The face behind Y/Project

Via Purple Fashion

Text by Olivier Zahm Photography by Jonas Unger


The face behind y/project

We are margiela children
We’re from belgium
We’re from the ’90s

We were both in the antwerp school
Margiela is more a school than a designer
It’s more a way of thinking


OLIVIER ZAHM — So, you’re the last face from Antwerp in fashion? Not the last, but the most recent graduate to become well known, no?
GLENN MARTENS — Well... Actu- ally, it’s true.

OLIVIER ZAHM — There seems to be a constant flow of designers coming out of Belgium. It doesn’t stop.
GLENN MARTENS — It’s true! But they’re not all Bel- gian, you know. They’re also from all different coun- tries, who’ve come to study in Belgium. I’m the last Belgian-Belgian coming out, probably. I think this is because the schools in Bel- gium are really focused on instilling independence in students. That’s how I see it. There’s a real empha- sis on individuality. Ant- werp [Royal Academy of Fine Arts], for sure, is not a school that is going to tell you what to do. It’s a school that will just say, “Do it again.” All the time. Over and over and over again.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And do it your way?
GLENN MARTENS — And do it your way. And they will never tell you why you have to do it over again, but you have to keep on doing it. There comes this point, after four years of stud- ies, where you start to un- derstand why they’re asking you to do it again. They re- ally push you to go closer to your own personal world.

OLIVIER ZAHM — There’s no guideline.
GLENN MARTENS — Never. Never, never. It’s really strange. You really strug- gle. They’re always pushing you in that way.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What’s so spe- cific about Belgian culture?
GLENN MARTENS — Belgium is a country that has been over- ruled so much throughout history. The last time it was independent of Flanders — the region of Flanders — was way before the Dark Ages. And then, of course, it was under Spanish oc- cupation, German, French. And a lot of our identity got lost or stolen over the years. The most interesting part is certainly the 15th- century Flemish paintings. Well, I think in the Dark Ages, the Flemish school was kind of the ruling arts scene... And afterward, there were so many things devel- oped there. Tapestry, paint- ing, lace, stained glass, sculpture... So, I think they were a bit like the pre-Re- naissance.But then, because we were overruled all the time, so many things got taken away. And it’s true now that if you go to Bel- gium, it’s not the prettiest country. It’s not like Ita- ly or France, where you’re just constantly overwhelmed by the beauty, and con- stantly under the pressure of the beauty of the coun- try’s patrimony.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Nature in Belgium is not fantastic, is it?
GLENN MARTENS — Also not! [Jokingly] There’s nothing! But the cities are inter- esting. You have Bruges, Ghent, Brussels, Antwerp.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, what you’re saying is that due to a lack of cultural and political identity, the peo- ple in Belgium had to create their onw identity? Does it impact the fashion creativ- ity there?
GLENN MARTENS — Yes, I think that could be it. And also, artistically, we don’t have the weight of being the new generation of such a huge culture. So, you have to define yourself.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You have to create it. You have to cre- ate yourself.
GLENN MARTENS — Yeah, I think you can see that in art, theater, music. I think there’s a lot of things that we have to do our- selves. Because there’s not that much to build on.

OLIVIER ZAHM — In fashion, Antwerp [Academy] is con- stantly pushing you to de- velop your own vision or your own perspective on fashion. There’s no route map or guideline.
GLENN MARTENS — There’s no code.

OLIVIER ZAHM — In a way, it’s quite punk.
GLENN MARTENS — I guess so. And darker!

OLIVIER ZAHM — There’s a sort of cultural anarchy.
GLENN MARTENS — Yeah, I guess it’s true. It’s maybe kind of punk. I’m not sure if it’s really punk because it’s Walter Van Beirendonck — the headmaster. It’s acid punk. [Laughs] It’s a very painful punk, for sure. Ev- erybody who reaches gradu- ation, at a certain point they have a mental break- down and want to quit. [Laughter] Nobody comes out of there really happy and, like, pristine. It’s a bit of a self-flagellation. [Laughs, imitates the sound of whipping] It’s a good school, though!

OLIVIER ZAHM — So you were pretty ambitious from the get-go. When you arrived in Paris, was your goal to create your brand, or to be part of a brand?
GLENN MARTENS — I think most students come out of Antwerp with the idea of one day having their own company or their own brand. I first came to Paris be- cause there was a jury member when I was in the fourth year, doing my mas- ter’s, who placed me at Jean Paul Gaultier. So, I had my first job experience straight after graduation — which was great because I would never have been able to afford an internship.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, you were immediately hired?
GLENN MARTENS — Yeah, dream scenario! [Laughs] I mean, junior designer for the menswear at Gaultier, for the pre-collection at Gaultier — I was very lucky. Honestly, I was super lucky. It didn’t last for that long because my boss’s team got dismantled. That was with Gilles Rosier. And after that, I had all differ- ent kinds of experiences. I thought it was quite good for me to learn as much as possible. I first went to work for Yohan Serfaty — he was running his own brand in Istanbul. So, I was in Istanbul for a year. Then I worked for Bruno Pieters on different collaborations — like with Weekday, from the H&M group, then his first Honest By collection.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What is it called? Honest By?
GLENN MARTENS — Honest By, yeah. I did the first col- lection, which launched the brand. And then I started doing consulting, for Hugo Boss, for example. Through this kind of work, I made money to build my own...

