In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.
You couldn’t wear them, but you could certainly admire their construction. Greg Lauren’s original blazers, jackets and suits were crafted entirely out of paper. Formal, yet fragile.
Lauren, an artist and a designer who also happens to be a nephew of Ralph Lauren, enjoys examining his relationship with fashion. Currently, he is experiencing some success with his four-year-old eponymous brand, which makes (very wearable) clothing, jewelry and fragrances for both men and women. There is much talk about his aesthetic, a style that can be hard to accurately pin down with words. Emily Farra, a reviewer for Style.com, writes of his most recent fall 2015 collection: “His clothes didn't feel particularly connected to any region in the world, and they weren’t quite like anything else presented at New York fashion week this season.”
To me, his clothes feel like twisted takes on traditional garments; you can make up your own mind.
When I met Lauren at a studio he rented in New York for Fashion Week, I quickly learned that he likes discussing the question: Why do we wear what we wear? For example, he observes that there are many people who want to dress like a soldier without actually earning the identity of one. This doesn’t upset him. As a designer, he’s actually fascinated by the idea. “If we want to look and feel like a soldier,” he says, “I’m going to take the most utilitarian, forgotten fabrics used by soldiers and I’m going to turn them into a jacket that [represents] a different kind of soldier.”
This is just one of the many ways he repurposes unconventional fabrics into newfangled garments. Like his clothes, Lauren’s path to fashion design is anything but ordinary.
Greg Lauren was born and raised in New York City. He is the middle child of two siblings, an older brother and a younger sister. His father, Jerry Lauren, one of Ralph Lauren’s older brothers, always encouraged a creative spirit. At a young age, Lauren started drawing and was exposed to the films of Alfred Hitchcock and the photographs of Horst P. Horst and Yousuf Karsh. He wondered about the characters in those pictures and liked to look at what they were wearing. Long before he knew that Ernest Hemingway was a writer, Lauren was fascinated by the way Karsh captured his wooly fisherman’s sweater. When he watched Cary Grant cruise around with Grace Kelly in “To Catch a Thief,” more attention was paid to Grant’s suit than the scene.
“Everything for me was explained through style and what it stood for,” he says. “It’s interesting to watch a movie and to be trained to see what kind of suit someone is wearing.”
Lauren loved learning about clothes. He knew the difference between a spread collar and a straight collar before most boys could tie a tie. Growing up, he scrutinized suits, buttons and lapels, and when his family suggested that all these little details were symbolic, he began to associate certain items of clothing with certain people. He even aspired to dress like some of the actors he admired. But as he got older and spent more time on his own, he began to wonder if he “had inherited someone else’s heroes.”
“Why should I want to look like Cary Grant?” he wonders aloud. “I get it. I get why he’s great. But it’s someone else. Who am I?”
After graduating from Princeton, Lauren moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting. When he first arrived in Hollywood he wrote, produced and acted in a Marc Forester film called “Loungers.” He landed a few other minor roles in some major films (“Batman Forever,” “Boogie Nights”) but he liked challenging himself to be creative in other ways as well. “When I came out to L.A., it was never because I just wanted to be an actor,” he stresses. Between jobs and auditions, he painted.
“I had been a visual artist my whole life, but suddenly I found myself painting every day,” he tells me. “It really took off.”
It was a body of work, “Alteration,” that technically turned him into a fashion designer. In order to make jackets and suits out of Japanese paper, he had to learn how to sew and cut basic patterns. “I hand-sewed approximately 50 of the most iconic menswear garments that I was taught were the foundation of any man’s wardrobe,” he says. He did this for two reasons: “to celebrate them and to say goodbye to them.” In pictures, the pieces looked like structured toiles of garments you’d maybe find at a tailor’s shop.
One day after “Alteration” had opened to the public, Lauren was standing on a piece of paint-splattered drop cloth in his Los Angeles studio and decided to make a wearable jacket out of it. It proved to be harder than he thought. At first the jacket didn’t fit, so he had to tear off a sleeve and sew it back on. Even after that it still wasn’t perfect, but it was good enough to wear out. “I was so excited about this thing that I had made myself, mistakes and all, that I wore it with the confidence of a fine Savile Row suit.”
“I don’t know whether it was the jacket or the pride and confidence I exuded because I was wearing this thing I just made that was so uniquely me,” he allows, “but something kind of happened. I realized that I had a voice.”
