Interview by Filep Motwary
The global fashion scene is yet again having a makeover – a possible renaissance even. A bunch of younger designers are reshaping and redefining things with disarming simplicity and radical designs.
The Japanese and their romantic Paris invasion back in the eighties come to mind – the way they manifested new ways to perceive life itself through dressing and by mixing, deconstructing, reconstructing and reshaping the body while introducing a new way of thinking. It was liberating for those suffocated by the bourgeoisie. This sudden salvation opened the way to an evolution through sartorial expression with a strong sense of discipline and elegance that was unknown to Europe, perhaps unwelcome too.
Almost a decade later came the Belgians, a bunch of Royal Academy graduates soon to be known as Antwerp Six who also had difficulty in relating to what Paris fashion represented at the time. By exacting standards they fomented an alternate vision that still thrives on and is regarded, as happens with the Japanese, as a case of study. It was a fashion phenomenon.
It’s 2017 and houses like Gucci break the patterns of their own identity only to be reborn into something less heavy. Gender is no longer an issue. People can dress as they feel like. Designers present their collections in gay clubs or through applications like Grindr. Romance is forced again into the collections.
Glenn Martens greets things with a charming smile – me included. Just three years after he took over Y/Project’s artistic direction, the brand has grown to be a major inf luence worldwide, confirming the extent of his undeniable and revolutionary f lair. Oversized and lean, tailored or sporty, rough and fragile, his collections resemble a supreme specimen of intriguing balances.
Filep Motwary: What did you come across at Y/Project when you arrived as the new artistic director?
Glenn Martens: When I arrived Y/Project was an extremely young, quite inexperienced and not that financially stable company. At the time I was 29 and the oldest one in the company. For three years I focused on somehow educating that little team while I was supervising everything else, even the sales. Our commercial had never heard of MailChimp, for example. They sent all e-mails one by one. Everything had to be structured, which was actually extremely fun! Now everybody knows what they have to do, which finally gives me more time to focus solidly on the collection and ideas. I have a team that I trust now.
Also we moved to a new space recently. We needed to, as the collection was growing and we only had 60 square meters to work in. It became real hell at some point. We took our time to find a good spot and now we work within 140 square meters. Of course it’s a big change, it is exactly what was needed for a growing company. But I’m scared we’ll have to find a bigger space again very soon.
FM: Do you keep changing your team?
GM: Since the beginning the whole team has changed, but everything happened very naturally, without firing anyone. Of course Y/Project had a very different aesthetic back then from what it is today – and that’s normal. Things need to move towards a new direction with a new creative director and this made them feel uncomfortable, perhaps. It’s very normal to decide and leave the company and work for somebody else, within this context. Being in a company is about believing and standing for it. Also about mutual respect, aesthetically speaking.
FM: Can you describe be the scenery of your childhood in Belgium and your then transition to the teenage years? What was Glenn as a young boy like?
GM: I grew up in Bruges. Actually, my parents moved there from Germany after I was born. My father was working in a Belgian military camp and I was about three when they divorced and decided to return to their hometown, which would serve the situation the best way. In 1986, being divorced was something of a strange situation. My upbringing was nice, though. My grandparents were very classic, almost bourgeois – both being children of army colonels, my grandpa himself was a Colonel. Things had a certain quality and were also very warm. I was a jolly boy. My life was very much about drawing and singing (laughs). Perhaps because I was the second child compared to my brother who was much more responsible and focused. We were actually cute children. Later on I went to college, where the focus was on classical studies like Latin. As a teenager I was never really a rebel. I was a very annoying teenager answering more than the other kids in my class. It was a small town, so everything was very very safe. Our lives in general were average but also sweet and romantic. We didn’t have any rave parties for example (laughs).
All was connected to the scouts, the youth center, all very proper. Although Belgium has a very strict educational system, strangely enough we could go to a bar at the age of 16 and get drinks. Of course we did stupid things like skipping school and going to Gent and get drunk and getting suspended – all the crazy stuff young people tend to do. Smoking joints at 15. In 2002 Bruges was the European capital of culture. The city is famous because of the Belfry, St. Salvator’s Cathedral and the Onze- Lieve-Vrouwekerk, the Notre Dame. It’s a very low city with three extremely high medieval towers. I was 18 at the time and the Notre Dame was going through restoration and us being bored teenagers we would climb all 116 metres to the top of it from the outside, actually, which was extremely dangerous. We would sit there and smoke looking at the city from above.
