Paper suits him: Artist Greg Lauren (Ralph's nephew) crafts cool men's clothes from crumpled paper
Greg Lauren’s journal entries have taken up residence in an empty storefront on Beverly Boulevard in West Hollywood. A Glen plaid suit jacket and matching vest worthy of Cary Grant -- but for the deep wrinkles -- stands in one corner, behind it the well-worn ringside robe of a prizefighter, hood bowed ever so slightly in weary defeat. Nearby are scuffed flight jackets, badge-covered Cub Scout shirts and the S-emblazoned torso of a Superman costume. They stand like gravestone rubbings or metal castings of the original garments, rendered in black, white, graphite gray and sepia shades.
The display filling the room might merit mention on its own as a kind of commentary on masculine archetypes, but it becomes a whole different creature when you start to realize that every single piece -- the down puffer vest and work boots, the stacks of neatly folded shirts and even the cylindrical buttons of the three-quarter-length toggle coat -- is a hand-sewn and painstakingly painted paper sculpture.
And when you finally make the connection between their creator, a 40-year-old artist with a Princeton degree in art history, and his uncle Ralph, every piece in the room takes on a very different meaning.
“Growing up, a lot of the pictures in my family -- even the casual ones -- all had a tendency to look a little bit like ad campaigns,” Greg Lauren said on Monday afternoon. “So I wanted to find the cracks in that façade.”
Yet there’s certainly a lot more wrapped up in the 40-some pieces of crumpled, smoothed and painted paper apparel that make up the exhibit than the fact that Greg is Ralph Lauren’s nephew (his father, Jerry, is executive vice president of men’s design at Polo Ralph Lauren). There's the artist’s acting work (among his list of credits is a five-episode arc on “The Young and the Restless” daytime drama and bit parts in two “Batman” movies), his work as a comic-book cover artist (“I’m a DC man,” he says with chest-swelling pride) and his six-year marriage to actress Elizabeth Berkley.
But, he says, that’s definitely where it starts.
“This is connected, yes, but it’s about exploring my own relationship to clothing,” Lauren said during a preview of the exhibit, which runs April 28 to May 23. “When people do make the association [with Ralph Lauren], what they don’t understand is that the world in those ads is this imaginary, aspirational place that we grew up with as kids -- a place where movie stars, athletes, superheroes and high-society types mingled and hung out together. And you could be a part of it, if you wore the right things.”
Lauren, who has called L.A. home for the last decade and a half, was born and raised in New York City, where he staged a version of this show (called “Alteration”) in September 2009. For this exhibition, he’s added a few things -- including an installation of 10 white paper suits, against which a reedited film loop of Cary Grant in “To Catch a Thief” will be projected, and added some pieces to the handful of (wearable) one-of-a-kind jackets and T-shirts he’s begun to dabble in.
But the stars of this show, like the New York one that preceded it, are the series of iconic sculptured silhouettes that fill the front of the makeshift gallery, creations Lauren felt compelled to create after having grown up “learning how to dress like Cary Grant, JFK and Gary Cooper but feeling inside like I was Oliver Twist.”
He points out that although there are a handful of other pieces on display -- including a shopping cart full of paper sleeves, one wall filled with myriad shirt collars and another with disembodied pockets and neatly folded pocket squares -- the heavy focus is on the men’s jacket.
“It’s the piece men put on every morning to face the world,” he explained. “Men are like ‘Which character in a movie do I want to be today? The rugged, blue-collar guy? The military hero?' … It’s very easy to dress the part and play a role by stepping into these suits, like it’s an exterior representation, a kind of armor.”
Of course, it’s not lost on anyone, least of all Lauren, that the armor represented here is paper thin and so fragile it couldn’t survive even a single wearing, even though the level of craftsmanship is so good the sculptures easily could be mistaken for the real thing.
It’s Lauren’s painstaking detail in executing every last detail of the pieces that make them wondrous to stare at up close. He explained that the each work in the exhibit was based on an actual vintage garment, using pieces cut by his pattern maker (costume designer Marilyn Madsen). He completed each piece himself, most of them using a sewing machine given to him by his mother before she died a year and a half ago (he’s been working on the pieces in the exhibit since 2008).
Be assured that each piece has a story (or is that diary entry?) behind it, and if you’re lucky enough to be within earshot as the artist unravels it -- though you needn’t be to enjoy it, by any means -- the room starts to feel a whole lot less like an art exhibit and more like a collection of three-dimensional pencil drawings that have slipped the constraints of the journal page and sprung to life. (The entire room, taken together, creates a battlefield tableaux that might feel a tiny bit familiar to anyone mesmerized by the castle full of uninhabited uniforms that come to life to do battle toward the end of the 1971 Disney flick “Bedknobs and Broomsticks”)
So what about the trio of kid-size short-sleeve Cub Scout shirts, with the outline of each diamond- and rectangular-shaped embroidered badge re-created on the surface?
“I wore faded, vintage Cub Scout shirts, so did my siblings and cousins,” Lauren explained. “I knew the more patches the better, and I wore them with pride like I’d earned them. But I was never a Cub Scout; I was never asked if I wanted to be a Cub Scout.”
The flight jacket with military-style badges that, upon closer examination, turns out to be images from a Superman comic?
“I can’t think of a more iconic jacket in men’s fashion, in movies or in the military because it’s an instant shortcut to heroism, even when you strip it of its Army-green color and change the insignias. And the comic-book patches refer to the notion of heroes as well.”
It’s clear that Lauren’s thought a lot about his relationship to superheroes, both real and imaginary, especially when asked to identify his favorite piece in the exhibit.
“Superman,” he says without hesitation, pointing to the familiar S-shield shirt and cape-draped shoulders, the Man of Steel’s wrinkled business suit in steely gray. “I based it on a old thermal shirt or varsity sweatshirt,” Lauren explained. “It’s like it’s his public persona – his shell – that’s just waiting to go to the cleaner's.”
“For me, Superman is the perfect example. We all play roles in our lives, in our families, in the circles of people we know. When you take away the bright colors, you have to think: Who is Superman when he’s not heroic?”
"Greg Lauren’s Alteration," April 28 to May 23, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. and by appointment (contact email@example.com for appointments) at 8933 Beverly Blvd., West Hollywood.
-- Adam Tschorn
Photos: Greg Lauren has painstakingly crafted iconic menswear silhouettes from special Japanese paper, including (from left) a plaid woodsman's jacket,Superman costume and a Marine Corps jacket. Credit: Greg Lauren