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We’re all familiar with the pattern. We see it every day in the papers, on the TV, on the internet, on the streets. Over the decades, camouflage patterning has trickled down from traditional usages and spilled in and out of the pool of popular culture. Jean-Paul Gaultier has done it, so too have Christian Dior and Yves St Laurent, not to mention its continual usage in a streetwear context. Currently experiencing a resurgence, there is naturally, more to the camouflage pattern than meets the eye. Not just a symbol of modern warfare, camouflage is a political statement, an artistic expression, a marvel of evolution and a man-made extension of nature.

Hardy Blechman is speaking at CARBON festival 2014 in Melbourne in March. You can get tickets from our online store.

maharishi’s Hardy Blechman is working overtime to defuse the concept of camouflage as a weapon. His efforts have been well documented in DPM (Disruptive Pattern Material), his massive two-volume, 944-paged tome on the pattern’s history. Since the book was published in 2004, Blechman has continued his quest to reclaim the material and put it into the hands of civilians, through the exclusive DPM yardages that he and DPM Studio are commissioned to create for a diverse range of brands.

We had a chance to talk to Blechman about his DPM projects, some of his favourite designs to date and get some fascinating insights into the historic and technical aspects of arguably the world’s most heavily politicised pattern.

You have a strong affinity for and connection to the camouflage pattern – why is this the case? What is it about camouflage that appeals to you?

I was drawn to green and to the typical woodland camouflage colourway, whose mix of brown, sand and black with green has a natural allure. Growing up in the city left me with a desire to reconnect with nature, but I also later discovered when researching for DPM that green is in the middle of the colour spectrum, making it one of the easiest colours on the eye.

Your work, be it in fashion or art, recontextualises the concept of camouflage. That is, you take something that is a deeply traditional element of the military and use it in another context, in this case, fashion or art. Why do you do this?

Camouflage has its roots in nature, not the military. The great-grandfather of camouflage, natural historian and artist Abbot Thayer, published his observations of camouflage techniques in nature (Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom, published in 1909) and it was later artists employed by the military that mimicked and developed them.

Combining camouflage print with reflective materials or using them internally as linings or pocket bags represents a love of camouflage in its representation of nature and art, and a disdain for it to be used to conceal in order to kill, or to lure people with a uniform that appeals to people’s subconscious.

As weapons have continued to develop, a black-coloured army uniform would more closely represent the lethal potential of dressing to conceal yourself in powerful modern warfare. If nature’s colours and combinations of colours hold an allure for people, it seems unfair for the military to use them in efforts to strengthen recruitment efforts, especially since night vision, thermal imaging and heat-seeking bullets render the colour of the uniform pretty ineffective in modern warfare.

How has your history in military surplus goods affected your new vision for camouflage and your own brands?

A crucial aspect of the clothing design process is the selection or creation of the colour or print for the main outer. Although when I started maharishi, people generally didn’t give linings, facings and pocket bag cloths the same degree of consideration.

I looked to the surplus market and found print houses that held military contracts often held stocks of rejected meterage, failing stringent tests like low carbon content for infrared considerations, something that becomes unimportant once you aren’t concerned with concealing yourself by wearing camouflage, or use the pattern internally as pocket bags or facing.

Recycling and reusability of military clothing was a major element when maharishi first started…

Necessity was a great mother of creation in my case. In 1994 I started recycling military and industrial workwear surplus. One of the most popular styles was the US Army Snow Camouflage Parka and over sized trousers, designed as a light outer snow camouflage white shell to be worn over a full combat uniform, the pieces had pocket flaps allowing entry to the inner jacket pockets, but had no pocket bags as they weren’t intended to be worn alone. In reclaiming the styles from good quality abandoned surplus and adapting them for my stores, I added print or embroidery, upgraded and re-cut aspects including the obvious addition of pocket bags.

You have quite an eye for detail…

I used the same surplus cloth to create the seam tag for maharishi in 1995 and in an effort to show my disdain for war, yet a love for camouflage, I added a small strip of 3M reflective cloth to each camouflage seam tag. As well as inspiring more attention to internal details, sourcing surplus military clothing and prints in the early ‘90s got me started collecting rarer examples and I became fascinated when I discovered the great variation in patterns that different countries had developed through the times, which reflected changing needs directed by the state of weapons development or the terrain type in which war was being carried out.

How does a country influence its army’s DPM?

Countries have been developing their own camouflage patterns for nearly 100 years now and continue for various reasons: development in weapons, visual systems or print technology inspire some change but changing political allegiances inspire others.

Spotting one nation’s pattern in use by another is generally a sign of collaboration or alliance, from full-scale sponsorship to the sale of uniforms from one country to another. Naturally, uniforms are an easily recognisable aspect of what usually represents a far wider deal including arms. The Israelis wore French camouflage until they fell out with the French over the Six-Day War, African nations show their current or former allegiances with Chinese patterns in Ethiopia and France being well represented.

In 2010 the British released a new desert uniform in Multi-Terrain Pattern that was in part necessitated by their sale of the former British pattern to Iraq, embarrassingly just before the early ‘90s invasion of Iraq. Americans had similar problems in waging the new round of war in the old woodland pattern that Osama Bin Laden and others could also be seen to be wearing, which likely inspired the new generation of digital uniforms. Although promoted as patterns with improved performance, senior US Army officials have publicly stated the primary intention was to again create a uniform that would act as a signifier of their force’s individuality as a nation and show their use of state-of-the-art technology.