FM: It’s true that when someone meets you they understand that you had a very free childhood.
GM: Yes, sure. But there were also problems. I was bullied during the first three years of high school for being a little bit more artistic than the rest of the kids. I was in a classic school where everybody was playing football and I was more inserted in drawing so I had to battle with them for being different. Standing out in a small city can be difficult, yet of course things change as you grow older and you discover more people with different interests. So by 17 I was part of the cool kids gang. Looking back now I wouldn’t change a thing. It was truly nice.
FM: The story has it that you jumped from Architecture to Fashion with no particular interest in it and yet you are considered one of fashion’s favorites. How did you perceive fashion before you finally gave in?
GM: My parents had this rule which said I could study whatever I wanted as long as I wanted, as long I never failed a year. I got a degree in Latin and foreign languages in high school yet I did not want to follow my dad and study law or something similar. I really wanted to do something artistic although I had no background in anything artistic whatsoever. I moved to Interior Design, which involved Mathematics and understanding the space, that was something very interesting for me to do. Coming from Bruges I was really a commercial chicken, following the trends and not being interested in music or arts at all.
Through my studies I was visiting museums and I was really into history, but nothing contemporary or anything as such. At 21 I finished my studies in Interior Design but I felt really young to go straight to work so I thought wondered what to do. I heard about the Antwerp Academy, and thanks to a school trip we went to the city for the day and visited all the buildings around to see their architecture and obviously we went to the notorious school. It was freshly renovated and it was the first time I found myself into an international school that focused on fashion.
Fashion was never interesting to me until that moment. I decided it was the right place for me to go, and when I applied I went there with a portfolio filled with chairs and interior drawings. Strangely so, I got accepted to be among the 80 students they would take from a total of 400 applicants. It was a very special opportunity.
I arrived there with no expectations and without knowing any fashion requirements. I still remember my first encounter with a sewing machine, I was laughing looking at myself thinking that this was never planned to happen. It took me three weeks to realize how much I loved what I had put myself into, and to realize that fashion was the right thing for me to do. All of a sudden I was very happy. The Antwerp Academy is known for its high level. Many students go there after they have finished their studies in other fashion schools, so getting in is really something big. I had never heard who Lagerfeld and all the great designers were until then, I had no idea. It was a great time and I formed a group of friends that would inspire each other. Those are people I still keep in my life. We still help each other out, which was and is vital.
FM: I attended your very first presentation in Paris under the Glenn Martens label because your PR insisted I should be there and I obeyed. It was four, five years ago, right? There was something very brave about your clothes, which came to contrast with what was happening around that season.
GL: I was very, very clear about what I wanted to say creatively. You have seen my work – what I did then and what I do now. It’s true that certain outlines have been present in my collections since then, like the oversized bombers and blazers with a feel of couture. A lot of people say that what I do now reflects on that very first collection I did, and it’s true. Obviously it was a baby one, I was very young and did a lot of mistakes, and it wasn’t as finely tuned as my work is today. Thinking about it now, perhaps the concept of it was a bit ahead of its time, too confusing for 2011. I am flattered when someone refers to it though.
FM: I would underline the ahead of its time part. You showed with your own brand for three seasons and then you were offered Y/ Project. What did it take to redesign the outline of the brand?
GM: The brand was very niche with Yohan. It had a very specific direction and devoted followers. This was what he wanted and he reached the high level he was aiming for. When I was offered Y/ Project after he passed away, my reply was negative as it would be very hard for anyone to continue such a strong legacy. I couldn’t create a world that wasn’t mine. Even though I respected the aesthetic and really believed it, it wasn’t something I could stand for. Y/Project was a very personal affair for Yohan. A personality with very special proportions, he would be the fitting model of his own collection.
Gilles Elalouf, Serfaty’s business partner explained that he wanted the company to move towards a new direction and this is when we came to an agreement. It was a very emotional moment. There is no right way to take someone else’s brand, for which someone works day and night to establish it, and then just change it. Everybody was still in mourning at the time and we decided to take it slow. The first collection was based completely on his legacy, out of respect for what he had created and his vision.
