because it’s under a piece of fabric, or under piles of vintage fabrics that I’m going through to find just the perfect sleeve.  Very exciting but very messy. We cut and sew everything in these spaces, nothing is factory-made.

Nothing is factory-made?

We’ve experimented as the collection has grown, because not every garment requires the personal attention of a one of a kind piece… once we’ve been over every detail, some shirts, some of our knits can be made by local production houses, which are nearby. That’s about ten percent of the collection. The rest of the collection is made entirely one piece at a time.

Military surplus fabrics and hardware are fundamental in your work. What do they mean to you? How did Greg Lauren, nephew of Ralph Lauren, start digging for the perfect imperfect piece of military tent or gear?

My obsession with military references goes directly back to my childhood. My father and uncle’s specific set of references, with their heroes from another generation, included the beauty and glamour of military uniforms, of what became the iconic images from old war movies. I was introduced to this through vintage clothing when I was 5 or 6 years old. I could walk into a downtown New York City army & navy surplus store… I learned, I was trained to find the most perfect faded cotton army shirt, or faded cotton cub-scout shirt or destroyed leather bomber jacket that John Wayne would have worn in a movie although obviously it would have been something like what McArthur would have worn in real life. In a way, I was taught that you could be those heroes if you wore what they wore, that if you did the work to find the right piece, you earned their story, you earned their courage, you earned their pain. You got to have it, wear it and be it.

I believe this runs deep in me, in all of us. It’s not just the appreciation and beauty of uniforms, which is its own thing in fashion — an understanding of how uniforms are made, of the lines of uniforms. For me, it’s an emotional appreciation, something that has to do with image. I became obsessed with the simple question — why do we all want to look and feel like a soldier without actually being one? I needed to understand what was driving me. Rather than trying to buy a vintage jacket and wear it as if it was mine, I decided to take the least glamorous part of a soldier’s world — his duffle bag. It takes everything with him, goes from barracks to barracks, and it’s a necessity. So, rather than the glamorous jacket, or jacket that is emblazoned with medals and stripes, I chose something basic and functional, which often came with little stories. Soldiers would write things on them, stencil their names. I decided to take a basic, soulful piece of fabric and turn it into a beautiful three-piece suit, which in my opinion is a different kind of soldier, the fashion soldier. It’s the most generic and iconic garment associated with being a man. One of the first few pieces I made was a three-piece suit, made out of destroyed military duffle bags. Something about it was magical: it had the soul and the history and the story and the pain of what I imagined that soldier’s life to be, and I turned it into something that is the facade that men wear every day of their life, and that, somehow, did… something. I think I’m just searching for the answer to something that is universal, that I have known within myself since I was a child.

I’ve often used the collections to give back a portion of the proceeds to organizations, because it’s not meant to be exploitation of a soldier’s life. One of my favorite things was actually donating a portion of the proceeds to an organization called ‘Operation Men’, which felt strangely very much in sync with what I’m doing because it works with soldiers who’ve been badly injured, disfigured even, and in a sense put back together.

What stories, what characters do you infuse your clothing with, that wearers might actually make theirs?

We know we feel something when we see an army jacket, army fabric, so I love what happens when you turn it into something else, that is both beautiful and elegant in a completely different way.

I hope my clothes bring out the individuality of the person who’s wearing it and not the other way round. Yes, there’s an aesthetic, it’s rugged, it’s artistic, it’s edgy because it’s got a destroyed elegance to it, but what I hope is that it inspires the person’s natural personality, or individuality, that part of them that wants to rip open their… you know, it’s the equivalent of ripping open that Clark Kent suit. Maybe Superman comes out. Or someone, something else. I want the clothing to help somebody bring out what makes them unique and let their story live rather than keep it tucked away. I feel like clothing should not be armor that is worn to hide what’s really going on, and that speaks directly to some of the clothing I do where I draw and I write things on the outside of the jacket because part of me wants to say, why does clothing have to present an image that people should see at the expense of who we really are? Why can’t we, sometimes literally, wear who we are on our sleeve, why can’t we wear our vulnerability?

That’s the idea.

Creative Direction: La Frenchy (Mary-Noelle Dana & Michael Hadida) for LECLAIREUR
Images: George Dragan
Edit: Aurélie Cauchy
Music: For All Intents and Purposes by Falling For Frankie (SuperPitch)
Additional images courtesy of Greg Lauren.