The theatre of fashion: an interview with fashion designer Ti Green

When Covid hit, actors and backstage crew members – the lifeblood of Britain’s theatres – were forced to forge a new path overnight. Among them was two-time Tony Award-nominated theatre designer, Ti Green. Following her creative instincts, however, she launched a sustainable fashion label inspired by her work with performers. Millie Bruce-Watt speaks to Ti about a year of rediscovery and the excitement of seeing the green shoots of new theatre coming through

Ti Green has been the brains behind some of the UK’s most memorable costume creations and set designs over the last 20 years. Her portfolio is extensive in scope and scale and her work has taken centre stage, both figuratively and physically, in theatres all across the world, including in London’s Globe, on Broadway and in our very own Bristol Old Vic.

In March 2020, Ti was working on a production about a 19th-century physician who advocated the lifesaving benefits of hand washing. Semmelweis, starring Mark Rylance, was due to open at Bristol Old Vic but, as the pandemic swept the world, the show’s billboards were paradoxically replaced with government reminders to keep our hands clean. The production was put on hold, along with four other shows that Ti was due to work on.

However, in the summer of 2020, Ti discovered the creative answer to the current constraints and launched her own fashion label, Article Green, from her studio in Bristol. Ti placed sustainability at the heart of her brand – a movement that is not only blazing through the fashion industry but a word that has been on Ti’s lips since 2017. Four years ago, Ti initiated a sustainability project at the Royal Shakespeare Company while designing Dido, Queen of Carthage. Recognising the wastefulness in costume production, Ti began maximising the use of sustainable textiles, sourcing material from more environmentally friendly suppliers and pushing for more awareness in the industry. “I’ve been working for over 20 years – when I started work this wasn’t an issue, it wasn’t something anyone talked about – but as it has become an issue around the whole conversation of fast fashion, I realised that it’s as relevant in theatre as it is in any other industry,” she says.

Actor Amanda Lawrence modelling. Photograph by Craig Fuller

Article Green’s elegant, minimalistic, quietly theatrical pieces are all made using sustainable fabrics – natural textiles, grown using environmentally sustainable methods. “I source textiles from mills that work responsibly, using crops that aren’t polluted with fertilisers and pesticides. I get all my organic cotton from a mill in Turkey that is solar-powered – it has a responsible employment policy, which is really well enforced. All my packaging is also bio-degradable, compostable and marine safe.”

Ti describes her pieces as ‘everyday costume’ and says there is an element of performance involved in getting dressed regardless of whether you’re preparing for the stage or not. “When you’re designing a costume, you have to try and tell the story of every character through what they wear. You become incredibly aware of how every garment choice, every colour choice, every silhouette, every choice of fabric communicates something about the inner workings of the person wearing the clothes – and exactly the same is true in life. There are a large number of people in the world who read clothes as clues about who’s wearing them – it’s part of the first picture you get of someone when you meet them. To me, that’s a very important language to be aware of. Clothes can outwardly express who you are on the inside but they can also affect how you feel on the inside.”

As Ti has spent her career designing clothes for performers, she is focused on ensuring that her clothes fit real bodies. “I’m really happy to make individualised versions of the garments in my range. I invite people to get in touch with me through my website. I have a standard trouser design, it fits a standard body but then I say if you are apple-shaped let me know, if you’re six-foot, let me know. Essentially it’s all the same design but I know how to make it work for different body shapes.”

With concerns about fast fashion continuing to dominate the conversation in the fashion industry, Ti is challenging the boundaries with Article Green, describing her label as anti-fashion. She is purposely moving away from throwaway trends and instead inviting customers to build a capsule wardrobe. Each and every collection or new piece released from Article Green is designed to complement the last. “It’s not trend driven, it’s modern and it’s timeless and that’s the opposite to buying a cheap trend and throwing it away,” she says.

