Born in the postcardperfect medieval surroundings of Bruges, Glenn Martens, the creative director of Y/Project, has long been attracted to historical figures and Classical design. So, upon receiving the invitation to show his FW19 menswear collection as guest designer at Pitti Uomo, the Belgian jumped at the chance to have the opportunity to show in Florence – a city he has long revered – and follow in the footsteps of designers like Raf Simons, Jonathan Anderson and Craig Green.
Given carte blanche over the city’s spectacular range of Renaissance architecture, Martens opted to show in the Large Cloister of the Santa Maria Novella – home to the world’s oldest pharmacy, which once conjured treatments for the Black Death, and artworks dating back nearly 100 years. Here, inside the church’s hallowed halls, 3000 guests, including industry names, students from nearby universities and other locals invited by Martens, were handed flashlights to guide their path. These were the sole light source at the show; only when guests worked together could they see garments clearly.
In a move that emphasises Martens’ democratic approach to design, art and fashion, this type of dynamic thinking has seen Y/Project gain attention and industry respect through imaginative and accessible collections, offering an idiosyncratic take on culture through staples. They have grown steadily in large part to the warm pragmatism of Martens’ direction, who continues to build on the work of founder Yohan Serfaty while leading the team in challenging new directions. As a new wave of Parisian design takes the world by storm, Y/Project are carving out a space for themselves as a serious player in a city crowded with established houses and perpetual buzz.
Nazanin Shahnavaz: Hi Glenn, what’re you up to later today?
Glenn Martens: I’m catching a plane in two hours to Hong Kong but only for 48 hours. I wish I could stay longer to walk around and visit the city, but I have to be back on Sunday to work on the styling for the show.
NS: You won’t even have time to feel the jet lag [laughs].
GM: I’m quite happy with that, being there for just two days I’ll never acclimatise. So I’ll just be tired the whole time, but I’m back Sunday ready to work on Monday.
NS: Have you been to Hong Kong before?
GM: No never, so I am little disappointed that I can’t stay an extra night or two. I’ve heard it’s an amazing city.
NS: I’ve been once before and I’ve just been dreaming about it ever since, it’s sort of like Manhattan but on a tropical island.
GM: The problem is, I have a busy schedule and will be in meetings from 9am, then dinners until 10pm. So I won’t have time to see anything, but I’ll have the temperature – around 22 degrees. I’ll have a sneak peek of summer.
NS: What was your upbringing like?
Glenn: Very traditional actually, I come from Bruges which is a small provincial town in Belgium where there’s not a lot happening. They call it a museum town, it’s very pretty but it’s definitely a sleeping beauty. So I had a very laid-back, traditional upbringing. My mother was a nurse, my dad was a judge, I went to a Christian Classics college and studied Latin, amongst other things. I was raised mostly by my grandparents; my grandfather was in the Belgium army. It was a very calm and sweet upbringing. Bruges is a good place to grow up, you don’t have the aggression of big cities so for a child it’s really nice and safe, you have the vibe of a city but it’s very low key. There’s a movie called In Bruges, in that they call it a shithole, and it is a bit of a shithole [laughs]. It’s great to grow up there, but once you’re a bit older you’re ready to go, you’re literally running away – fast [laughs]. I left Bruges when I was seventeen to study interior architecture in Ghent. After that, I went to Antwerp to study fashion. Growing up in Bruges, it really clouds your way of thinking, aesthetically. When I started travelling the world on my own I was frustrated that nothing was as pretty as my hometown. I went to London at eighteen and didn’t really understand the diversity of the city, for me it was normal to have this aesthetically perfect landscape where everything is in the same style. It’s very austere, it’s never had a war or an industrial revolution, so it’s stayed very much as it was in the Medieval time. I was used to that and I couldn’t deal with concrete, it took some time for me to embrace different cities, I think because of that I love cities like Venice, Florence and Rome, they offer a similar kind of experience.
NS: Was fashion something you followed growing up?
GM: No not at all, I had a very theoretical education. As a kid I thought I’d become an archaeologist, a historian or something like that. I never thought of art as an actual career move, so it was only when I was around eighteen that I became restless for something more artistic. But as I’d never experienced any artistic fields I felt very unprepared for it, so that’s why I studied architecture, it felt like a good in-between – something theoretical but still creative.
NS: I did the same thing, I studied architecture when I really wanted to study fashion.
GM: Yeah when you come from a more traditional background, going into something that isn’t so ‘traditionally accepted’ can be a bit of challenge.
NS: In terms of impressing your parents?
NS: With your background, did you feel like an outsider when you tried to go into fashion?
