Creativity is the most personal thing. It comes from an individual state of mind, with each person’s output tied to their own memories, experiences and thoughts. As such, a young creative’s studio is often an extension of their work; spaces where they are free to explore, imagine and create stuff that defines, and is defined by them.
In our series, Studio Visits, we document these spaces via interviews and photographs offering a digital journey into their worlds, capturing their favourite foods, fabrics, and latest playlist additions without a filter. Think of this as an open invitation to come along.
Fusion of 90s house and jazz travels from designer Martine Ali’s Greenpoint, New York, studio where her assistants, Hamilton and Daniel, are preparing press pulls for Princess Nokia. “We always want to find a combination that looks unique to the artist, or if it’s pieces that haven’t been shot,” says Martine, who has successfully built a brand that counts Kendrick, Jaden Smith, and Rihanna as followers.
The Chicago-born artist rose to prominence a few years ago, thanks to her chunky yet minimal sets of silver chokers, earrings and bracelets with an industrial touch and reference the city around her. Literally, Martine studies subway chains and delivery bikes, seeing inspiration in all things moving.
Martine and her team are preparing to relocate. This time, to Williamsburg, where she will continue expanding her label and aims to test the waters of apparel design. First up, a collaboration with Assembly New York, a boutique in Lower East Side founded by former gallerist Greg Armas.
Having surrounded herself with models-turned-craftsmen, the young designer seeks to prove that these days the independents play on the same field as the majors. In conversation, Martine opens up about her approach to sourcing, online marketing, and always trusting her instincts.
Undine Markus: First and foremost, how did you get into jewellery design?
Martine Ali: I wasn’t in kindergarten, I had a babysitter. Every week, she would give me a new project. We would always go to this place called Thompson’s, it was a crafts store. Eventually, we got to the bead counter…
Undine: Was this in New York?
Martine: No, that’s Chicago. So, finally, we got to the bead counter…and there were all these teeny tiny bead materials, organised really pretty. That was like the first time I started working with beads, and I just loved it. That was the kind of introduction, but I would gradually elevate the prices of the beads, start using nicer and nicer materials. Then, I started teaching myself different techniques, and my mum, she actually started wearing the pieces that I would make to work. Her friends loved them and wanted to buy them. So my mum would have these parties at home where she would lay out all my jewellery on the dining room table and have friends over for wine, who would buy the pieces.
Undine: How supportive!
Martine: Yeah, right? So that was my first taste…something I could actually make money from.
Undine: How old were you?
Martine: Seven or eight when I started. I feel like that’s often the missing component with creative endeavours, that I saw that this was sellable. It was really funny because at the time those were one-of-a-kind pieces that I would bead and create, and my mum’s friends would fight over them. Like, “No. I found that one first! I put it on for five seconds and then I put it down, you grabbed it!” Like, literal fights. So then, I was like, okay, this is something I have to do.
Undine: And how did you begin working with silver?
Martine: I was actually doing a lot more stones and colour pieces. I really started that back in 2010 because I was trying to find materials that were easier to reproduce. So for a while I was doing one-off pieces. Silver was the area where I could find a lot of materials and resources, I could make ten of this and twenty of that. It was a great way to streamline the production, I think.
Undine: So everything is made in this studio?
Martine: Yeah, definitely. We are sourcing materials… most of them honestly come from the Garment District or the Jewellery District in New York City. We do all of the assembly here, it’s kind of a lot of gathering different pieces from all over. Now, we’re starting to find more of the unique pieces, like some of the crosses and stuff you saw online. But most of it comes from these random mom-and-pop stores across the city. Last week, Hamilton [Martine’s studio assistant] and I went to this random hole-in-the-wall shop on 18th Street and just got all these really cute vintage pendants. Those are the kind of little things that I love to add into the line to make it feel a little bit more personal and hand-selected. But, I definitely think that having like a base, the consistent chain element, really gives us that consistent quality.
