The latest Parisian brand to land all over your Instagram feed is Y/Project, currently under the creative direction of Belgian genius Glenn Martens. You’ve seen his jeans before — the ones that detach at the panty-line. And you’ve either tagged a friend and lolled about them, or you’ve been putting $50 a week aside until you can buy them. And so you should.
Interviewing Glenn Martens made me nervous. Although our fashion editor assured me he’s perhaps the nicest man in Paris, he’s also an architecture graduate, a top Central Saint Martins alumnus, and someone who’s worked with Jean Paul Gaultier as well as successfully creating an eponymous label, not to mention his current title at Y/Project. He is so much smarter and cooler than me — I’m too impressed by what he does.
Naturally, I dial his number wrong twice. When I finally get through, I tell him that I’m nervous — as if that has ever made a social situation less awkward for anyone ever. But he thanks me and lets me know that he’s nervous too — it’s his first time working with an Australian magazine, especially this closely.
I find myself assuring him that Australians really like what he does, he assures me that we’re going to be fine in the interview. I breathe a little bit too loudly and get the uncomfortable questions out of the way first…
Hayley Morgan: So, was assuming your role at Y/Project a difficult decision? With a team in mourning and an aesthetic that, as it turns out, is quite different to what you’re producing now…
Glenn Martens: Yeah, it’s obviously super complicated to take over a brand in mourning. There’s really no good way of doing that when the whole team is in mourning and also the clients, so you try to do it in a sensitive way. I knew Yohan, because I worked for him years earlier — I used to be his assistant a long time ago — so for me, it was quite emotional. A lot of people had an emotional connection with him, so it was a friend who had passed away. While we were trying to get over the emotional struggle, we also had to try to make the company survive. And the company was very young, it had only been there for three years, so it was very much focused on Yohan as a person [at that point]. He was this two-metre tall, super skinny guy, very enigmatic, like a character from a Tim Burton movie. The customer really bought into him and his personality, so it was a miracle that [the company] survived after his death. When I arrived, I had to build on the brand and, out of respect of Yohan, keep his identity. The first collection was quite dark, with a lot of leather, but slowly I added a bit more contemporary parts and more personal parts of me.
What parts of Yohan’s mission or feeling have you held onto?
In the beginning Y/Project was very leather-based, so it was very important to keep that vibe — without even using leather, but to really treat the material in a very sharp way, like it would have a technique, a lot of raucous. And very elongated silhouettes that were coming from the whole leather history and treatment of leather. And as Yohan was very tall, the silhouettes were very elongated. They were actually very popular for women, even though his collections were only menswear.
Which is obviously why it felt so natural for you to shift the focus to womenswear?
That’s something that directed us. When I came to Y/Project, we started womenswear even though it was actually menswear put together on a woman. It was very tricky because people were not understanding it so much when things were oversized or a little bit too long. We had to explain to our customer that this was our idea of womenswear, even though we don’t see menswear and womenswear as a different thing. For me, it’s more about clothes growing on the person and creating an identity because of the person who is wearing it. When the gender fluid hype arrived, we were very lucky because we didn’t have to explain it any more. And still 40 percent of our collections are gender fluid, but not in the classic way of making an asexual piece — it’s more about the identity of the wearer in combination with the versatility of the piece. You really have to make a choice in the morning — you have to choose if you scrunch things down, unclip things, or change layers. I think it’s fun. This is all a continuation from Yohan’s work. He created a very gender fluid brand without knowing it and out of this came our whole ideology.
It’s interesting that you keep talking about Yohan’s actual elongated self, and now you’ve created an identity out of sleeves and jeans that are twice as long as they traditionally should be…
It’s true that the double length legs and stuff are definitely coming from Yohan.
Your interest in architecture seems to have influenced the obvious structure play of your designs…
There’s never a literal wink to architecture — I graduated in architectural studies but never worked in it — however my view on being creative is very architectural. In the beginning, I really saw clothes as constructions and I was very focused on and obsessed with how to construct clothes and make fabric stand in a certain way. It’s never an intention to refer to architecture but I think you can see an architectural vibe at a certain point. There’s a lot of experimental construction in the brand and we’re really playing with gravity.
Since you have an appreciation for buildings and space, I want to know what your studio looks like…
It’s very, very basic. We’re in Paris so it’s very French-looking. It’s minimal — we moved in last year just before Fashion Week and never had the time to do it up, then we started growing and now we have to move again. Everyone shares long desks – I share my desk with four different people — but it’s working. For me, this is a luxury to be growing and growing.
I’ve read in lots of interviews that you like people-watching, this is where you’re most inspired. What are some of your favourite spots to watch people?
