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The Greatest #14 Interview: Glenn Martens

The Lightness Issue


The world is full of clothes. It could happen that you question yourself if this giant amount of pieces is necessary. The thing is that fashion belongs to materialism and style belongs to dream and poetry. Nobody could show you how to have a style; it’s impossible, rather than difficult. Moreover, this allure has so much to do with soul, instinct and nature. Some people follow an aesthetic; some others establish it by creating interest and admiration. Glenn Martens really made me think about that poetry with his sincere approach. His artistic direction at Y/Project has gained that interest and admiration. It truly belongs to a gentle soul, shaped through a simple personal story, made of remarks, curiosity and a little bit of fascinating randomness.

Glenn Martens

I’d like to start from the beginning. Tell me about the healthy chance that you experienced when you enrolled at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts.

That was a little bit by accident, I think. I grew up in Bruges, which is a very small, provincial town with not many things happening around, and when you grow up in that kind of environment, you are not really following things like music or creative issues. Neither was I follow- ing fashion, I did very classical studies, so I was very into something different back in the days. At a certain point, I understood that I wanted to do something creative, but since I had never done anything artistic, I went for something quite safe and I decided for interior design. It was really good for me, because I studied architecture and all the theory that comes with it, like mathematics for instance. I did well and, after my graduation, I discovered about the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp. I didn’t know what it was really about and I went to this entry ex- ams not knowing that it was one of the most famous fash- ion schools in the world. There was something like 400 kids trying to get in there, so it was a really big surprise when I discovered I was one of the 80 accepted. That was really awkward! When they put me in front of the sewing machine, it was a shock. However, I really put myself into that. After two weeks time, I was more fascinated by the Academy rather then I was for interior architecture.

I have experienced that the best things usually come from instinct and unplanned paths. Obviously, the success is also due to the way you go through those events. What would you tell me about you back to those days? How would you describe yourself as a kid at the Academy?

At the Academy, people from all over the world surround you and to me it was fantastic and absolutely new. To be honest, I think I was a little bit of a grey mouse there. I was really fascinated by everybody and, since I didn’t know anything, I though that I had to catch up so much from my classmates. The school demands a lot and in a really in- tense way, in the end you don’t have so much time to know other people and everything is really linked and closed to the Academy. The thing that actually was really good is that Antwerp is just an hour by train from where I studied architecture and a little bit more from Bruges, so I was able to stay in touch with my friends from the college and my hometown. I was absolutely in the middle between the Academy micro universe and my life out of there. I think that it preserved me.

So, somehow you have never lost your roots as well as your initial studies. I wouldn’t say that you were untrained; you probably already had a signa- ture. That’s why I’d like to know a little bit more about that. Have you lost your classic starting point or it’s better to say that you have improved it?

For sure, I didn’t lose it! When I was younger, I was really obsessed by classic beauty and I think that it belongs even to the fact that I grew up in a tiny, beautiful, museum town. For me, since I really went deep into the study of the classic balance, it’s fundamental to find it around me. For instance, I remember my first trip by myself when I was 18. I went to London and I was actually a little bit disappointed by seeing such diversity, because I grew up in a place esthetically uniform, where everything and everyone is into the same atmosphere. That’s something I studied for a really long time and I really pushed myself into finding this beauty and this balance of classic ele- gance in my school projects. If you’d seen my graduation project, it was very much about elegance and beauty. I don’t want to say that I control balance and beauty, but for sure I understood it really well. Even in my work today, my main point is doing things that are more challenging, unexpected, instinctive.

I do think that moments in life are really important. Getting in touch with the right person at the right moment is something fundamental, as well as being in the right place at the right time. In my point of view, I have even to recognize the importance of the opposite, but that’s another story. Do you think it’s just a matter of how lucky you are or how able you are in catching the moment?

I don’t think I am the most talented fashion designer in the world, I think there are a lot of factors going on to create a career. Definitely, it’s about finding your own luck and working a lot. I don’t come from a family, which has a lot of money; I have never had family funds to support me. When I was studying, I had to work in bars all weekends and, until a few years ago; I had to bring ahead several jobs in Paris in order to survive. That’s part of life and if you don’t have money or somebody behind you, you do have to push your own luck.

Glenn Martens

For sure, you have to. Moreover, I think that you have to understand the way you want to bring ahead what you called your own luck. It’s for sure an attitude that belongs to your own personality, but somehow you have to build it through experience and mistakes too. Having a certain approach every single day is crucial. Which is your everyday philosophy at the office?