Ti’s three-dimensional kinetic structure made of welded metal to represent Siula Grande mountain in Touching the Void. Josh Williams (Joe), Angus Yelllowlees (Simon). Photo Michael Wharley

Article Green was launched during a time of great uncertainty for the arts and Ti’s first collection undoubtedly reflects the melancholic mood of the industry. Wanting to give something back to Bristol Old Vic, Ti designed a small collection of items inspired by the red and green theme of the auditorium. She asked her friend, actor Amanda Lawrence, to model the pieces on stage and committed 10 per cent of sales to go towards the theatre’s commissioning fund, set up by artistic director Tom Morris, to raise money for freelancers so they could keep producing new work while the theatres were closed. The photoshoot not only captured the physical emptiness of the theatre but the bleakness felt by the theatre community at the time. The one-woman show held a mirror up to society, as theatre often does, and showed us that we were cold and lifeless without performance in our lives. “Things that normally felt very natural there suddenly felt very awkward partly because that space is all about having an audience,” says Ti. “If a building can be desperate, that building is desperate to get an audience back.”

Ti’s relationship with Bristol Old Vic stretches back to the start of her career and she classes it as her favourite theatre in the country. “I started working there long before I lived in Bristol, in the early 2000s. It’s got an absolutely unique atmosphere. The work Tom Morris has done to restore the auditorium back to its original structure, having rebuilt the forestage, has completely reintroduced that relationship between actor and audience. The actors have been put back into the heart of the audience and it’s absolutely nothing like any other theatre I know, other than possibly The Globe.”

Photography by Imogen O’Connor

Ti’s sets and costumes have appeared at theatres around the world. She won two Tony nominations for costume design and scenic design for her work in Coram Boy in 2007. Her portfolio also includes the set design for mountaineering drama Touching the Void in 2018. Instead of a predictable snowscape, Ti used a huge, three-dimensional structure made of welded aluminium and paper to represent Siula Grande Mountain.

“I was exploring how you can create the sense of a towering landscape by combining triangular facets, and I ended up with this kinetic structure that felt massive but was also transient and transformable. There was a long process of experimentation – it was so exciting to design.”

Following the launch of her first series of core pieces, Ti’s spring collection sees Article Green moving into a new phase in its evolution. “When I launched Article Green last year, I was reacting to the closure of our theatres, to the hiatus in my career, and to the uncertainty and pain that everyone in the theatre industry was experiencing. The photoshoot that we did at Bristol Old Vic had a melancholic atmosphere that reflected the loss we were feeling, standing on an empty stage in an empty auditorium. It was a truthful reflection of that moment.

Photography by Imogen O’Connor

“This spring, we have the green shoots of new theatre coming through and the hope that audiences will soon be back in their seats. Alongside this, Article Green has developed into an ongoing proposition. The new garments that I have created to release through spring and summer reflect my feelings of hope and celebration. Wearing them feels special, in the way that every step out of lockdown feels special. Our lives have been too interior for the last 12 months and it’s time to connect again,” she says.

Ti is offering a new limited edition piece every month to Article Green newsletter subscribers, which will sometimes be an entirely new garment and sometimes a new version of an existing piece in fresh fabrics and colours. Her online shop will also continue to offer a core collection of its best-selling garments in neutral colours. “One of the central messages of the green economy is that the most sustainable version of anything you want is the version that you already have,” she says. “So, in that spirit, I have edited the core collection to form an ongoing basis for the variations that the limited edition pieces will offer.”

Photography by Imogen O’Connor

As we move forward into a new season and brighter days appear on our horizon, Ti says she feels very hopeful about the future of theatres. “What’s brilliant is what we’re all experiencing at the moment has clarified our need for this kind of communication and the value of the arts in our lives. I don’t have any worries about the audience still being there when we return.”

Shop the collection at: Touching the Void is returning for one week only for a global broadcast, live from Bristol Old Vic from 26–29 May;

Main image: Photograph by Emyr Jenkins