“I’m the guy staring at you in the street,” says Glenn Martens, the designer behind cult French label Y/Project, when asked where he gets his inspiration from. “I’m constantly observing people, I dissect how they wear their clothes and how their clothes affect their attitude. It gets very embarrassing at points.” It may be embarrassing, but it’s in the name of fashion – and it’s paying off. Hailing from Belgium, Martens cut his teeth at The Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Antwerp where he caught the eye of the enfant terrible of French fashion Jean Paul Gaultier, who enlisted him to work on his pre-collection lines and his men’s label G2.
Martens went on to work for Yohan Serfaty at his label Y/Project (founded in 2010) and, after the designer sadly passed away in 2013, was handed the reins. Here, he’s been heralded for his designs which, he says, people often refer to as a blend of “Belgian ‘concept’, French ‘couture’, Italian ‘sex’ and British ‘cool’”. And that’s not the only ‘blending’ going on – his most recent (AW16 womenswear) collection represented an off-kilter pastiche of styles, some historical, some contemporary. There were bishop sleeves and ruff-like collars, ruched jeans and leather track pants – all of which are thick with attitude.
As well as being a hit with the buyers, Martens has found favour with the LVMH Prize Panel and is among the eight semifinalists for this year’s award, as well as Dazed favourites Vejas and Wales Bonner. Ahead of the announcement of the winner, we speak to the designer to find out more about Y/Project, what he learned from Gaultier and how he approaches the craft of fashion design.
What’s behind the name Y/Project?
Glenn Martens: Nobody actually knows. Apparently Yohan Serfaty had a host of reasons to call it that. But since nobody can give me a definite answer, I’ve decided that it’s about initials – that the ‘Y’ stands for ‘Yohan’.
What are your memories of Yohan? Do you feel like you are carrying on his legacy?
Glenn Martens: He was a very enigmatic person. The brand was still very young when he passed away, but I went through the archive and dissected all types elements that I could build on. The renewed identity is definitely based on his legacy, but it’s also different.
How is it different and how is it the same?
Glenn Martens: When I took over a label, the collection plan was about 70 per cent leather. The silhouettes were sleek, elongated and tough. Even though Y/Project only did menswear, the slim cut of the silhouettes worked well on women. Today, the attitude features prominently in everything we do and we still experiment a lot with leather. Even with our urban looks, we flirt with verticality, elongating the silhouettes. When I arrived at the label, we launched the first womenswear collection. Looking back at our history it seemed more than logical to base our girls on our guys... Today, 50 per cent of the collection is still unisex. I did add that whole eclectic vibe and a bit of humour – the whole thing is much lighter.
What’s Y/Project’s raison d'être?
Glenn Martens: We take whatever reference we want, regardless of era or subculture. This quirky mix of anything is our main constant. It’s basically all about having fun and making fun clothes.
How would you describe your approach to fashion?
Glenn Martens: There’s no rule, it just happens, we do what we want and try to find some balance in between the extremes. It’s the kind of attitude I try to project onto my personal life. I’m happy with almost everything and I feel comfortable in most situations – I guess that’s why I’m constantly pushing my limits, in search for whatever is frightening or challenging. This is exactly the starting point of most designs: we take elements we don’t like and try to reinterpret them into something we love. We’re constantly asking ourselves if we’re going too far or not.
Why do you like gothic architecture, and how does this translate to your designs?
Glenn Martens: I’m from Bruges, a town known for having extremely well preserved gothic architecture. When you grow up the shadows of such cathedrals and belfries, it colours your aesthetic. My translations always differ; they can be about the austerity, the elegance, the construction, the ornaments…
What was the concept behind your last collection?
Glenn Martens: There wasn’t really a massive concept or a starting point, it just developed – a little bit like ecstasy (laughs). I’m always on the move and so is our woman, she’s a businesswoman by day and a raver by night, she embodies all these different lifestyles. I think this is quite specific to our era, our parents were into subcultures, but I think we're more of a melting pot – that’s why we classic compositions with more street ones.
Do you see yourself as a Parisian brand?
Glenn Martens: We’re made in Paris and of course Y/Project is a French company, but the team is from everywhere, we’re a big mix. So I don’t really see us as a Parisian brand in Paris.
There’s a lot of excitement about Paris at the moment with like Vetements and Demna Gvasalia at Balenciaga, do you feel a similar spirit in what you’re doing or not?
Glenn Martens: Obviously, everybody is talking about the outcome of Paris again – it’s something I hear all the time. And yeah, we’re part of it – this new generation.