The Netherlands is not only a seafaring nation, but also a country of free spirits. That’s why René Descartes chose to settle there, above all other countries, convinced of its tolerance and the fact that he was not at risk of being burned at the stake. So it somehow makes sense that Amsterdam label G-Star Raw have thespians reading live poetry at their fashion shows – and that the head designer Pierre Morisset from France and global brand director Shubhankar Ray, from India, are the ones steering the destiny of the Dutch jeans brand.
Berlin-Kreuzberg in January. G-Star Raw’s autumn/winter 2013/14 fashion show in the St. Agnes Church has just finished, away from the usual runways of Berlin Fashion Week. The star on the runway in this hallowed location, bathed in blue light, is not just the 20 oz. denim, or the new intense G-Star dye Mazarine blue, or the military and workwear-inspired outfits, or even the exclusive tailor-made styles. A ballerina and the US actor Michael Madsen are also making their way down the catwalk. Known as ‘Mr Blonde’ in Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Reservoir Dogs’ and as ‘Bud’ in ‘Kill Bill’, he shows himself from a side that we have never seen before and reads a poem he has written himself called ‘Change’ from one of his four (!) poetry books. But then the silver-screen killer falls back into his old ways: he lets out a blood-curdling roar, or to be precise, more of a powerful “raw”, lasting several seconds. During this unexpected outbreak the audience’s attention is drawn to the denim jacket he is wearing. It has holsters and holders for knives, axes, machetes: the man is armed to the teeth.
A battle cry in times of crisis? Not really, seeing as G-Star Raw reported a double-digit increase in turnover in 2012. And a conversation with Pierre Morisset and Shubhankar Ray doesn’t imply they are in need of having to resort to heavy artillery either. On the contrary: since G-Star was founded in 1989, originally as Gapstar, their star has steadily risen. Especially since Morisset and Ray came on board. The latter joined the team in 2006. Before G-Star founder and managing director Jos van Tillburg brought him to Amsterdam as global brand director, Shubhankar Ray, who was born in Calcutta in 1968, studied biochemistry and went on to work for different fashion labels including Levi’s. Before joining G-Star he made a name for himself as creative director of the Mallorcan shoe label Camper – proving that he is a real all-rounder. Pierre Morisset, born in 1950 and head designer at G-Star, has been defining the brand’s look since the beginning of the nineties. The Frenchman was on board when G-Star debuted in 1996 with its ‘Raw Denim’ line, the pure untreated look, which continues to define the essence of the label to this day. And it was Morisset himself who created an icon when it comes to silhouettes: the Elwood jeans with their now legendary 3D design.
Mr Morisset, with Elwood in the 90s you managed to create a G-Star jeans model that is still a bestseller now. What does the 3D concept mean for the identity of the brand today?
Pierre Morisset: G-Star is a modern brand and for us modernity means that we don’t orientate ourselves on fashion trends, but develop our own projects, concentrating on the functionality and aesthetic. 3D design in the realm of denim is still relatively uncharted territory. We are the first to actually go there, and we will continue to do so.
Shubhankar Ray: When I was talking my first steps in the denim business at Levi’s, I experienced how everything was about American legacy, cowboys, farmers and so on. For many people denim transported something nostalgic. But at G-Star it was different. The fact that we don’t even have a quarter of a century under our belts, never mind 140 years like Levi’s, is one thing. But there are other reasons why our signature look is fundamentally different from the heritage brands: we’re an urban company, not from the country. Our approach to the topic of denim is very future-orientated. When you see our 3D silhouette you can see straight away that it’s G-Star. It started off with the Elwood model. The autumn/winter collection for 2013 clearly shows that Pierre is now also turning his attention to jacket sleeves. It’s clear to me: there is so much more potential in the idea of making denim more ergonomic with the help of 3D technology.
How do you create a 3D silhouette like that?
