Elgar Johnson’s style and character are perhaps not quite what you’d expect from the fashion director of GQ Style. Whether it’s his tattoos, his casual dress sense, or his self-deprecating humour, most refreshingly Elgar is not the dandified image that comes to mind when thinking of the commercial gloss of GQ. Having cut his teeth assisting stylist Simon Foxton, and then heading up the fashion teams at i-D and Man About Town, he offers an original and far less affected take on men’s fashion.
In his work and his style, points of reference are all-encompassing. The shoots he styles are more often than not inflected with the 90s sensibility of his youth, and riff off a slightly more pulled-together take on grunge, as well as the street and sportswear he wore while growing up in Peterborough. We sat down with him in the Condé Nast offices in Vogue House to find out more about his understated style, covering everything from his teenage grunge phase to what kind of old man he’d like to be.
Could you tell me a little about the ins and outs of what you do?
I started at GQ Style in May. Before that I was at Man About Town for a year and a half, which was fun, and before that I was at i-D. I guess I come up with themes, ideas for contributors, ideas for stories. I don’t take it too seriously, sometimes it starts off as a joke and then it sort of steam rolls into something more serious. If I’m in [in the office] I’m usually emailing, getting back to people, speaking to contributors, speaking to agents and prepping my own shoots. If I’m not here I’m on a shoot.
Are those mainly ideas for editorial direction or for shoots?
Both. I’m quite controlling I think. I don’t like to think I am but I’m a bit of a control freak. I think I’d like everything to be my idea but it’s not always.
What was your introduction to fashion when you were younger?
My sister was really trendy. We were brought up in Peterborough but she was really on it. Actually I’ve got two sisters, one of them was really into David Bowie growing up, and I didn’t really understand it. She really loved Boy George, and she used to have a Boy George wig. I didn’t get it but I was really fascinated by it… I think just the make-up and the colours, and men looking bizarre. My younger sister was into The Face and i-D, and Smash Hits and God knows what else, I sort of just read what she bought. She kind of dressed me. She used to say, “Oh you can’t wear that – you look like a dickhead.”
"I reference everything from my past. I don’t think I could do anything that I wasn’t around for because I don’t think it’s honest."Elgar Johnson
What did she dress you in?
Wallabees, which I still wear – I love Wallabees – Kickers, certain colours. She’d say “Everyone’s wearing purple so you have to wear purple.” So I’d go to school wearing purple and it was all ‘cause of her really. I didn’t really have a knowledge of fashion to be honest, I just listened to what my sisters said.
Have you kept any of those references with you moving forward?
Yeah I reference everything from my past. I don’t think I could do anything that I wasn’t around for because I don’t think it’s honest. There’s a lot of people who do things like referencing the 90s when they weren’t even born, and it feels contrived and not very real. Not everyone, but sometimes I just think, it wasn’t like that, I was there, I was part of that. I was part of the whole grunge scene. I had piercings, dreads, wore cut-off jean shorts with Doc Martens and listened to Soundgarden. There’s a lot of people who probably don’t even know who Soundgarden are.
Elliot Kennedy: Elgar Johnson
What are some of the other big influences on your style?
Music. I love all sorts of music but that 90s Britpop style has always stuck with me, but my music taste ranges from all sorts. It’s quite bizarre from Suede to Cathy Dennis to Milli Vanilli to Pearl Jam – it’s all over the place but I think Britpop is a big one for me.
What about football?
It’s been so played out now and people who don’t even like football try to dress like they’re from some firm. Stone Island, which I love, has become so commercial now but it used to actually stand for quite a lot. When I used to go watch Liverpool, I used to wear Stone Island but I used to take the badge off because if you wore the badge it actually meant you were part of something and you’d probably get your head kicked in. I don’t feel like I need to do that whole terrace thing.
Tell me about your tattoos.