What are some other variables that contribute to the patterns continually changing?

The British Army hadn’t substantially changed their core pattern for 50 years, until this year. The other main factors creating the need for change include the general switch in warzone, which, for Britain, is no longer Northern Ireland or Europe but war seems now to be focused in more arid desert terrain.

How are the patterns developed? Is there much input from active soldiers when it comes to development?

It’s not really clear how much the British MOD listen to their soldiers’ views on camouflage development. Whilst they proudly announce in their press release for their most recent pattern that the Junior Ranks – no relation to Shabba – were canvassed and that outcome was that they wanted to retain something distinctly British. They awarded the new design contract to America’s Crye Industries, who will be kitting out the US forces in an extremely similar pattern.

How big is the scale of production when it comes to manufacturing the uniforms?

The British Ministry of Defence spent £250,000 in trials for the new pattern, which has already been deployed to many mercenaries, fishermen, sport hunters and camouflage enthusiasts. The British variant can only be distinguished on real close inspection, as it contains nods to the old brushstrokes used in the former British pattern.

MOD have taken the unusual step to allow the production of the new uniform to be carried out in China. They are using a UK production agency so as not to award the contract directly to the Chinese, but it’s a wonder that they take such steps in order to reduce costs, when you consider the cost of the MTP shirt and trouser, compared with the costs to fully kit out an armed soldier, complete with bullet proof vest and state of the art weaponry.

The production quantities are substantial, and boosted further by the high staff turnover within Her Majesty’s Forces, which necessitates 20,000–25,000 new young recruits annually. With each soldier being issued with three MTP uniform sets, there would seem real potential in supporting a UK based manufacturer to produce the 120,000 pieces of clothing required annually for new recruits alone, as well as considerations for uniform supply to the 50,000 cadets, 30,000 reserves and 170,000 regulars, whose uniform sets are typically replaced after each 6 month tour of duty.

Symbolically, what do you think Britain’s new camouflage reveals about their military activity?

MTP (Multi-Terrain Pattern) reveals as much as it intends to conceal. With such efforts being made to clothe the tri forces in a pattern useful in arid terrain, it supports the conspiracy theorist’s view that it is still early days in the bid to take control of the Middle Eastern region. The tour of duty started with the British joining the U.S. led coalition forces ‘liberation’ of Kuwait from occupying Iraqi forces in January 1991 and continues today in Afghanistan, nearly 20 years later. If suspicions that the underlying motivation is to lay down a gas pipe to serve Western energy resources, more invasions are on the horizon, in order to take full control of the region.

Do these camouflage design companies also make prints for civilians?

Crye’s MultiCam technology is available in a wide range of non-military products, from a Harley Davidson to Vans Syndicate x Supreme sneakers.

Any manufacturer of military or civilian product can buy official licensed MultiCam cloth or transfer paper by simply placing an order online, without any process of licensee approval. If people don’t want to pay for official MultiCam, there are plenty of Chinese copies available, one even with the shameless name MultiSham.

How have military uniforms impacted on the clothes of the every day civilian?

Extensive use of camouflage in the non-military context is changing people’s notion of its perceived symbolic value. Although in general, defence spending is a waste of money, it has created many of the comfortably cut and well engineered developments in clothing that exist today, as well as many of the performance cloths like nylon and Kevlar.

Do you think the resurgence of camouflage in the popular streetwear context has had an impact on its military context?

The military have in recent years tried to move away from traditional patterns, creating the digital generation of uniforms and now MultiCam and its variants. Once these developments are also used widely by civilians they will have to move on once again, perhaps eventually being forced to wear black, which is the colour most representative of the potential death that signing up to the military will increase your chances of. The more clear this truth is to potential teenage recruits, the less likely it is that countries will be able to successfully keep their armies well stocked with people happy to run the risks.

Why is there such a strong connection between combat or military clothing and urban wear?

It’s well recognised that streetwear has a strong connection to military clothing, but the fact is that many popular styles across the board have their roots in military developments: the cardigan, trench coat and combat pant are just a few examples. The more active the lifestyle, the more likely that developments intended for the military would cross over well. Aside from the practical reasons, subversion of military patterns and clothing allow for a political comment that has been exploited by many of the subcultures that have adopted combat pants since their creation including peace protestors, punks and Black Panthers.

I want to talk about your DPM project. It was a massive project spanning seven years of research and production. Why did you feel you needed to create the book?

Through research for the book DPM, I became aware of the fact that camouflage was the domain of nature and art and had been hijacked by the military and developed the understanding that the more camouflage was used in a non-military context, the more its symbolic value would be reclaimed.

What role does the DPM website now have, post publication of the book?

Post publication, DPM lives on with a mission to spread the use of camouflage as far as possible in the non-military context, celebrating any use in fashion or art that helps ensure the symbolic value reverts to nature and art or design.

Research is underway for an updated second edition of DPM, which focuses on why artists and designers use camouflage, especially those that haven’t traditionally used it within their work. Winter 2010 has seen a resurgence of camouflage on the catwalks of Prada, Watanabe and Rag & Bone.

How do you approach creating camouflage for other brands in contrast to creating designs for your own work? Is there a difference?

maharishi has never been a mass producer, so creating patterns for larger brands is a way of spreading the disruptive pattern. Each design job demands different considerations, dependant on the product and brand but all have the same desire to detach military associations and celebrate nature and art.

DPM – Disruptive Pattern Material is available from the maharishi website.