Undine: And they’re such gender-neutral pieces, which I love!
Martine: Thank you. Yeah, and that’s also something that I think is really important. For me, it’s more about the piece, having something that can be transformed into a lot of people’s personal style. It’s kind of weird, I remember this quite specifically, when I was starting out, all the business people would ask me who my customer was. For me, it’s not about the person, it’s about the state of mind. It’s for someone that has a really acute awareness of their personal style, who is looking for pieces that can emphasise that. It’s ageless, it’s genderless.
“So my mum would have these parties at home where she would lay out all my jewellery on the dining room table and have friends over for wine, who would buy the pieces.”
Undine: What are the fashion brands that seem to reflect a similar ethos to yours? Is there anyone that you relate to?
Martine: I think the first place where I really started to see a similar sensibility was a lot of what Vetements does. They’re using things that look familiar, but they’re doing it in ways that are new. That was the first mainstream brand, although I don’t think it’s that mainstream…someone with that kind of visibility that seemed to carry a similar sensibility. Ann Demeulemeester kind of does a lot of similar things as well, these kind of deconstructed chain pieces that I have been following for years. It all kind of has the same idea. It’s a piece of jewellery, and you’ve probably seen something similar, but when you actually look at it, the way it’s assembled and its elements, it’s really unique and considered. The way they’re considered, it makes them look fresh again.
Undine: Have you considered expanding into fashion?
Marine: I really want to, and I can’t wait to do it. There’s some pieces that I have tried to do that melt hardware into garments. I really want to explore.
Undine: What are your favourite materials and colours that you’d like to experiment with?
Martine: Definitely leather, because leather has a weight and structure to it that compliments heavier hardware. I think it’d be important to learn how to fuse, not necessarily the jewellry, but the sensibility of connecting and interchanging. I am also interested in some kind of sheer fabrications, more like structured sheer. I’ve kind of been talking to a few brands and trying to figure out how to start doing it. I’m talking to this one store, Assembly…
Undine: New York! On Ludlow, right?
Martine: Oh, love that store, right? I want to make some pieces with Greg, the owner. We’re doing this really cool PVC clear bag with silver chain hardware. I do want to fully depart from just accessories and do some clothing pieces… To be decided!
Undine: I’m so excited to see the bags though!
Martine: Yeah, I can’t wait! We actually made a couple of those for their runway show in September, so now we’re kind of evolving the concept a little bit. It’s going to be sick!
Undine: And why did you start out with silver as opposed to gold?
Martine: I tried to really start with silver and gold, but I just felt like… aesthetically, my pieces tend to be really big. I always start with bigger editorial pieces and then I scale them down. So I would start with like a really big concept, and then I’ll be like, “So, what’s the smaller, more edited version of this?” When I start really big, it’s really hard to get the same taste level with gold. Gold can sometimes look super Mr. T, which isn’t a bad thing, but it’s very specific. I find that, like, how I’m learning to work with gold now, it kind of has to be backwards, if that makes sense. I have to start very dainty, and then I can build it up. So with gold, you have to be much more intentional. But, we’re starting to work on some gold pieces. I actually did something for Opening Ceremony in gold this season, these really fun hardware earrings. We’re also working on some gold things for KITH. We created these hybrid pieces that are silver but we also used gold hardware, so that you can wear those pieces with both gold and silver. I think that’s really important in doing gold, I wanted to make it work in addition to silver, make them both kind of layer in on the same look.
Undine: And what about crystals? I can see some crystal pieces here.
Martine: I know! Those are kind of those fashion elements that I try to play with. Every season I try to play with like a little something. [Puts on a belt made up of multiple crosses with crystals on them] It plays really well with silver, but it’s definitely its own thing.
Undine: The belt looks really great!
Martine: Yesss! [Pauses and walks around with it] Yeah, I am kind of offering these really cool crystal bras that have like a chain closure thing. But again, it’s one of those things that’s meant for a certain time and place. I always try to keep that chain element, it’s a consistent base.