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, you did a lot!
GLENN MARTENS — A lot of different things.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You have a real work ethic.

OLIVIER ZAHM — No, seriously.
GLENN MARTENS — That’s why now I’m 34, and I’m go- ing back to the parties. [Laughs] Because in my 20s, I was fully focused on work. And now I’m a bit more settled, so I’m, like, “Ok, let’s take time and discover life.”

OLIVIER ZAHM — How did you get involved with Y/Project?
GLENN MARTENS — Yohan Ser- faty, who started Y/Project, had passed away a few months prior. It was a com- pany in mourning. Also, it was a very dark collec- tion. It was beautiful but quite niche — leaning to- ward a kind of Rick Owens direction. And this really reflected Yohan’s person- ality. He was a Tim Bur- ton figure or character — tall, super-skinny, wear- ing long leather jackets. In the beginning, we de- cided to stay as close as possible to Yohan’s world, and then slowly change to something a bit clos- er to my world, something a little fresher. I always thought you have so many great designers doing that already — you have Rick Ow- ens, Ann Demeulemeester — doing great things like they do, so why would we also try to take that di- rection? But the idea was really to take our time, and we really managed. Af- ter two years, under my direction, the brand's 20 stores were a little more like Opening Ceremony,

OLIVIER ZAHM — You seem to be very relaxed and deal easely with the stress at work. You don’t lose your sense of humor?GLENN MARTENS — We’re a very good team. We’re re- ally a team. It’s like a family. We were five people when I arrived. Now we’re 20 — 25 if we include free- lancers. The challenge is that every season, it’s a full new story. Because ev- ery season, we grow so much that there are new things coming in. You have to re- invent your way of working for new factories, a new team member... You have to get seniors. It’s always a whole new way of working. It’s never stable. [Laughs] It’s always, like, “Okay, what’s happening now?”

OLIVIER ZAHM — There’s no routine.
GLENN MARTENS — We’re grow- ing so much — by, like, 40% every season. There’s no routine. And then you have cooperations, etc. So that’s a challenge — to deal with all these changes and still do your thing, and not lose your way, the ini- tial identity of the label.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And you may have to face industrial prob- lems. And you’re not trained for that, necessarily.
GLENN MARTENS — Right! And everybody at Y/Project was still learning the job by doing. But there comes a point when you have to stop making these baby mistakes.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Where do you find your ideas? Because you say you didn’t follow the Owens-Margiela-Demeule- meester path. People connect you with Vetements, but that is also Margiela, in a way.
GLENN MARTENS — I honest- ly think that makes sense. Because we are Margiela children, you know? We’re from Belgium, we’re from the ’90s, we were both in the Antwerp school. For me, Margiela is more a school than a designer. It’s more a way of thinking.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Yes. A meth- od, almost.
GLENN MARTENS — It’s defi- nitely a method.

OLIVIER ZAHM — There is so much to learn from him.
GLENN MARTENS — He’s a ge- nius. And, of course, some designers do it more liter- ally than others. We have a lot of second degré [tongue in cheek] — that’s really the main idea of the collec- tions. It always has to be...


OLIVIER ZAHM — Interesting, yes. Surprising.
GLENN MARTENS — It needs to be fun. It needs to be happy. I just think that clothes need to be fun to wear — you need to be challenged a bit. It’s cute that you can give that to people — that they’re sur- prised, and they don’t know what to do. The whole idea is to trigger people. But to come back to your original question: my ideas mostly have to do with Belgium, actually. Very historic.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, your ap- proach and your pleasure in design is... you don’t take it too seriously?
GLENN MARTENS — No. I think it’s really very much about enjoying yourself. And [about] individuality. That’s also important for me. If you look at our collec- tion plan, or the catwalk, you have so many different kinds of people jumping in that collection. And in so many different directions — our production groups go from sportswear, denim, streetwear, corsetry, tai- loring... There are all dif- ferent kinds of situations.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You’re very eclectic.
GLENN MARTENS — It’s super eclectic. But I think it re- flects personalities. I can be a club kid, I can be a loving grandson, I can be a lover, I can be a busi- nessman — and all in one day. [Laughs] You can be all these different kinds of people in one day. Also, there’s the fact that we’re traveling all the time. You’re going to be in LA tomorrow — there’s a whole different Olivier in LA... Surroundings always have an influence on you.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, you need this variety in a collec- tion.
GLENN MARTENS — I need that. And I also think it’s really fun that every sin- gle piece is versatile. You can change it, you can adapt it. It’s really push- ing individuality. You re- ally have to own the piece. It has to become something you feel comfortable with. Instead of hiding in it. There’s a lot of people who wear clothes to be part of an army.