It wasn't long before Lauren began experimenting with women's clothes, too, creating a jacket for is wife, actress Elizabeth Berkley, to wear to an art opening. "I made her another one and people wanted hers," he recalls. "Soon I had guys asking me to make jackets and women asking me to make jackets.”
Lauren says he didn't tell his family about his move into fashion at first. “I kept it to myself until I knew it was launching,” he says. “The double-edged sword or the mixed bag of blessings of having a very close family is that everybody has an opinion. I had no interest in asking or hearing what anybody thought, either about my doing it or about the actual pieces.”
Once the Greg Lauren brand officially launched in February 2011, however, he wanted everyone to know about the clothes, especially his family.
Did the launch bring them closer? “It’s a delicate thing,” he concedes. “I think when I first launched [my family] was like ‘Oh, what’s this?’ What’s happening here?’ Sometimes it’s an unexpected thing for someone else to be doing [clothing his or her] own way. I’m being very diplomatic about this because I don’t know what was said behind closed doors. I can only say the support has been there. I think the work I’ve put into the shows and the scope of the collection is being recognized, even within my family, as something serious.”
After he says this, he changes the topic to production, enthusing that each one of his garments are made, one at a time, in a small studio in Los Angeles. Nothing, he says, is factory-made. Only a few knitted pieces are crafted outside his studio.
These days he likes playing around with antique Japanese fabrics. “I’ll run to a [seamstress] with a little piece of boro and say, ‘Let’s put this on the collar.’” His favorite items to experiment with are old duffle bags. “We take our time,” he admits. “It’s not cost effective or time efficient but a lot of care goes into every detail. I can’t guarantee this, but I would say, no two pieces are alike.”
He’ll usually make three to 50 pieces of each look. “Forty would be a successful style for us,” he tells me. “Right now, even in this limited way, we’re doing 1,500 to 2,000 pieces a season.”
I ask him if he wants it to stay this way. He does. But he says that the business is growing and he’d like to have his own retail space so customers “can experience the clothing the way the people at the show experienced it.”
Earlier this year, he had an installation at Dover Street Market in New York. It featured a steel rack of clothing placed in front of a catty-cornered olive green backdrop that made you feel as if you’re shopping in a tent. Inside the space, three neat stacks of pants sat on what looked to be an army stretcher from a bygone era. A canteen, an unlighted candlestick and a stack of old leather-bound books rest on a table nearby, all props from his spring 2015 show. Two mannequins also showcased styles from that collection. “We gave him the space and he created the installation,” says Dover Street Market General Manager James Gilchrist. It’s a neat setup, and it almost gives the feeling of being at one of his shows. Not quite, though. Nothing can.
Back in November 2011, before Lauren was putting on runway shows, he created something he describes as a “retail installation experience.” For this, he found an empty space on Grand Street in SoHo — “It was actually the building where I used to buy my art supplies when my studio was on Crosby Street,” he notes — and converted it into something that looked like “a bomb shelter.” Work lights hung from the ceiling to show off the collection, a mix of men’s and women’s wear, all made from found military fabrics. He called the temporary store “Barracks.” Like an art gallery exhibition, it was up for a period of time and you could come in and buy the clothing. “It was an immersive experience for people.”
When "Barracks” opened, Lauren asked his uncle Ralph to come see the clothes. He did one better: He bought some of them.
By Lauren’s second season, Dover Street Market and other retailers started carrying his collection. Shortly after, he expanded into accessories, jewelry and fragrances. Last year, he created all the clothing for Chris Martin in Coldplay’s “Magic” music video. And most recently, he made Shailene Woodley’s costume for “Insurgent,” the second film of the “Divergent” series.
“That excites me,” he admits, referring to the costume designs. “I want to keep adding to the snowball of creativity.”
I ask him if he would ever like to direct a movie.
“If it was the right film and I could use my point of view… I would love to,” he says. “I want my shows to feel cinematic and I often wonder, is this what it feels like to direct a film?”
Right now, however, his main focus is still fashion, but fashion examined through the question: Who do we want to be when we wake up in the morning? That’s what he likes to think about while he’s working. Sometimes when he leaves his studio, he spots men and women on the street wearing rugged motorcycle jackets and wonders if they actually own bikes or are simply playing the role of a free-spirited rebel riding off into the night.
“That’s what makes fashion so interesting,” he’ll explain. “We can live out our fantasies. We can live out our fears. We can be the people who we want to be.”
Homepage photo courtesy of Greg Lauren
Note: This article was updated to reflect that the installation at Dover Street Market is no longer live.