Emotion as Process
Craig Green was trained in London, at Central Saint Martins, the city’s most prestigious institution of fashion education. He began there by painting fashion prints, believing that he would never be good at making clothes. But after discovering outsider designers like Henrik Vibskov and Walter Van Beirendonck, however, Green was inspired and turned his attention to design.
Green’s work is driven by experimentation. When he speaks about his method, it is easy to get the sense that Green’s creative process is fraught with intense and conflicting emotions. Often, he says, his initial experiments do not turn out how he expects them to. And in the experience of those expectations shattering, one can find a window into Green’s practice.
In one interview, Green describes testing an acid wash that left his shirt fabric looking like “fake, cotton lizard skin.” The way Green reflects on experiments like this has a distinct arc of emotional energy—at first, he is disgusted, even ashamed of his creation, which appears as a failure. What is striking, though, is the way Green diagrams his transformation of feeling:”...as time went on, I grew to think it was amazing and that it looked more like rubbings that you would do with paper and crayon on gravestones and concrete.”
This affective shift from disgust and anxiety towards overawing beauty is a key consideration for interpreting Green’s often-puzzling designs. Green admits to an uncertainty, or lack of center in his own process. From one angle, it could be said that this comfort with negative affects, this capacity to work through anxiety towards beauty, enables his experimentation. More fundamentally, however, Green’s designs can themselves be understood to inhabit this very emotional interregnum, this space between anxiety and beauty.
It is not often that we hear of designers openly admitting to this kind of fluid, chaotic pattern of judgment surrounding their own work. We often think of master designers in the same terms we do architects—of all people, these are the people who seem most capable of executing a blueprint. Of course, though, the best art rarely emerges from clear intentions. In a different interview, Green says, “Just feeling a fabric or seeing what a fabric can do will inform a whole new development in terms of garments.”
Green channels the ambivalence of his creative process into the garments themselves, which reflect a toleration for uncertainty, a capacity to withstand mixed feelings, even a passion for disunity. Incoherence does not have to be senseless—Green shows us that it can be a map for our own divided emotional worlds, an opportunity to explore the opposing feelings that chart the distance between our normal thoughts and our unconscious.
Craig Green and His Predecessors
There is something of Alexander McQueen’s destructive creativity here, for whom experimentation in the atelier would often turn on openness to the suggestions of others, a freedom to reshape bound to the emotional energy of the immediate situation. Like McQueen, Green’s designs bear the unmistakable imprint of London, and the legacy of the great designers who preceded him.
Unlike McQueen, Galliano, or Vivienne Westwood, though, Green’s radicalism turns on a subtle current of the esoteric, the unplaceable, rather than an emphasis on rebellion against society, normality, and aesthetic expectations. Green is not concerned with rebelling exactly, but with delivering a new kind of emotion. A garment can be a way to engineer a new feeling. It can open on a world one has never seen before. Green gives us the sense that the garments that eventually appear on his runways are solidifications of their own emotional histories, of the pain, doubt, and love that blend in his process.
Green’s emotional intelligence leads him to trust his feelings and amend his creative vision on the basis of them. Rather than brand strategy or grandiose intellectual visions, what seems to drive Green is a unique kind of trust for himself, an openness that enables him to listen to subtle turns of feeling and follow them through new doorways. Describing one garment, Green states,
I remember once we’d made a tailored wool coat. It was like a beautiful coat—beautifully made. I wanted it. And, for some reason, it just didn’t feel right. We kept hanging it on the rail and then saying ‘Erm, why does this feel so weird? It’s based around uniform and we are a brand based around uniforms.’ Then we realized that the reason why was because it was the uniform of the person who tells other people what to do, rather than the uniform of the person who does the job, which is very different. That’s why it felt alien. I just thought our brand was based around uniform and workwear, but I’d never assessed which specific part of uniform it was really about.
In this example, Green is caught off guard by himself, by the nagging sensation that something is off. This inchoate feeling leads him back into the garment, into its histories—he follows it like a compass. And despite its lack of form, its affective intensity, it leads him to a new realization about the meaning of his project, about the hidden truth of his work.
Spirit and Function
This contemplative approach to design is fascinating to consider in light of the many religious connotations of Green’s work. Frequently labelled ‘monastic,’ Green’s designs draw upon a rich history of spiritual motifs to erect an obtuse, occult iconography of our fashion present. His graduate collection at CSM blended themes from religious history with workwear cuts, building an esoteric world in which abstract industrial elements, houses, and praying bodies are rendered as an ongoing sculptural procession.
Green has commented that simplicity is what unites the history of religious wear and workwear, both he says are “one size fits all,” they gesture towards group identity, not individual style. His interest in the history of statuary and his penchant for creating forms that blur the lines between runway fashion and sculpture is of note here, as the votive significance of sculpture has always been central to the history of religion.
The push towards group identity, uniformity, and simplicity runs against the historical elitism of fashion, which has characterized many of the major houses. Green has praised the power of uniforms in schools and workplaces, suggesting that they negate class status, disconnecting clothing from money, and becoming “a protective thing emotionally.” Paradoxically, Green’s garments retain the appeal of high fashion, but even as they do so they gesture outside of our time, towards a world in which the name of the author has no meaning beside the universal constants of spirit and function.
How does one understand this web of reference in light of Green’s emotional approach to design? It could be said that the tension between spirituality and functionalism is distinctly affective, and in fact, that it captures a fundamental ambivalence of the human soul—the distance between what is useful and what is sacred, between work and prayer. By leaning into this tension as a feeling, rather than an intellectual project, Green is able to listen to his materials, allowing them to communicate to him their destiny.