The Contradictory Clothing of Glenn Martens’ Y/Project

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Iris is wearing a roll-neck top and skirt with beaded fringing by Y/ProjectPhotography by Chris Rhodes, Styling by Chloe Grace Press

“I dragged it in all directions to make it something new,” the designer behind the Paris-based label tells Emma Hope Allwood

Glenn Martens, the 35-year-old creative director of Y/Project, went through many phases as a teenager. “I was a fake skater, I was a gabber,” the native Belgian says, recalling his not-quite-wayward youth in Bruges, the medieval capital of West Flanders, from his studio in the 10th arrondissement of Paris. His voice is soft, with the guttural intonations of a Flemish accent; his youthful face, topped with bleached-blond hair growing from naturally dark roots, lights up in a grin. “But even though I was at a skatepark, smoking joints at 16, or sneaking out to rave parties, I was always home for my Baroque flute lessons.”

Martens’ sense of startling, incongruous contrasts and strange dichotomies – stoned gabber skater versus Baroque chamber music – continues today. Like him, Y/Project thrives on the contradictory. His studio is in a former 19th-century factory, a 1,600-square-foot space in a slightly down-at-heel neighbourhood close to the Place de la République, bordered by strings of discount clothing retailers and supermarkets. As a locale for sophisticated fashion, it’s unconventional – it also could not be more different from Martens’ upbringing in Bruges, a city whose golden age spanned the 12th to 15th centuries, when it was a global hub and where architectural growth was stunted around the Middle Ages, near perfectly preserved. “It’s one of those cities that fell asleep in the 16th century – time never passed by.” There’s something in that striking disparity, in moving from a city steeped in the past to the vibrant heart of a contemporary metropolis that mirrors his approach to design. In Paris, he looks out at the cultural exchange happening on the street and while pulling references to the past, to Rococo and Elizabethan styles, fuses them all together.

“I dragged it in all directions to make it something new. It might have been easier just to start from scratch” – Glenn Martens, Y/Project

That’s all an apt metaphor for Martens’ work at Y/Project, a brand whose very existence is remarkable, let alone its status as one of the most celebrated labels to come out of Paris in recent years. Started in 2010 by Yohan Serfaty, the independent company achieved moderate success, but its future was plunged into uncertainty after the designer’s death from cancer just three years later. Martens, who had previously worked for Serfaty as an assistant, was invited back to head up the label’s reinvention, gradually drawing the collections away from the black menswear favoured by the founder, into something very different.

Which brings us to the clothes, now officially for women too. With dramatic yet playful deconstruction at the heart of each collection, Y/Project has quickly gained notoriety for its signature suspender jeans and heels with straps that spiral up the entire leg – and for being a favourite of women such as Solange Knowles and Rihanna. Not unlike the double identity of Martens’ teenage years, extreme elegance is now balanced with extreme bad taste, contemporary sportswear and streetwear with exaggerated historical and couture touches, and decidedly conceptual design with a thriving business. Y/Project’s co-founder and CEO, Gilles Elalouf, has an MBA from Harvard. It has more than 150 stockists worldwide. It is somewhat phenomenal.

Considering he originally obtained a degree in interior design at university in Ghent, Martens is perhaps an unlikely alumnus of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, where he graduated from its notoriously rigorous fashion course (he puts his determination to succeed down to Taurean stubbornness). Having visited and fallen in love with the school by chance, the most he had to show for himself when he applied (alongside those for whom securing a place had been a lifelong dream) was a portfolio of furniture sketches. His knowledge of fashion was minimal at best. “I was so unprepared,” he says, suggesting with good humour, not to mention self-deprecation, that the only reason they let him in was because his six-foot frame meant he would be a good fit model for other students.

After graduating, Martens did a stint at Jean Paul Gaultier and worked closely with Serfaty and Bruno Pieters, before presenting his own label for three seasons. In 2013, the offer came from Y/Project. “In the beginning I wasn’t sure if they wanted to keep going in Yohan’s direction, which is something I couldn’t do under my own name,” Martens explains. “But Gilles was very clear – he believed that the future could lie somewhere other.” Having accepted the challenge, he got to work establishing his own codes, uniting his Belgian penchant for deconstruction with a kind of exaggerated, more typically French, elegance. Dresses are framed with swags of velvet and satin, contour-hugging layers fringed with gold beads. “I dragged it in all directions to make it something new,” he says. “It might have been easier just to start from scratch.”