Morisset: There are various methods that we are still experimenting with. Simple but effective is the modification of the pattern and the selective use of seams, like with the Elwood, where, amongst other things, separate knee sections enable additional leg movement. But you can also create a 3D effect by using certain procedures on the material directly, for example with a hot iron, which works in a similar way as with wool. In the case of knitwear you can also add shape by using fully-fashioned processes working with small and large stitching. It’s not as if we invented 3D in textile design – just think of the Wonderbra. We simply take a known idea and put it into a new context. When it comes down to it, it’s about creating something spatial – in the most elegant way possible. Because elegance is increasingly important for G-Star. In principle I see my job as akin to that of an architect, which is what I originally wanted to become.
What happened to that plan?
Morisset: My mathematical skills weren’t good enough. But now I know: whether you’re a designer or an architect, it all boils down to a question of taste.
And how did you get into fashion?
Morisset: I had an idea for a few patterns and I just got stuck in. That was in 1974. I had always been interested in clothing. From the age of eight I was rummaging through bags of second-hand clothing. As a teenager I expanded my scope to flea markets and thrift stores– that was the basis of my archive, which covers around 25,000 items from the last 100 years and is probably my most important source of inspiration.
But we were just speaking about how G-Star is defined by its modernity, in contrast to heritage denim. How do those two things go together?
Morisset: Here’s an example: The jacket I’m wearing is based on a pattern from around 1900. In those days people wore these kinds of jackets when they went riding. This type of clothing isn’t attributed to fashion designers: it was the product of textile engineering. Their aim was to be functional. And that’s where the perfect construction comes into it, expressed in many ingeniously thought- out details.
Ray: Just to reiterate: G-Star isn’t a fashion company. We don’t ask ourselves what the next big thing will be, but focus instead on what fascinates us. It could be a material, a colour or a particular detail. It’s this fascination that drives us and leaves us open to new things, material innovations for example, but also influences from the past. Instead of reinventing ourselves every season and with each new trend, we can evolve slowly and with our own DNA. That is our interpretation of modernity.
Morisset: Perhaps one of the initial impulses for my interest in functional clothing, which I not only find fascinating on a personal level, but also as a designer, was a pair of army trousers. A US Navy sailor gave them to my dad after the war. Because they were too big for him, he only wore them when he was gardening or fishing, and the rest of the time they hung in the garage. The unusual colour, the cut – I thought the trousers were great and I begged my father: “Please dad, keep them for me! When I’m big I want to wear them.” So when I was a bit older, maybe around 14, I remembered them, but my mother had given them away to a road worker. So the origins of my career as a collector are basically the search to replace these lost trousers. And the fact that it was a pair of army trousers is no coincidence. Army apparel always has these small details, which vary according to the different units. So with the same US army jacket you have about 60 different pocket shapes and that makes the whole thing really exciting. So it’s not by chance that my archive is full of army uniforms. And military influences play a major role in the autumn/winter G-Star collection too.
Does either of you have an explanation why military is always being revived in fashion?
Ray: Again, the answer is: textile engineers. Their product expertise makes military outfits really classic, comparable with a leather jacket or jeans. The military look functions as a kind of antithesis to global fast fashion. Everybody nowadays is fashionable, and as a protest people turn their backs on fashion because they are bored. The charm of uniform – even civil uniforms too, as police officers or stewardesses also wear them – lies, in my opinion, in the combination of utility and style. It’s not without reason that military clothing has found its way into fashion, or via street fashion to be precise.
Morisset: Military clothing isn’t just great because of the robustness of the material. It also gives the wearer a kind of respectable armour – because it was created out of respect for them. After all, it’s what soldiers wear to go to war.
Ray: That can, to a certain extent, be applied to the everyday civilian world. Military-inspired clothing can also give the wearer a certain feeling of security in a psychological respect. Especially nowadays that can be really important. The way things are looking, the young generation is going to have to fight harder than ever where careers and work prospects are concerned.
Talking of fighting: in 2012, G-Star managed to secure a two-digit increase in turnover. Is the denim crisis passing you by?