GM: Very much so, especially in Antwerp. It’s an academy that’s so international, where students come from all over the world and they really know they want to be fashion designers, most of them have already studied fashion and are prepared for it. For me, I went there because I graduated in interior architecture but was far too young to work, I thought fashion could be interesting but I never really thought it through. I did the entrance exams and somehow passed, I don’t how, or why they accepted me. I was so behind compared to my classmates, I had no idea who Margiela was, I barely knew who Karl Lagerfeld was. I had no background so it was a bit difficult at the beginning, I had a lot to catch up on.
NS: Did you express a sense of style growing up?
GM: I went through all different phases. I was a bit of a gabber when I was fourteen, then when I was sixteen I made a best friend who was a surfer with dreadlocks and I became the faker skater – my friends were skating but I didn’t, I just wore baggy pants and oversized Fruit of the Loom sweaters. I was more about belonging to a group rather than being an individual, also when you study in a very classic college, nobody is really that creative, so it’s more about having friends and fitting in. Obviously I was a bit more creative than my class, I was already a bit of an outsider and because of that, I tried to belong even more.
NS: What are your earliest memories of making clothes – would that have been in Antwerp?
GM: My experience making clothes was literally at university, but when I was a child I spent many years drawing, mostly historical figures but all my attention would go to the clothes. I would put so much energy into drawing King Arthur, Mary Antoinette or Cleopatra and would really focus on what they were wearing or what I imaged them to be wearing. I guess that’s my very first connection with fashion, drawing historical silhouettes.
NS: Are they points of inspiration for you still?
GM: I have obsessions with historic figures, like Elizabeth Siddal for example, she was a pre-Raphaelite muse. But for work, my daily inspiration comes from people on the Metro. I’m always staring at people. I love to stare. Nazanin: Can you remember what you dreamt about last night? Glenn: Not that much. I’ve been extremely tired the past few weeks and I slept really well last night. I was a bit annoyed because I have this twelve-hour flight and hoped to be exhausted on the plane so I can sleep all the way through, but I had a full ten hours last night so I guess I’ll be watching movies.
“I would put so much energy into drawing King Arthur, Mary Antoinette or Cleopatra and would really focus on what they were wearing, or what I imagined them to be wearing.”
NS: Do you think there was a moment when your dreams became a reality?
GM: I never dreamt, work-wise. As I said, my family is very traditional, so suddenly their grandson is saying, “I’m going to study fashion,” and they were like, “What the fuck is happening?” [laughs] They would always seriously question me about my future and I always said that when I graduate I’m going to Paris. Then literally the day I graduated I moved to Paris. They asked what I was going to do there and I told them I’m going to work a bit and then take over a [fashion] house. Two years later I took over a house, Y/Project. I’m very lucky and very focused. I’m good at reaching the goals I want set myself. Since I left high school, my dream has always been that I want to enjoy. I always had this situation with my friends when we were studying architecture, of course we were responsible and serious about our degrees, but at the same time we wanted to have fun and enjoy every single day. It’s cliché but I think that’s what everyone should be thinking.
NS: Have your achievements lived up to your expectations?
GM: It’s better than my expectations. I’m extremely grateful and I’m aware that I’m very spoilt [laughs]. Not everyone can say that they are working on something they are so passionate about. Every single day there’s a challenge that I’m happy to take on. I love my career, my team – it never feels like work.
NS: What star sign are you?
GM: I’m a Taurus.
NS: Have you read your horoscope today?
GM: No, my fitting model usually does but we’ve not had a fitting today.
NS: It’s saying that you should treat yourself to something special and a shift is taking place in your career. “Tension is in the air, so take time to get your head and your heart aligned.”
GM: Oh my god. Great, it’s going to be a very interesting flight [laughs]. I mean it’s the first time I’m going to Hong Kong, so it sort of makes sense.
NS: What are your interests outside of fashion?
GM: I’m over-active. I’m very into anything and everything, especially anything historical – if I walk past an old church I’ll always want to go and look inside. I enjoy hiking, camping in the wild for ten days in Sweden, or going to a rave for two days. It completely depends on the situation and on the time that I have. If I have an evening free during the week – especially during fashion week that is so intense – I’m not going to take my Thursday evening to read a book because I’m not rested, my mind is going too fast. That’s the moment where I’m going to go for dinner and drinks, whereas in the middle of April I’ll be sitting somewhere with a book, reading next to the Seine. For me, it’s important to feel comfortable in every situation. I think it’s fun to be able to be at a five star Palazzo hotel one week and then go camping and not shower for ten days, exploring natural reserves in a canoe. I think it’s important to be able to experiences all facets of life.