We are a serious brand, we work very hard, but it’s also about clothes, it’s about making people happy, so we don’t take ourselves too seriously. This light attitude reflects the way we work. We are a team of 20 people, though I am the eldest one, I am 35. We all work very hard, but we’d never do our best if we did not have fun together. It’s funny because when we’re at the office, we never feel like it’s something we are obliged to do. I have a bit of the Google policy: everyone can come in whenever they want, they all know their responsibilities and what they have to do, they work together in order to do their best.

And what about you in the office?

It’s funny, because when I have to draw the collection, I need the office and a big table, I usually go there on the weekend and it often happens that people come by to have a coffee or pick something up. It’s something I never would have done when I used to work for someone else. For me, this is very good proof that we have a really light and fine way of working and people enjoy it. The whole atmosphere and the lightness that we live everyday, it’s something good for the result of the collection.

Y/Project has a unique allure and style. Nowadays it’s quite difficult to establish something, since we have so many brands and images around. Moreover, I guess it’s not easy to be so experimental and be appreciated. Can you easily deal with a defeat?

Definitely! With a brand like Y/Project, we experiment a lot and we know that sometimes it could be difficult to be understood and appreciated. I am sure that there is some- one out there that has thought, “What the hell are they doing?” while looking at the collection. You know it’s part of the game. Every season, there are some journalists that do not get the point, but I don’t see it as a failure, because it’s part of what I am proposing. Through clothing, people should be questioning themselves and what they think is beautiful, what do they think is acceptable, how far can their way of thinking go. Some of them will find it beauti- ful, some of them ugly, it’s the game we are in.

In the nowadays mess of the system, it’s more relevant to talk about who can establish a style rather than a trend. I have always though that your creations were a crash of different ideas, open to different interpreta- tions and referring to different kind of people. I would say that this is your point of strength. Somehow, I can see a crazy, elegant dream inside your collections. Do you have a precise approach towards research or it’s more about a feeling?

I have two different ways of working. First of all, the start- ing point of everything is construction. We really work on design and I want to have a design point of view on every single piece. It’s not about styling, it’s not about beautiful colors or prints, and there must be a strong concept in there. At this stage of Y/Project, the collections are really small, really focused, and really conceptual. We are luckily allowed to do that. I can really impose to myself to follow really strong conceptual bases. It’s not a couture thing, but I am aware that it’s an old fashioned way of working. It’s the design way of doing things, with a lot of tailoring and work in the office. Then, when the concept has been devel- oped, I move up to my second step that has much more to do with intuition, vibes, moves and for sure atmosphere. At this point we follow our emotions, what we want to wear, what is ok with millennial of 2018, and we also fol- low that of what our friends wear on the streets. Here we have the reflection with reality.

Glenn Martens

We are quite bombed by the labels streetwear, street style and so on. Do you think it is relevant to talk about the street in terms of culture in 2018?

I think it’s not something that belongs to fashion or better to highly important labels, because in that case the clothes are not trying to belong to a culture, but they want to belong to a brand. When I go out in Paris, I definitely see and believe that the street still belongs to the subcultures. However, it’s something that has nothing to do with high fashion. People who do or follow fashion are quite priv- ileged. People who are nursery or work full time seven days a week; they do not have the luxury or just the time to think about who they are. I think it’s normal and it’s very realistic, that’s where the culture and the authenticity are.

Jefferson Hack from Dazed Group has called one of his latest books “We can’t do this alone”. I found this expression so simple and true. It’s actually a statement of independence and team strength, but it’s even a matter of reaction towards what the society sometimes expects from us. Moreover, I think that we can apply it to every field of life. Is there some- thing in your life that somehow you would have never done alone?

Designers that do all by themselves are probably X-men. In 2018, a brand like Y/Project is completely about team working; it’s about finding the good and right people to help you to develop a visual identity. For instance, I am extremely close to my stylist Ursina Gysi and to my pho- tographer Arnaud Lajeunie. We have definitely created some kind of group atmosphere, since we work and devel- op ideas together. In a saturated world, full of people with amazing ideas, with all the pressure that we have by social media, one person could not deal alone with that. We have to help each other; we cannot be alone.

Absolutely, yes I agree. Probably we have to find a balance between indi- vidualism and being in a team. However, I have a curiosity that belongs to you as an individual. Do you think you have given up forever interior design?

I am on the verge to buy my first apartment, so I will pick up my interior design there. I love aesthetics, I love beauty and it goes beyond clothes. When my friends get a new apartment, I am always the first to go there and give advice. I go to help them since my job, fashion or interior, is trying to think out of a box and that’s why they call me and want to hear what I think about the space. However, at this stage there is no professional future in interior de- sign, but of course one day or another if I had the chance to develop something, it would be nice. Today I would say it’s something private.