"This makes me laugh. I mean, these pants are hilarious!” Glenn Martens is standing in his light-drenched Y/Project aerie o! the Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Denis, going over pictures of his spring show, pointing out an arrangement of underwear-skimpy shorts and suspendered chaps. Oh, see: The slivers of exposed upper thigh and the scissoring leg action form a Y-shape. “Y/Project is very eclectic,” Martens says, smiling, “but there’s always joyfulness in it.” The collection—which a roiling audience of young Parisian fans cheered on at Martens’s show last September—“was a men’s collection women would buy, with a club-culture background,” says the designer, who was appointed creative director of the label in 2013, after cofounder Yohan Serfaty died. Gradually, the 33-year-old Belgian’s own romantically weird, streetwise vibe has filltered through. Evidence the brilliant hybrid of nineties cargo pants–cum–swashbuckling seventeenth century knee boots that stomped his spring show along with crushed velvet–trailing, medievally hip dresses, gorgeously bishop-sleeved sweatshirts, and exaggeratedly turned-up pants—in an inclusive palette that runs from neutral to plush magenta.
It’s official: Glenn Martens is part of the new fashion energy rising in Paris, with his debut womenswear-only Y/Project show rounding out a day of collections from Koché, Jacquemus, Olivier Theyskens, and Anthony Vaccarello’s debut at Saint Laurent. The reaction skyrocketed the business. “Doing that show made things change so fast, really beyond expectations,” he says, sitting back at his corner desk by an open window overlooking a cobbled yard. The space is an upgrade for Martens and his team, who used to work in a hole above Gibus, the gay dance club in the Marais where Martens’s first show was held in 2015. (The label’s CEO, Gilles Elalouf, bankrolled the move here last summer.)
Martens hails from Bruges, a medieval gem of a city and the capital of West Flanders. His dad was a judge. “A very big history freak,” Martens says, “always taking us to look at churches and things when I was young, so it’s definitely in my blood—churches and nature!” But, he says, laughing now, “I’m also from the nineties, and the Belgian club culture was quite intense—stupid music and stupid parties that I’d go to when I was sixteen in the middle of the village.”
It all affects the way Martens designs, which is part nonconformist, part high culture. “A lot of designers impose the one way they think you should wear things. We wanted to do the opposite.” He demonstrates the system of cuff links and eyelets he devised to adjust the depth of cuffs and the side openings on pants, along with ribbons and drawstring tapes that can ruche, tie, and alter shapes. “We want this to appeal to very different women and give them the #exibility to adapt,” Martens says. “If you want sleeves, you can have sleeves—if you want a mid- or mini length, you can have that too. You can completely reconstruct it.”
Martens is the latest in the long line of designers to have come out of Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Art (where he was taught by the legendary Linda Loppa and graduated first in his class in 2008), though he arrived (not knowing how to sew) to study architecture. Like fellow alum Demna Gvasalia of Vetements, he’s reached visibility only after paying his dues—as a designer on Jean Paul Gaultier’s G2 line, then with Bruno Pieters, and then, briefly, his own-name label in 2012.
Now, though, Martens has emerged into what, strangely, has become the best time in years to be a young designer in Paris, even if politics and terrorism are more horrible than they’ve been for decades. Since Gvasalia’s meteoric arrival, buyers and journalists have their antennae scanning for each and every underground rumbling. “I think we all owe Demna that,” Martens says, nodding. “Paris is a very different city from when I first moved here. Before, it was very settled, even in nightlife and art—there weren’t many alternatives. Right now I feel there’s so much more—there are loads of underground nightclubs opening up in the suburbs. A lot of the city has had a revival—and a lot of overlooked people are getting the spotlight.”