“I love to stay conceptual and make clothes that go in all different directions. I’m not interested in feeding any hype machine…”
NS: What’s a typical day like in the office?
GM: When I’m in Paris I usually don’t come in before 11 or 12am. I share the office so when I need to focus and answer my emails in the morning I’m better off at home. Then in the evening, you know, it’s Paris. It’s a city with a strong culture of drinks and dinners, so it’s rare that you don’t meet with friends in the evening. But I’m also very spoilt because when I bring in external people to work with, my jewellery, bag and shoe designers, my photographers, they are actually all my friends. We’ve grown up together. I’ve surrounded myself with those people and we always do the work meetings in the evening so they come to the office, we have a one-hour meeting and then we slide through to the bar and have a beer or two – or three [laughs].
NS: But there are sacrifices to working so much, especially in fashion.
GM: Yes, your social life is sometimes gone. I mean, again I see my friends because they pass by for work, but on very busy periods I do sacrifice my private life. Then you suddenly feel like you are by yourself, you get home and you’re alone. I think also when you travel a lot, people just assume that you are away and forget to invite you to things. Then you see it pass you by on Instagram. But I totally understand, I do the same thing. When you’re very busy, sometimes you forget about your private life.
NS: How would you describe Y/Project in your own words?
GM: It’s a very eclectic brand that celebrates opulence. Nothing is timid. Everything is very rich, every single piece is very elaborate, versatile and eclectic. In this way we talk to many different people and product groups, we jump from corsetry to streetwear, sportswear, tailoring. Everything is possible in the collection, so it’s fun and there is a lot of humour.
“I did the entrance exams and somehow passed, I don’t how, or why they accepted me. I was so behind compared to my classmates, I had no idea who Margiela was, I barely knew who Karl Lagerfeld was.”
NS: And you showed your FW19 collection as guest designer at Pitti Uomo, how was that?
GM: The Pitti collection was a celebration. I thought it was a great platform to reconfirm what Y/ Project as a menswear brand stands for, we wanted to appeal to a diverse audience. Even the most simple garment has a strong design twist, which is very important to me. My customers need to know that we are talking about luxury and design, where even the simplest sweater has a whole patchwork of panels flying around. We would never just present a sweater with a logo, I don’t think that is luxury, especially when you have a basic hoodie with a basic logo for $600 and your production price is $40.
NS: And showing your work in the context of Florence must have been special, particularly after what you said about it being a city you can relate to?
GM: It was amazing. Especially because Pitti has the key to every single building in Florence, they really offer you carte blanche. All the designers that I really respect have shown there, like Raf [Simons], Craig Green, Jonathan Anderson, so it’s a huge honour to be part of that family. For me that was a really challenging moment, doing something different in a new location. With Paris, it’s fashion week. People are stressed, running from one show to another, saying what they have to say and then leaving to another show. But in Pitti, they are much more relaxed, it’s a holiday atmosphere and a real event. They take their time, so you can really create an event that people will remember.
NS: What was the idea behind the lighting?
GM: Y/Project is a very democratic brand, it speaks to many different people. Also, Pitti is a very democratic platform, it’s a showroom, it’s a fair, everyone can come, present and watch. As Pitti was inviting us, I wanted everyone to watch the show, so we invited 3000 people – from museums, schools, Pitti itself, we really tried to open it up to as many people as possible. The second part of course was that I had to celebrate Florence, so showing somewhere that is a masterpiece of the city. We chose Santa Maria Novella, one of the most beautiful buildings. I didn’t want anyone to feel like anyone else was more privileged, so the show was at night and everyone had a flashlight and basically the whole happening was lit by the audience, so there were 3000 people lighting up the venue and the show. The concept was that a high-profile editor or buyer alongside a student would all have to work together to see it. I also like that art and fashion is a very independent experience, if I go to a museum with friends I’ll see something totally different to someone else, so because the flashlights were really small, people would focus on whichever aspect they wanted to see. For me, it emphasised individuality.
NS: At what point are you now in the trajectory of the brand?
GM: We are growing fast, every season we are expanding. We have 90 percent of our ideal customers, the press are really happy with us, I’ve opened up every single product group. Now it’s more about consolidating everything and making sure we make better collections, it’s getting more grown up. I’m most happy when the whole team moves together in one direction and then everything becomes cohesive.
NS: And what do you find exciting about the industry today?
GM: That it’s big. There’s so many people, so many hypes, but in the end there’s no golden rule and you never really know why some things happen and some don’t. I love to stay conceptual and make clothes that go in all different directions. I’m not interested in feeding any hype machine – I think if you stay honest to yourself then things will work out.
All clothing and accessories by Y/PROJECT SS19.
Feature originally published in HERO 21.