OLIVIER ZAHM — How is this versatility compatible with a clear image for your label?
GLENN MARTENS — We don’t do a lot of branding. We have a bit of branding, of course, but we don’t do that much because we try to avoid this army figure. It’s more about eclectic individualities. We’re still quite small, we’re still very niche, and people are coming to us for that. It’s a very nice position to be in — today, in this situa- tion, in this brand. We can still do it. I don’t have a brand manager pushing me all the time, saying, “You sold so many jerseys — push that.”

OLIVIER ZAHM — But we can immediately identify what you do.
GLENN MARTENS — There’s a link, yeah... There’s opulence. I think the link is opulence. It’s always very rich.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Generous, yes.
GLENN MARTENS — [Laughs] Not rich like money, but in form.

OLIVIER ZAHM — We are lucky to have you in Paris because you bring a new energy, and Paris for a while was a bit “done” on the fashion map. Like, from 2005 to 2010, we were wondering, “What’s go- ing on in Paris?” It’s a par- adox because Paris is seen as a place for fashion, but there are not so many young designers, not so much new blood, exciting energy.
GLENN MARTENS — I think there were always interest- ing designers shown in Paris, but they were coming from outside. But Paris changes a lot, no? I don’t know how you feel about it, but I re- ally feel it. I’ve lived here for 10 years. I think it’s a different city... There’s a whole underground scene that is opening up. There’s a whole music scene, there’s a party scene. There are cul- tural centers in Pantin, or wherever. I think there are a lot of things slowly chang- ing. And I think that goes hand-in-hand with fashion, of course. I think Paris got a bit of a wake-up call. It was, like, “Okay, move your butt.” [Laughter] You can’t rely on the big ones only.

OLIVIER ZAHM — How do you deal with this new social media environment and this world of images and videos coming to your phone, all the time, from everywhere? Does it inform your fashion in a way, or not?
GLENN MARTENS — I think it’s very helpful. I think peo- ple can say whatever nega- tive things about it that they want to, but viewed positively, it’s extremely helpful and extremely grat- ifying. Nowadays, if I fol- low the right people, I can be in some Berlin scene, I can then be in the London scene, I can follow people from all over the world and see what’s happening around the world.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And do you get ideas sometimes?
GLENN MARTENS — Yeah. I think I can get vibes. Honestly, it’s a living encyclopedia.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s a moving encyclopedia.
GLENN MARTENS — Yeah. I think in former days, Yves Saint Laurent went to Marrakesh to get inspired, and he had to do that. Which is, of course, always the best — to go on the spot. That’s where you really feel the vibes. But people had to travel in order to get in- spired by something differ- ent. And now, we can just have it on our phones. We can escape in one second. I can be in my office, have an annoying meeting, go on my Instagram, and be calm.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You don't seem to have the big ego of the designer?
GLENN MARTENS — I don’t see myself as the most talent- ed designer in the world. I just see myself as maybe a person who...

OLIVIER ZAHM — A catalyst?
GLENN MARTENS — Yeah, who’s better at matching people and talking to people. For me, it’s really a way of working. I really love going to the office. I’m always super happy. I work with the same people... Since the very beginning, when I had my own brand, before Y/Project... I had my own brand for three seasons. I’ve discovered my stylist, Ursina Gysi, I’ve discovered my favorite pho- tographer, Arnaud Lajeunie, who became two of my clos- est friends. Together, we’re growing. She’s doing all my shows. Arnaud does all my campaigns. And it’s like a family. It’s a lot of inter- action together.

GLENN MARTENS — Ursina Gysi. She’s been my stylist since the very beginning. Well, not really the begin- ning — the first two, she didn’t do.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, it’s not only the clothes. It’s the team, and it’s also the pic- ture.
GLENN MARTENS — The whole visual story. The whole identity. It’s very grati- fying to work in that way. I think it’s extremely good because you have a lot of trust.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, you are the living demonstration in Paris that there’s room for a fresh, new spirit, right?
GLENN MARTENS — I’m not the only one. But I definitely... There’s definitely room for it. But you have to push. You have to push hard. It’s a very difficult in- dustry — either you need a lot of money, or you need a lot of motivation and peo- ple around you to help you build your future.

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