The transition from what Y/Project resembled then to now was very slow, as we didn’t want to shock anybody. We tried to keep many of his techniques and favourite materials, like leather, for example, and we also tried to broaden our audience. Yohan was only doing menswear and it was a real challenge when we decided to start a womenswear collection and base it on what we would show in the men’s. It also takes time to educate your client.
Take, for example, what I mentioned before with the oversized bombers. Things succeed when the general moment is right. Thankfully the global gender and versatility focus freed a lot of us designers and as result the customers became more open to see things from a different perspective. Unlike my own brand, Y/Project was already a set company, with its own design team, production, showroom, its own selling points and most importantly based in Paris, so everything sounded very exotic to me (laughs). For a young designer, making it in Paris without a budget, without connections and without whatever it takes to make a collection was not realistic – and that’s who I was at the time.
FM: Where you afraid of critique and comparison with Yohan?
GM: The brand was in very bad health when I arrived and it was a bit tricky because I went there with the Glenn Martens identity. I was a little scared because it was build on an identity that I didn’t really feel close to my vision. I didn’t really think about comparison, as we are two different people.
FM: I must admit my fixation with your collections started after you presented the men’s Spring/Summer 2016 collection. Suddenly there was something utterly sexual about your work and somehow you broke boundaries with what you had shown before that. What triggered this sensibility at that moment?
GM: Actually yes, this was the first collection where we thought, “OK, now we gonna go all the way and present what we stand for.” Although there were a lot of Yohan’s traits in it, I could finally free myself as it felt the right moment for a radical change to happen. It was the period when a different kind of press started following us. It was a very important season.
FM: If we focus on the pants, the trousers you design, there’s something about the denim and leather pieces. What is so special about these two materials and how do you approach them?
GM: (Laughs) I guess everybody wants to be too sexual at some point in their lives and each has a different way of understanding it. It’s also nice to be playing with clichés and pushing them to new directions. Leather obviously has a very cliché sexual orientation.
FM: But Glenn, is it bad to be a cliché, I wonder?
GM: No, not at all! I love clichés. They somehow set things in a context of safety, isn’t it? Cliché is something very popular also, it means a lot of people have a common sense about something.
FM: The timeline of your collections varies from minimal, clean lines being the surface for decoration to very rich and overworked shapes and multifunctional, photogenic, fashion pieces. What freed you?
GM: Basically by questioning myself and the people around me. We like things that sometimes are complete opposites. It’s about composition, in the end, about creating your own DNA by combining all the aspects you are interested in. For example I truly love working but I also like partying. Today, in our society, especially in the metropolises, we have reached a point where there are less and less tags or certain groups. People are much more free in getting out of their safety zone and trying new things for long or short periods of time. It’s about self-discovery too. And this freedom interests me so much. I wanted it to be also in the Y/Project collections by offering multi-personality and versatility that are still for one person. This is why you see intensity – from minimal to creative or sexy, trashy, super elegant, sporty or sophisticated – in the collection. This what our society is about today.
FM: There’s a theory that places you along Jacquemus, Alessandro Michele from Gucci and Vetements as the beginning of a new fashion circle. Just as in other decades there have been certain groups of designers that formed what we call the new, the coolness. How do you see this?
GM: I am very glad to hear that people see it as such. From my point of view I really try to do the best I can in my work, the collection and the brand, and also to enjoy myself. Hopefully we are changing the scene. All the names you mentioned before, we are all still upcoming designers and all in the same age group. It’s normal that people are expecting from us to fulfill this category they put us in.
FM: I am wondering if you realize that you guys are taking fashion to a whole new level? I can’t help but mention individualism, as it is reflected more and more in all of the designers I just mentioned – you included – by offering more than expected within a collection.
GM: I’m not at all busy with changing things. I get a bit annoyed by brands announcing they want to change the system. The only thing they do is making some noise but at the end everything stays exactly the same. The system is set, we all find our own little tricks to personalize it a bit and that’s it. Designing can be a very emotional process. A part of it does really come out of your deeper self so for sure the outcome can be very individual.
FM: It seems like this approach is slowly becoming a fundamental way of expression for more designers season after season. What are the reasons why you think this is happening?
GM: It’s just more honest and real. You can always feel if things are approached just by strategy or by integrity. I think in this world of mass consumption people feel the need of something more personal.