All my tattoos are purposefully quite naff. I used to work for my dad and he had a heavy haulage company so he used to drive lorries. I remember all the people that worked for him had these hideously bad tattoos that had aged really quite badly but looked great. I kind of wanted to be like that, so I think that’s where it came from. I also like darts players, darts players always have really good tattoos. They’re also things that mean a lot: that’s mum, that’s dad. My mum hated that, she thought it was a tribute to her like she’d died or something. I’ve got a Liverpool one I’ve got five roses here [on my shoulder], which is five European cups for Liverpool, I’ve got a sexy lady on my other arm – she’s got her boobs out – and I’ve got an England tattoo on my leg, and “EJ” on the back of my neck. They’re all quite rough. It’s not very Condé Nast really, is it?
Elliot Kennedy: Elgar Johnson
What are you wearing today?
Today I’m wearing a Supreme t-shirt, Levi’s jeans and a pair of Clarks Wallabees, which is what I usually wear. When I first started here, I used to wear shorts all the time.
Even in winter?
Oh yeah. I used to assist Simon Foxton and he always wears shorts, and I think that’s where it came from. So I used to wear shorts all the time, and then I came here and everyone was like, “You can’t wear shorts at Condé Nast.” And I was like, “Yeah, course you can!” And I’ve got this whacking big Liverpool tattoo on my leg, so it looks a bit rough. I remember seeing Dylan [Jones] for the first time, and it was a bit like The Devil Wears Prada, you know when she sort of just looks at them? He just looked at my legs and I was like, “I’m going to have to wear jeans now.” And I’ve worn jeans ever since.
Asides from not wearing shorts to work, has your style changed in many other ways?
No, I don’t really follow fashion. I don’t really know if I understand it enough. There are some people who are really good at it, but for instance with the new issue [of GQ Style I haven’t shot anything that’s particularly fashionable.
I gather what you wear in your free time is pretty similar then.
Yeah but I wear a bit more sportswear in my spare time. And shorts. I’m always in a Liverpool shirt – I support Liverpool just in case you didn’t know by now.
Working in fashion do you ever feel any pressure to dress a certain way?
No because I look really awkward. If they try and dress me up in suits and stuff I just look like a doorman or I look like I work for Addison Lee – there’s nothing wrong with that – but I don’t. Everyone’s just waiting for me to pick them up, or kick them out. [laughs]
What’s the oldest item in your wardrobe?
Probably just some of my old Stone Island jackets.
Aside from Wallabees, what other types of shoes do you like to wear?
Timberlands and trainers. I’m obsessed with trainers, I’ve got I don’t know how many pairs, maybe about 80.
Where do you keep them all?
I try to hide them in my flat. I’m quite OCD in my flat, so everything’s in its place. So I’ve got some under my bed, I’ve got some in the wardrobe, some in the loft and the ones I want to sort of show off a bit when people come round I have out. It’s very shop-like. I’m such a geek.
What’s your favourite thing?
My Wallabees are my favourite things.
What was the first thing you bought that you felt excited about?
You know what it was? It was a baseball cap from a really good shop in the 90s called Mash and it was on Oxford Street. Especially if you didn’t live in London, everyone talked about it, it was always in i-D, always in The Face and I bought this cap from The Custard Shop. These hats were called The Custard Shop hats and if you had one you were like the coolest person ever. They were quite expensive as well so when I finally got one I thought that was it.
Do you still have it?
No! I don’t know what happened to it and I always try and find them on eBay but you can’t get ‘em. I mean people have done them since but they’re kind of tacky now. They were so good, I mean they weren’t, but they were so good.
Do you think your wardrobe would be much different if you were doing something else?
No… it’s really basic. I’m really basic. I’d love to be one of those people who has a really eccentric wardrobe like my work colleagues do. They have amazing clothes like Gucci blouses and stuff. I just couldn’t even think about doing that, I wouldn’t do it justice.
What kind of old man would you like to be?
A grumpy one! And a bit fat.
Elliot Kennedy: Elgar Johnson