Greg Lauren epitomizes what makes Los Angeles such a creative nexus right now — blending art and fashion into an individual style that speaks to a global audience.
The New York-born Lauren began his career as a fine artist, exploring themes of male identity through the kinds of clothes people wore. Lauren grew up around fashion — his father Jerry is head of men’s wear for his uncle Ralph Lauren’s company — but at his dad’s encouragement, he followed his own passions, scouring vintage stores for military jackets, biker jackets and Cub Scout shirts in search of other style icons.
This story first appeared in the January 20, 2016 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“I knew Ernest Hemingway wore beautiful sweaters and cinched-waist pants and was a symbol of a rugged adventurous masculinity before I knew he was an author,” Lauren says. “I’ve owned and appreciated the greatest motorcycle jackets on the planet, but I’ve never been on a motorcycle and I doubt I ever will. I learned at a young age the power that clothing has to project an idea of either who we want people to think we are or who people think we are.”
His artwork explored what people looked like behind the facade. One of his first shows in the early Aughts was called “Hero,” featuring iconic figures in pre-hero or off-camera moments — like Batman in a diner — stylized like classic black-and-white photographs of movie stars. Another exhibition looked at male archetypes through clothing, creating 50 garments out of paper. “That was the beginning of me playing with this notion that image is powerful and potent, but it’s also paper-thin.”
The first actual garment Lauren made was a jacket from the paint-splattered drop cloth in his studio. “It was so bad at first, the sleeves didn’t fit, I had to tear them off and resew and reattach them. By the time I was done, it was so imperfect that it was perfect.” To his surprise, the minute he wore it out, people asked where he got it. “That was when I decided there is something interesting about my voice and what I want to say in clothing,” he says. The next jacket, made from destroyed military fabrics, became another signature.
In fall 2010, he brought his samples to New York and within a month, top boutiques, including Barneys New York, all wanted pieces. Prices range from $220 to $5,000 and the line is now sold at 35 retailers in 60 countries.
His goals include expanding the brand’s reach through e-commerce and retail. Long-term, he’d like to expand to home design and direct a film and form collaborations with music, dance and theater.
Lauren, who still handwrites every label with a Sharpie, started his business on his own terms, without help from his family. “It’s not easy to enter the same arena as someone who has done it in arguably the best way it was ever done. If you are a filmmaker, it would be hard if you were related to Steven Spielberg.
“[Ralph] kind of nodded and said, ‘You have a voice and if you have something to say, you’ve got to do it.’ I can’t think of an entrepreneur or designer who has had as much clarity or vision as he has had over the last 50 years….He has always said he never thinks about what other people are doing, he just designs what he loves. That example, and him telling me, ‘Just do your thing,’ has been the greatest advice. It doesn’t hurt that he’s bought a few pieces. He doesn’t tell me, but other people do.”
Greg Lauren’s signatures include a contradiction of fabrics — 18th-century hemp and 19th-century linen; the military-inspired pieces he calls, “Edwardian dandy meets Vietnam War”; and the “50/50” in which he combines several archetypes, like a peak lapel jacket combining a cashmere charcoal chalk stripe suit and vintage biker jacket. “One day, we want to feel like a Savile Row ceo and the next we want to be working and getting our hands dirty. That contradiction lives in guys.” He keeps adding ingredients, like athletic looks, to the stew. “Athletic clothing almost rivals the military as something that, whether you do it or not, you want to feel in your wardrobe.”
As for his legacy, he speaks about his three-and-a-half-year-old son, Sky. “Last year, he helped someone on my team paint a shoe for my show. I would never impose my passion on him, but I only dream he’s exposed to it enough to decide for himself what he loves. A lot of my pieces involve my own hand drawings and I recently made a piece that had a drawing of his worked into it. So there’s a really exciting piece down the road.”