With just a day until show time, Y/Project’s creative director, Glenn Martens, is surprisingly relaxed. Hot on the heels of his condom-decked Diesel show, the Belgian designer is fine-tuning a 54-look collection, continuing his mission to build a global cult inspired by craft and customisable-ness. Based on the facts, though, his confidence is warranted. Indeed, if you can bring Diesel back from the dead, you can do anything.
Video calling from the brand’s atelier in Paris’ 10th arrondissement, Martens hovers between studio worktables, flipping his camera to share sneak peeks of the looks or jest with models and his 20-strong design team. Despite entering day 35 of his international stint, he’s resolutely chipper, eschewing the fashion-diva front.
“The undertone of this season – it’s a bit cliché – is linked to a song from the opera, Rinaldo,” says Martens. Referencing baroque composer George Frideric Handel’s famous aria, Lascia ch’io pianga and its many interpretations, Martens has built a medley of looks, each a potential character in the dramatic tale. Add to this a soundtrack produced by Senjan Jansen that cobbles together over 70 different renditions of the lyrics, plus a 19th-century hangar, and you have the recipe for Y/Project Autumn/Winter 2023.
Leaning into this historical theme, the collection also references Martens’ hometown, Bruges, the gothic capital of Belgium. “You can really see the cathedrals of Flemish fields, the giant balusters,” he says, poring over a vertically cut, panelled denim two-piece, which unfolds into separated shafts. Besides these blasts from the past, Martens’ constructional signatures – sculptural shapes, superimposed fabrics and off-kilter pattern-cutting – hold fort, together forming a relatively toned-down offering. At least, by his standards. Commercial dilution? Far from it. Those towering, angular Canadian tuxedos are anything but ‘wardrobe staples’. A maturation of the brand, aligned to its sophisticated and varied portfolio of customers? That’s more like it.
In fact, after a decade at Y/Project’s helm, the Antwerp Academy alum has seared his name into Belgium’s avant-garde, not once resorting to cash cows. Logos are scant, price points are high and most of the garments would raise an eyebrow if worn in his own provincial stomping grounds. But, kudos to Martens, Y/Project has undoubtedly grown from the far darker, insular brand he inherited from his late boss and founding designer, Yohan Serfaty, in 2013. “Yohan was a very enigmatic person. He looked like a Tim Burton figure from The Nightmare Before Christmas,” remembers Martens. “The brand was very much connected to his personality. As a hired creative director, I wanted to turn it into more of a house.”
“I think there’s moments where I’m a really big businessman, moments where I’m trying to be an artist, and moments when I’m just a grandson, godfather or an annoying club kid” – Glenn Martens
Of course, the seminal codes didn’t vanish – they’ve just morphed. Under Serfaty, artisanal leather-making was the brand’s bread and butter; these days, it’s denim, worked and treated in similar ways, then honed for drippy dressers, from Rihanna – who co-signed that iconic, bunched Ugg look for Coachella 2018 – to everyday Parisians riding the Metro.
“We’re all different people within ourselves, aren't we?” says Martens, lighting a cigarette. “I think there’s moments where I’m a really big businessman, moments where I’m trying to be an artist, and moments when I’m just a grandson, godfather or an annoying club kid.” In this way, Y/Project acts like a sartorial solution to the variety of life, taking familiar motifs, tweaking them and then leaving the wearer to add their own mark. This might mean undoing every popper on your overlayed denim boots for some dishabille chic, or perhaps, it’s a case of removing the layer altogether, adopting a sleeker, skeletal approach. Either way, it’s a personal reckoning with style, and therein, our identity.
While Martens’ work is big on construction, it’s nothing without concept. The designer starts from the latter before considering form, which goes a long way in explaining how he spawns endless designs largely from denim. That said, this season isn’t all denim. Alongside Westminster-Abbey-style dresses in specially treated denim and denim pants appliquéd with embroidered whiskers, comes a fresh bevy of prints.
After working on a print-heavy Spring/Summer 2022 Jean-Paul Gaultier couture collection in a full-circle moment (JPG was Martens’ first employer after graduating), Martens has dabbled further, bringing trompe l’oeil denim prints, which he dubbed “fake denim” to A/W23, alongside completely denim-less prints, such as his collaged screenshots of sex. The latter is a nod to the intro in Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, also soundtracked by Lascia ch’io pianga. “You know, the scene where Charlotte Gainsbourg gets banged in slow motion and the child falls through the window … ” says Martens.
Again, the concept of finding absurdity in cliché – be it the endless bastardisation of a hallowed aria, a pair of jeans, or the passé appeal of Ugg boots – reveals itself as the fil rouge. Y/Project isn’t reinventing the wheel, it’s just making it weird, uncanny or humorous, chopping it up and stitching it together in a more explosive, conceptual form.