It’s the metro — I love the metro. Everybody hates it and I can understand why, because it’s always super crowded and there’s no air-conditioning and it smells, but I love it. I’m a little bit blessed because I live on the same line as the office so I never have to change. But sitting on the train, where I can’t work, I like to watch people. It’s interesting, all these people from different backgrounds, all stuck together for 20 minutes. It’s kind of cute. And it’s nice to get out of the bubble of fashion-related people with a smash of reality. It grounds you and I enjoy that.
You’ve created some challenging pieces, ones that have divided people. What type of person are you designing for?
You’re talking about those pants, no? The denim ones? I think it’s funny that they went all over the internet recently. They’re carry-over, we already had them years ago. I don’t know why, but in the last few months they became an internet phenomenon. The brand is eclectic — when you see collection you can tell that I jump from streetwear to tailoring, to a bit of couture vibes and Italian-sexy vibes. We don’t say no to anything. On top of that, there is versatility in the pieces being changeable. Therefore, I can’t really say I’m designing for one type of person. My grandmother is my number one fan — she wears Y/Project. And when the pants we just talked about were in a Belgian newspaper — it was a stupid article, the Belgians were saying the same thing as everyone else — my grandmother called me up straight away and she was like, “What did you do, what are these pants, I don’t like them!” She couldn’t place that those pants came out of the same collection as the coat she was wearing. But I knew people would criticise them — they’re a little bit absurd, but also quite sexy.
It’s totally sexy. It’s cool girl sexy, which is a hard thing to do…
Of course. But in the end, they’re just clothes. You have brands that say they’re going to change the industry and they never do. For me, it’s just about having fun.
That’s something I wanted to ask you about — I can’t tell how seriously the label takes itself. You know, you see someone like Jeremy Scott making something that is definitely not wearable for everyone, and you know there’s a sense of humour in it. Does Y/Project have a sense of humour or is it very serious?
We’re very serious about our work. We’re very hard working. I also love this cliché of Belgian life that is very sober and those brands in the 90s that were very dark and moody — that’s all a part of me. But we also laugh a lot. When we designed those pants and the team was in the fitting, we were like “Are we really going to do this, are we ready for this?” and then we all looked at each other like, “Yeah, of course!”
This interview is going into an issue with a ‘fantasy’ theme, so let me ask you some questions about that…
What turns you on?
You mean sexual, or…?
It can be anything. It can be financial security, if that’s what it is…
I come from quite a classic family in a small provincial place, so security is very important. It does turn me on. I’m also a Taurus and really old-fashioned — I need to have my friends around and this whole home vibe does turn me on a lot. I would love to be married with children right now. But then again, I am always looking for something new. I’m always on the run for something or looking for a challenge because I get bored in two seconds. I have two extremes in me and I never know which one to listen to. Cakes turn me on, too. A cake a day is very important for me.
Have you ever had a dream come true?
Honestly, every day. Being in the situation I am in now… I mean, I was working throughout my studies because my parents couldn’t support me and I am now the creative director of a brand in Paris with a team that is growing. I’m living a dream and I’m extremely grateful.
You’re going on a first date, what do you hope they wear?
I actually hope they don’t wear fashion brands. If they were trying to impress me with designer brands I would be a bit turned off.
What do you believe in?
I really believe in karma. You’re definitely going to get it back in your face if you’re being a bitch. I also believe in star signs — I think they really work. It’s so silly, but I’m now obsessed and researching it.
What do you do to escape reality?
There are two things I do. On holidays, I try to go really far into nature. Tomorrow, for example, I will be hiking in Scotland. I need these moments where the only problems are mosquitoes, where I will eat and where I will pitch my tent. But I don’t always have this luxury with time, so when I can’t take holidays, I give myself one weekend per month where I go wild with friends and go partying for the whole weekend. It’s a good balance.
And what would you like to do to make the world a better place?
We can’t do that much in fashion. It’s very a superficial place, especially with luxury because it is not needed whatsoever. But I’ve been working with Honest By, which is a completely transparent brand in Belgium launched by Bruno Pieters. I used to work with him before Y/Project and I learned everything about recycled and organic wools, and their certifications. With Y/Project, we couldn’t do it in the beginning, but now we’re trying to improve it more and more. There are obviously limitations, though, and our aim is still selling a dream and making people enjoy their clothes. But I do think it is important to include ethical items. We’re a young brand with a lot of followers, so we have a big impact on the youth and it’s cool to teach them to think further. You know, you don’t have to go to Primark, it’s cool to wear second-hand. Also, another thing, I try to let the kids on my street know that it’s cool to go to school.
That’s very cute. Well, it was really nice to talk to you, and thank you for the great interview…
Not a problem, Madame. I’m sorry I kept on talking and talking — I had a blurry weekend.
Not at all, it’s perfect.