Glenn Martens: A Defier of Gender and Genre
Glenn Martens is the face behind the transformative Parisian brand Y/Project. Since taking over creative direction in 2013, Glenn has translated streetwear into versatile garments that defy gender and genre. Amidst the wave of new, young designers fracturing the aesthetics of “freedom,” Martens offers a cheeky take on the power of postmodern perception. In this exclusive interview, which first appeared in the pages of the 12th issue of ODDA Magazine, Glenn talks about the freedom of gender fluid fashion, finding beauty in unexpected places and how his hometown of Bruges plays an important role in the vision for his brand.
Q: As a Bruges native and previous architecture student, how has your background influenced the way you go about tailoring a collection?
A: Bruges is quite important to the brand identity. It’s a medieval metropole, I’d say, it was one of the biggest harbor cities in Europe (it used to be, today it’s just a tiny town); but around 1460 the river feeding the city sandblasted, so the city just died (as ships couldn’t reach the city). Today, we have the exact same city. It never had any architectural style evolution. Everything is perfectly uniform.
The fun thing is it’s also a tourist hotspot, so you get these aggressive elements: French fries, Christmas stores open all year. It’s super kitsch, but in this sophisticated, elongated silhouette. An austere, beautiful city balanced with this hardcore, trashy westernism. And that’s common in my aesthetics. I always feel a balance of these two worlds. And then obviously being an interior designer –I graduated but never worked in it– I did have a procedure in construction so I love to develop things. It’s for me very important to have this constructional, architectural vibe in the brand.
Q: Often, street fashion and androgyny are associated with darkness and grunge, yet much of your streetwear is unisex but is still upbeat. What motivated your choice to eschew “darker” fashion, like Rick Owens or previous Y/Project collections?
A:I love Rick Owens, it’s a different direction but very beautiful. We still have a part of the collection that looks like that. Today we’re just open to anything. We sometimes have darker streetwear elements, like a club kid-Berlin vibe. We have so many personalities in one day. I can be a very serious businessman today and then at five in the morning I’m in some club raving. It’s just honest collections in order to translate this flexibility.
Q: That versatility, and also freedom and gender fluidity, seem to be the pillars of your brand. Growing up, did you feel locked-in by your gender?
A: No, never, that’s not my problem [Laughs]. But versatility is definitely big in the collections. We have a lot of different outcomes on one rack. Very often you can adapt them to your person: take legs off, push them up. And then gender fluidity, which happened very naturally, also came from the historic brand. It was only a menswear label, but the clothes were very popular with the female customer because they were long and slim. When I arrived at the brand, we decided to launch womenswear, and I thought it was more natural to base ourselves on that concept. Still we have a 40% overlap in the collections, putting it differently on the women: you can find the same jackets from menswear coming back in womenswear.
Q: Do you design with the intent to be rebellious, to “shake up the Parisian fashion scene?”
A: Actually it’s really more about humor and absurdity, even if you don’t see it at first. It’s this “observed twist.” maybe the rebellious point is that it’s not easy to categorize. It’s streetwear that’s not streetwear, it’s couture but it’s not couture. It’s everything in one. But I’m not intending to shock, I’m intending to have fun. We have to enjoy wearing it.
Q: Your success is constantly compared to that of Vetements, another new, street-smart label filled with young designers. Do you believe the high-profile fashion scene is genuinely evolving to be younger, more dynamic?
A: I’m sure Vetements opened the gates for all the designers coming after. All the houses have had such an amazing balance of creative directors. They’re also a lot of them, so the scene was very saturated with lots of massive shows each week. Between them there wasn’t much place for young designers, but that’s changing. It’s a vibe all over Paris. I moved here eight years ago and for me it’s a very different city. It’s all opened up. To go out, we have all these things to do, like clubs in suburbs and factory cellars. Paris was waiting for that for a very long time. Parisians have been resting on a very rich patrimony, but it never posed the question, what’s happening further? I think Paris is finally answering that.
Q: You’re known for being a constant observer. If people on the metro were to suddenly start dressing differently, or you were to move to a different city, would that change Y/Project’s creative direction?
A: I’m not really observing the young kids; I’m observing the personalities not connected to fashion, those are the most fascinating ones. Like in exam season, there are those students in their fathers’ suits. It’s so fun to to see them in oversized clothes and looking a little bit rough. Those combinations of things that are, and are not, supposed to happen.
Q: Is it still true that you only have two coworkers?
In the studio we are three, three people doing the patterns for four collections a year, but of course we’ve exploded over the past year. We have a sales department and a production department, but it’s still a very small team.
Q: Between working as a junior designer for Jean Paul Gaultier and inheriting Y/Project, you designed your own label for a time. Would you ever relaunch Glenn Martens, and, if so, would it be a large creative departure from what you’re doing now?
A: I don’t think I have any need to launch my brand –Y/Project really became my brand. The direction is reinvented and renewed and I have all the creative freedom and fun that I want to have. Obviously, it’s still built on the heritage of somebody else [Yohan Saferty]– which I’m really proud of–so the outcome is based on his work but very close to me.
Q: A lot of 90’s fashion, where you find inspiration, stems from ugliness. What other things which most of us consider to be unaesthetic in fact inspire you?
A: Next to those references we have things which are very cheeky, certain cuts which aren’t always just there for the beauty of the eye; they’re there to trigger people. Like all those corsets we cut apart: it’s a historic element, like a bustière but with no form for the vest so that the cleavage presses down and explodes out. I’m very aware it’s not the most classic, aesthetically accepted thing, but it’s nice to challenge. I think this has a lot to do with Belgium, actually. Bruges is lovely but the rest of the country is quite ugly and gray, there’s been a lot of war and destruction, but there’s a lot of hidden charms. The Belgians are used to finding beauty in something less accepted. That’s the Belgian way, to go into things and find the unexpected.
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