FM: And why this constant association of all of the brands I mentioned and youth culture?
GM: Because we base ourselves on the new generation and fashion has always been about the new generation anyway, about the freshness of things. Obviously in ten years there will be a new wave of creatives that will be linked with the youth. We all carry the references of our own youth too. Gucci for example has a retro feel, yet it is totally modern and young compared to other historic houses at this moment. I like that!
FM: Do you think there’s room for humor in fashion today? A less polished approach maybe from what we experienced from the early two-thousands until the end of that decade?
GM: There’s always been room for humour – look at Schiaparelli. Everything will always have its place in fashion. It’s a very open business.
FM: What was fashion suffering from in the last ten years you think and why?
GM: I am not sure fashion was suffering from anything, really. There were interesting designers everywhere. Perhaps less independent designers in Paris compared to the Belgians, let’s say, yet it was completely normal for the fact that the scene was dominated for a very long time by the big companies like Dior and Chanel. Of course these are amazing houses that produce incredible collections every season that are very inspiring. There was no space to give a chance to the small independent ones. I think now chances are given through serious competitions that include strong mechanisms to support the young.
FM: Do you have the time to question how and why you make things?
GM: I always try to. A lot of things are about emotion, about how I feel and how I put it in perspective and then turn it into reality.
FM: Where does your professional cross with your personal life?
GM: Most of the people in my team are very close friends of mine. I see them out, we spend time together outside work. With others we became close through work. At the same time I try to keep distance from things so that I have balance, to think. I go back home also very often and spend time with friends that have nothing to do with fashion. I also like spending time close to nature. I like the noise as much I like the silence.
FM: Your Spring/Summer 20117 collection for women has something utterly sexual about it. I also noticed your need to show other abilities, like exaggeration, excess and hints of Haute Couture in the fabric choice and in how you manipulated them, but also with corsetière, moullage, and so on.
GM: Yes, it was a very rich catwalk with a lot of different stories and personalities. It was a celebration of all these different types of women instead of a collection that would form one specific type and become like a brand’s army. This is the literal translation. Women who want to be more couture-ish or more comfortable, others who prefer to be sporty. I wanted to give the woman an opportunity to change depending on the time of the day or the moment and occasion. I would be very bored if I focused on only one type of design or one type of woman.
FM: Personally, I see a link to Jean Paul Gaultier, for whom you worked in your early days in fashion. I am not at all suggesting similarities in the cut or the spirit, yet there’s something about what you guys bring out that certainly reflects a very personal view on the woman’s body.
GM: I think this link is actually true. The image I have of Gaultier is of a true innovator. He celebrates the woman, the man, but most importantly he believes in freedom. I loved working with him, the mood was always very happy and joyful and energetic. He is like that! I was a junior designer so I didn’t work with him directly, but every time he was passing by was always filled with positiveness. He is the king of celebration.
FM: What if tomorrow you were offered the position of artistic director in a house like Dior?
GM: I haven’t finished my job at Y/Project. I am not ready to leave yet. It would be flattering, of course, but also unfair to the brand and my team.
FM: Does it matter to be accepted in fashion?
GM: We all work our ass off – we have fun doing it but for sure it’s extra fun knowing we’re accepted by the world outside our studio.
Belgian born Glenn Martens in the winner of the ANDAM award for 2017. Originating from Bruges, Belgium, Glenn Martens graduated first in his class from the internationally acclaimed fashion institute The Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Antwerp. In 2008, during his final year at the academy, he was recruited to join the team of Jean-Paul Gaultier for the women’s pre-collection in addition to the men’s label “G2”. In mid-2010, after a successful run as first assistant to independent designer Yohan Serfaty, Martens worked independently on various high-profile projects affiliated with European brands such as Weekday (H&M) and Honest By Bruno Pieters. In February 2012, he launched his Womenswear line during the Paris Fashion Week under the name “Glenn Martens”. Since September 2013, Glenn Martens is leading the men and womenswear of the Parisian based label Y/PROJECT. Graphic tailoring woven into structural elegance characterizes his designs. Martens’ work bridges a technical background and emotional atmosphere with a straightforward look. Culminating in architectural cuts that boast a comfortable fit, the foundation of Glenn Martens resides and relies on transcendent versatility.