Undine: I’ve been meaning to ask you, how did you first get your work to K.Dot, Rihanna, also Jaden Smith? Was it mostly through their stylists?
Martine: Basically, it was interesting because a lot of those connections happened through Instagram. It really was their stylists and I kind of connecting. It’s not like I have a huge following or anything, but I think, it’s like, people that are looking for original pieces and content, have a tendency to find my page. It’s really important to me to consider the context. As much as I design jewellery and it’s a jewellery brand, I’m also really visual. That’s what I actually studied, I did Visual Arts at school, and jewellery was just something that I made.
Undine: Was this in New York?
Martine: Yeah, at Fordham. So creating visuals around the jewellery and telling the story with all the context is equally as important to me. If I get a new person reaching out, like, this is for Princess Nokia [points at her studio assistant Daniel assembling and polishing pieces] and I’ve never had her reach out before so we’ve compiled what we think would look good on her, and we always pull together things that layer well. We really consider everything, that’s also why stylists really like working with us directly. I’m not just going to send out a generic offering that someone else has been in. Like, I know that Kendrick, he’s had a moment in my really big choker. He wore that for all of his DAMN press photos and the tour. So, like that piece, it’s not like we’re tired, but it’s on the shelf. We’ve also been working with A$AP Ferg’s stylist, he’s going to be wearing new stuff. We always want to find a combination that looks unique to the artist, or if it’s pieces that haven’t been shot, or stuff that’s just been made. We want to maintain a sense of freshness.
Undine: And how of you think living and creating in a city like New York has affected and shaped your work?
Martine: Yeah, actually, coming to New York really has. I went to school here and interned at DKNY which was really informative, because I never really learnt about fashion at school. That internship really pushed what I was doing, and what I would become. You know, I was just an intern and I was wearing a lot of jewellery and they had me start doing stuff for their runway shows. It was a huge opportunity. Also, just the energy and the history of that company and Donna Karan here in New York… by coming up in that kind of environment, you understand ways of translating that kind of sensibility into your designs. But, there’s definitely that kind of heaviness, especially a lot of the closures and stuff, there’s these little cues and hints from things that I see around the city. There’s like this one thing that I always see in subway, they always use this one type of chain to lock the doors off, it’s also the same chain that the bike messengers use and I’ve incorporated that into my designs. There’s also this combination of utility and strength, you know. There are these really heavy and secure elements that I see.
Undine: And how big is your team, and how did you grow?
Martine: Right now, we have like five people. Mel, she’s a stylist. She and I met because she was pulling my jewellery and we really clicked. We compliment each other really well. I always tell people not to confuse my personality with my work ethic because I think my personality is a lot more careless. When it comes to work, I’m definitely keeping it very intense. Mel has an intensity to her personality that really offsets that. I met Hamilton through Instagram when he came to buy a necklace, when I was looking for people, I hit him up. Daniel… he’s friends with Hamilton. We met a couple of times and it worked out. And then, Hamilton, who’s become our unofficial HR, hired this other girl Scarlett. She helps Hamilton with production. That’s one of the most important things for me, the team aspect of it. Like I mentioned, when I was at DKNY they gave me a huge opportunity.
Undine: Before we wrap, Hamilton, did you want to jump in with some tracks?
Martine: Yeah, Hamilton is our resident DJ.
Undine: Give us the names of some of the artists that you listen to at the studio, even genres.
Hamilton: Right now, we’re listening to real classic house music. Occasionally, we listen to trap when we need to focus on working on random items. If I’m just here, sometimes it’ll be surf rock. I like to mix it up.
Marine: I just told him to make a playlist (see below).
Hamilton: I’d add Skepta, LCD Soundsystem, Rejjie Snow, he’s Scarlett’s boyfriend, also 80s Japanese punk, definitely, early Kanye. I always try to read the room and add some variety. And, oh, let’s definitely add UK dub too.
Follow Martine’s next steps here.