The man for the opulent.
Glenn Martens is leading the young Parisian fashion vanguard with Y/Project. Here the designer speaks about his love of history, Jean Paul Gaultier and beauty in a Belgian way
You’ve printed the faces of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette on scarves and released Baroque-style trousers with a fur trim for men. Would you say that you’re infatuated with historical things?
I come from Bruges, in Belgium. A beautiful city that was one of Europe’s great urban centres in medieval ages. Then, however, the Baroque era skipped over it entirely, along with the Industrial Revolution. The city remains just as it appeared in the 15thcentury, with Gothic architecture pervading the place. This is probably where I gained my obsession with history. I used to paint pictures of King Arthur, Joan of Arc and Cleopatra when I was a child, putting an emphasis on the clothes.
What is it you’re doing when you design clothes?
For me, firstly, it’s a constructive experiment, and even the simplest T-shirt needs a special take on it. There’s always this air of opulence you can feel. There’s always a lot of everything at Y/Project, it’s very playful and very celebratory. It’s like we’re celebrating Christmas every day.
How important is humour for you?
I have a very dark sense of humour. It’s a tough industry. We’re a serious company, but we try to take things as lightly as we can.
How long have you been living in Paris?
Ten years now. That almost makes me Parisian.
People are always talking about how dramatically the city is changing.
Paris is a completely different city compared to ten years ago. It’s a bit of a clumsy example, but I’m vegetarian for instance. Just five years ago, the only thing I could get at a restaurant was goat’s cheese. With apple. Literally everywhere. These days Paris has opened up, and you can see underground clubs in the suburbs, there’s lots of art and it’s a really exciting time to be living here.
And in fashion? You’re considered to be at the forefront of a new pack of Parisian designers.
Paris has always been a centre of fashion. The most exhilarating designers came from here – think of Nicolas Ghesquière at Balenciaga, for example. However, the focus was always on a very luxurious, classic product. These days, young designers are daring to design a different type of clothing, something different to old-fashioned gowns. There’s greater diversity today. It’s not that our generation is more talented than the one before it, it’s just that we approach clothes differently.
You studied at the renowned Fashion Department of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp. Do you see yourself as a Belgian designer?
The main thing you learn in Antwerp is to think critically about yourself. Belgian design doesn’t have a common aesthetic. If you look at designers such as Martin Margiela, Ann Demeulemeester or Dries Van Noten, you’ll see they have very different styles. The focus they all share is on being conceptual, with none of these designers designing purely for beauty’s sake. When Dries Van Noten makes a simple, beautifully embroidered dress, there’s a significant story behind it. We all know that Belgium isn’t a particularly beautiful country; it’s very industrial and there’s little in terms of nature. It’s not like Italy or France, where the sheer beauty of the landscape can take you aback. You have to seek out beauty in different ways.
Many designers are referencing Martin Margiela right now. Is he important to you?
Margiela is more than just a designer to me, he characterised a whole generation’s way of thinking. A new kind of design. He was the god of the nineties when I was growing up. He had a great influence on the fashion makers of my generation, just like Gianni Versace. For me, it’s more about Margiela’s conceptual approach. Many designers strongly reflect the music, everyday looks and designers of their youth.
Were you part of any youth subculture?
A few, actually! I was pretty flexible. I come from Belgium, so I was a gabber from an early age. Then I was a skater, and then when I went to art school, I wanted to look like an artist.
Jean Paul Gaultier employed you right after that.
He’s a true master. Many people aren’t aware of just how much he’s changed fashion. He was Margiela before Margiela! The concepts behind his clothing are extraordinary. Think about what he’s done for women and sexuality. Breaking taboos for them. His clothes looked fantastic. And, on top of that, he’s a genuine French bon vivant; he eats, he drinks and he’s always in a good mood. A highly impressive person.
You put on separate women’s and men’s shows, though show the same pieces of clothing at both. Why do you do that?
For me, it’s about individuality. A jacket may look very elegant on a man, and that same jacket might appear harsh on a woman. And the other way round, too. Many of our pieces are constructed in a way where you can change them by taking off the sleeves, buttoning on something, rolling up parts or turning them inside out. These are things I want to feature in the shows. I don’t want people to hide behind my clothes. I want my clothes to put people front and centre.