Glenn Martens, the head designer of Parisian brand Y/Project, is sitting pretty at the moment with a bustling clothing line creating fashion pandemonium and clamor amongst industry veterans. At the moment, the fashion world is quickly approaching a new dawn, an era where fashion is less about formality and more about approachability—clothes you can wear day in and day out. Martens, who first cut his teeth at Jean Paul Gaultier, has been building collections at Y/Project based on the key premise that his clothes would sell and actually be worn—a forward-thinking fete that is paying off well. Martens’s off-kilter collections aren’t displayed in any original sense. There is no reoccurring scheme, but rather each piece is designed to stand out on its own and be an extension of the wearer’s personality.
In an interview with V, Martens sits down to discuss his Antwerp fashion education, the design principles he lives by, and his vision for Y/Project.
How did growing up in the historic city of Bruges influence the way you design or perceive fashion as a whole?
Bruges had a major impact on my aesthetic. They call my city the "Venice of the North." I grew up in the austere shadows of exquisite gothic architecture. Same as in Venice, the city does also attract mass tourism. You’re constantly confronted with the kitsch and consumption this kind of tourism brings along. It disturbs the uniformity of the city but at a certain point, you do learn to love crap tourist stores, the neon lights and smelly food stalls. I do think you can find similar duality in my work. I’m constantly exploring the look of classic elegance in contrast with something harsher and more aggressive.
Describe the first instance you knew you wanted to work in fashion.
I first studied interior design. I graduated at the age of 21. I was way too young to start working and had the urge to explore some more. During my time as an interior design student we went to visit the Antwerp academy. It’s a quite nice building done by a famous Belgian architect. That’s where i first heard of the Antwerp school. I thought “this sounds fun”, I went to the entrance exams with a portfolio of bathrooms and kitchens and somehow managed to get in. I had no idea what I signed up to but I got hooked straight away! It was a match.
What was your experience like working with Jean Paul Gaultier?
I got very lucky with my first job. A jury member at my graduation in Antwerp fixed me a position as a junior designer for Jean Paul Gaultier. I moved straight from school to Paris. Working at Gaultier was an amazing experience. The fashion business can be very tough. He taught me to enjoy the job, to love every single day, not to stress and not to compare yourself to others. This business can be a bitch so make the best of it. You need to have fun! He’s all about fun!
After Gaultier, you worked on several projects including launching your own line for a few seasons before you inherited Y/Project from Yohan Serfaty. How did that come about?
I never enjoyed financial support from family or a backer, no one influential pushed me so at the end there was only one way—you work your ass off. I have never worked as much as I did in my twenties. I was [working] three jobs simultaneously and spent all my weekends working nights and saving every single cent to invest back into my own company—it was rough. I had my own brand for three seasons, it was doing pretty well but it was also a one-man show. I was by myself dealing with production, prototyping, sales, press and presentations. I learned a lot but at the end I did have a slight burnout. Y/Project arrived at the perfect time. When Gilles Elalouf, Y/Project’s co-founder and current CEO called me up after the passing of Yohan, I had the choice to relaunch a small, unknown but structured brand or to keep on dragging on my own label.
What is the meaning behind the name Y/Project?
Nobody actually knows. There are different theories. It’s the name Yohan chose for his brand. I assume the Y is part of his initials. I like the mystery.
How would you describe your approach to fashion?
With Y/Project we’ve been celebrating individuality. I see a lot of brands pushing the “army-effect”. Once you wear the brand you become the brand. I respect the approach but for us, we want to do the opposite. A lot of the clothes we propose are conceived to be totally versatile. The idea is that they have to grow on your personality. We invite our customer to make a choice, you need to own the piece: “How do I feel today? How do I want to wear this garment?” the different answers can often be found in one single piece. I think this freedom, the fun factor, is what triggers people.
Where do you look for inspiration?
We take any reference we like regardless of an era or subculture. It is a very emotional process. There’s no rules, it just happens, we do what we want and try to find some balance in between the extremes. Our collection plan therefore flirts with streetwear, sportswear, couture, tailoring. It [represents] a celebration of the huge melting pot we’re living in.
Paris is a never-ending source of inspiration. There’s of course the great history, but it’s also a metropole embracing many different cultures. I love taking the metro, being stuck there for 20 minutes with nothing better to do than watch people. I’m that guy staring at you from the corner. I love staring—it’s very embarrassing.
What is your overall process like when devising a collection? What is your starting point and how do you build from there?
I’m obsessed by construction. I guess it’s a leftover of my architecture studies. Most collections start with constructive experiments. We develop concepts, twists that we project on different product groups. Once we fall in love with a technique, we start giving form and color to the globality of the collection. At Y/Project anything is possible. If we want to go all out and do mountains of fake fur we do mountains of fake fur, if we want to do ethnic knits we do ethnic knits, if we want to do denim porte-jarretelles we do denim porte-jarretelles.
You’ve mentioned that Y/Project doesn’t follow rules—which is evident with each groundbreaking collection you unveil. How has being uninhibited allowed you to enhance your design approach?
We don’t really have a design strategy. It happens very emotionally. You just feel when things are right or wrong. The collections are eclectic and that’s probably what links them. There’s also a common sense of opulence and “second degré”. It’s all very rich and we don’t take ourselves very serious.
As you lead the way with your captivating designs and innovative perspective, where do you think the future of fashion is headed?
No idea. I prefer to [ask] questions [rather] than [give] answers. I’d like people to question why they like something, what makes something special and how they see how our clothes can become a continuation of themselves. I do of course hope people are getting more aware of the choices they make. Y/Project before my arrival was about 80% leatherwear. At this stage there’s only one leather jacket left in the collection. We try to use as much certified fabrics [as possible], we’re totally transparent about our production and take this very seriously. It’s small steps that make the change.