“80 per cent of the collections or the clothes are linked to reality. The starting point is always a real pullover or whatever, something that is real” – Glenn Martens, Y/Project

Autumn/Winter 2017 marked a breakthrough point. Martens showed jeans with multiple cuffs folded down the leg from thigh to ankle, patterns expertly cut to create stiff but undulating silhouettes, football-style scarves bearing portraits of historical couplings, such as Napoleon and Joséphine Bonaparte, or Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. A new aesthetic language was being introduced, distinct and defined, marking Y/Project out from the pack. For Spring/Summer 2018, models walked the runway wearing coiled, Slinky-like earrings, thigh-high, wader-style, heeled Ugg boots (an official if unlikely collaboration), and similarly subverted wardrobe staples such as denim, trench coats and stretch body-conscious dresses.

Although Martens’ experimentations with construction may sometimes look abstract, “80 per cent of the collections or the clothes are linked to reality,” he says, pointing out an argyle-knit sweater with unexpected swathes of material bursting from its seams – the familiar, transformed. “The starting point is always a real pullover or whatever, something that is real.” This, he argues, goes back to his Belgian propensity for taking the mundane and twisting it. “Margiela created a school of thinking,” says Martens, noting that this designer’s attitude can be found not just in his own work, but in that of his entire generation.

A major inspiration for Autumn/Winter 2018 was the notion of conjoining – reflected in the myriad ways the clothes can be worn, depending on the wearer’s mood. Sweaters can go the ‘right way’ round, or back-to-front to give a different look, a panelled dress can be manipulated to show more (or less) of a certain colour. “I see people on Instagram wearing the pieces in ways I had no idea they could be worn,” Martens says. With unusual construction at the heart of the brand, the garments aren’t always what you would call straightforwardly beautiful. At Antwerp, Martens says his work was more in line with such expectations, but there are only so many pretty dresses you can make. “Maybe at some point I got a bit bored … and that’s when I started going for the opposite,” he says.

It certainly isn’t boring. So much so that more than a few of Y/Project’s most directional pieces – the denim jacket with knee-length sleeves, for instance – have ended up in the crosshairs of an apoplectic MailOnline. Martens knows his clothes aren’t necessarily going to win awards for practicality.

“It’s not fulfilling the basic needs of dressing. None of these things you really need to be warm and survive. It’s really about decoration. It’s an aesthetic statement” – Glenn Martens, Y/Project

“It’s not fulfilling the basic needs of dressing,” he says of the collection. “None of these things you really need to be warm and survive. It’s really about decoration. It’s an aesthetic statement.” A statement that can, sometimes, go too far, but that’s half the fun of it – and fun, as he learned from Gaultier, is essential when it comes to fashion. “Sometimes we really go overboard,” Martens says. “The nice thing about this brand is that we really don’t care that much, we’ve always had those kinds of missteps when we just push things. It’s really about experimenting and having fun.”

It’s paying off. Martens was tapped to collaborate with Italian denim behemoth Diesel on its Red Tag collection – the line’s sophomore offering after a debut by cultish designer Shayne Oliver, hitherto of Hood By Air – presenting it in Milan this past June. And last year, Y/Project won the prestigious Andam Grand Prix, along with its cash injection of €280,000. It puts him in very good company – Margiela won the inaugural prize in 1989, with other recipients including Anthony Vaccarello and Jeremy Scott. Naturally, Martens attended the champagne-fuelled awards presentation, but the real celebration came the next day. “My friend and I took a car and went to the forest and got drunk in a tent in the middle of nowhere. I had the Andam award with me because I hadn’t gone home. We just sat there in the rain!” Such an admission would seem like an eyebrow-raising attempt at mythmaking from many in the fashion industry, but for Martens – a man who pushes the boundaries of clothing but admits to wearing pretty much the same thing every day – it makes a refreshing kind of sense. As he puts it: “It’s nice to keep those extremes.”

Make-up: Sandra Cooke at the Wall Group using Lord & Berry. Models: Iris Dubois at Premier Models. Casting: Svea Greichgauer at AM Casting. Set design: Amy Stickland at Webber. Manicure: Saffron Goddard using Le Vernis and La Crème Main by Chanel. Lighting: Emma Ercolani. Photographic assistant: Fuminori Homma. Styling assistants: Charis Lorraine and Benedetta Baruffi. Set-design assistant: Nienta Nixon. Production: Webber. Post-production: D-Touch Studio.

This story originally featured in the Autumn/Winter 2018 issue of AnOther Magazine which is on sale internationally now.