Ray: To be honest, the mere term irritates me. Everyone I know wears denim, regardless of age. Everyone has jeans in their wardrobe. Crisis or not, for us it’s important to keep denim credible – an aim that we are pursuing with our current campaign as well. After seven or eight seasons of working with the photographer Anton Corbijn, who has photographed Hollywood greats like Liv Tyler, Vincent Gallo and Gemma Arterton, G-Star is opening up a new chapter: we are moving the focus away from the two-dimensional medium of print and towards 3D campaign videos. Under the heading ‘The Art of Raw – The Unlimited Possibilities of Denim’ we are showing the manufacturing process of a pair of G-Star jeans, from the harvesting of the raw cotton and the dyeing of the yarn, to the sewing of the seams. In the end, instead of being worn by an actor, a model, or even a human being, the jeans will be worn by our skeleton dog (Editor’s note: the greyhound skeleton featuring in the new campaign).
Ray: It’s about leaving the fashion sphere behind, conceptually speaking. By bestowing the clothing onto a non-human fantasy creation, we make it explicitly clear: the hero of the campaign is the denim. The video uses animation, which builds a dynamic bridge between craftsmanship and the latest technology and art. The soundtrack, by the way, is from Skrillex, the dubstep DJ and producer. So we are making sure we continue to maintain our contact to artists and musicians.
It’s not only your latest campaign that is taking a new direction. There is also a new G-Star colour: Mazarine, an intense blue that is almost purple.
Morisset: Yes, that’s true. The special thing about Mazarine is that the warp as well as the weft threads are dyed blue, which not only heightens the intensity but also the durability of the colour. The hue was inspired by Toile de Chine, a material that is reminiscent of denim, but is substantially older and of a higher quality. It originates from China, hence the name. From there Toile de Chine came to Europe. 120 years ago, it was worn by French farm workers and fishermen. And you can still get your hands on old stock in Marseille and Brittany.
Speaking of China: at the beginning of last year you opened a flagship store in Hong Kong. Is it your biggest store worldwide?
Morisset: No, the shop is large, over 500m2, but not our largest – and it’s also not the only one in China. Our store in Shanghai, which we also opened last December, covers an area of 750m2. (Editor’s note: The G-Star store in Cologne, which opened at the beginning of April 2013, covers an area of 800m2, which currently makes it the largest G-Star store worldwide). Glass, steel, rough concrete and pure natural materials transport the ‘raw’ message of G-Star in all our stores. Incidentally, I was responsible for the interior design concept.
That doesn’t surprise me, especially considering the fact that you reinterpreted and reissued a series of furniture by famous French architect and interior Jean Prouvé as part of the ‘Prouvé Raw Edition’ series in collaboration with Vitra.
Morisset: I am very interested in interior and industrial design. But getting back to the stores, I have to tell you an anecdote of how Madonna came to our Paris store and literally bought half the shop’s stock just after the opening.
Morisset: Yes, she was on tour and came with her entire crew. I know Madonna from my time at Fiorucci. She was at the presentation of my first women’s collection in a swimming pool in Paris and was still at the beginning of her career: let the water out, put Madonna in, get her to sing. That was the way it was back then.
Last autumn, G-Star opened its first women’s store worldwide in Amsterdam. Will you continue to push the women’s collection?
Morisset: Personally I simply don’t have the time. The women’s collection will have to grow by itself. I am only here to provide the ideas and inspiration and can only say so much: when it comes to women’s clothing, the Charleston era with its incredible elegance inspires me. We’ll have to see if we will make something out of it.
What are your wishes for 2013?
Morisset: I really hope that Mazarine will be a success. We will most certainly continue to experiment with it.
Ray: Lots of good ideas. If you’re not a fashion label, and see creativity as your prime business, then constant innovation is part of your self-image. Innovation is what keeps G-Star’s motor running.
Thanks for talking to us.