Six floors above Gibus, the famed Paris punk venue where Iggy Pop and the Clash once performed, is the atelier of the new French label Y/Project. The design studio takes up the smaller of two rooms: There’s just enough space for the requisite workbenches, a couple of sewing machines and a single clothing rack, crammed with samples and vintage pieces.
Here, Y/Project’s 32-year-old creative director, Glenn Martens, and his two co-workers sit practically shoulder-to-shoulder. In production periods, when rolls of fabric arrive, Martens often shifts his work to the floor. “When we’re prepping for a collection, we have dinner late at night on the floor as well,” he says with a laugh. “Like a picnic.”
On one side of the studio is a wall of windows with sweeping views of Paris’s 10th and 11thArrondissements, just to the north of Republique. This is where many of the city’s young designers, like Simon Porte Jacquemus, Vetements and Christelle Koché have their studios — miles away from the slick institutions of the grand maisons on the other side of Paris.
Y/Project, which was launched in 2010 but has grown significantly in the last two years, had what can be only described as atypical beginnings. Originally founded as a partnership between the French designer Yohan Serfaty and the businessman Gilles Elalouf, it was once a men’s wear label known for conceptual design. In 2013, when Serfaty died of cancer, Elalouf went looking for a new creative director; Martens was on the shortlist. “I inherited the brand, really,” Martens says. “Yohan was such a striking personality and he had such a particular aesthetic, but it wasn’t at all my creative vision and I hesitated at first. I didn’t believe in the future of the creative direction of the brand either. It was dark and moody, and well, we have Rick Owens who already does that so well, plus, that isn’t me…”
Born in Bruges, Martens came to Paris by way of Antwerp, where he studied at the prestigious Royal Academy of Fine Arts. He worked as Serfaty’s first assistant at the designer’s first eponymous brand back in 2009 before going on to work with the renowned Belgian designer Bruno Pieters. He soon started a brand of his own, which folded in 2013 — shortly before he agreed to take the job at Y/Project.
For the first two seasons, Martens says he made sure to respect his predecessor’s vision, but in the last year he has transitioned the brand into an entirely different proposition. Channeling what he calls a “Poppy/Trashy/Transgender vibe” for both for men and women, the designer draws his inspiration from clothes on the street, or more accurately, the Paris metro. “I’m always staring at people,” he says with a laugh. Martens says he prefers to celebrate the everyday, and explore the workings and possibilities of an individual garment — revamping a classic hoodie, trench coat and jeans. Call it Normcore 2.0. “I like to enjoy the design process,” Martens says of his own approach. “From my point of view, we’re a young team and there’s no separation between our lives and our work — so we might as well enjoy it. You can feel that energy in the clothes, it’s honest, and people respond to it.”
Much like Demna Gvasalia at Vetements, Martens is setting his own pace within the frenetic cycle set of the fashion industry. “It’s completely unnatural for a designer to create all those collections,” he says with a shake of his head. “We do just two collections per year — we essentially design the men’s and the women’s at the same time. They are one collection, and often the fabrics, cuts and styles are shared across both collections. I like this idea of versatility.”
At Y/Project, many pieces (including denim) are unisex. Last season, Martens began to explore the women’s wear more completely. (He will be presenting his first-ever women’s show at Paris Fashion Week in March.) For spring/summer 2016, a number of acid-colored slip dresses and polished shirtdresses with swooping, architectural sleeves, attest to his sophisticated approach. Still, these garments have the same street-wise quirk as more casual items. “Whenever it’s a bit odd or a bit off that’s a good thing,” he says. “If it’s ugly in the beginning then the whole challenge is to make it pretty.”