MARTINE ROSE in Three Acts

Martine Rose shows how most of what we think about fashion is wrong. She is a 39-year-old designer from London who is crucial to 21st-century culture, both for her own label and as a menswear consultant at Balenciaga. The work in her collections is anthropological: she studies the role of clothing in the lives of humans. Because her insights are so fresh, it may seem she has an instinct for setting trends, but this is not her purpose. Rose is captivated by clothes themselves and what they represent. Her thinking places her at a remove from the structures of the fashion industry, which dictate that our interest in clothing be about novelty and desire, status and avarice. Yet Rose has to exist within this system in order for her clothing to be seen, a paradox that leads to frequent misinterpretations of her work.

Interview: Charlie Porter

With photography of I. The Designer (by Oliver Hadlee Pearch), II. The Archive (by Sharna Osborne), and III. The Autumn/Winter 2019 Collection (by Heji Shin).

Some background: Rose made her first impact with the t-shirt label LMNOP, which she founded in 2002 with her friend Tamara Rothstein. The brand folded in 2005. Two years later, in 2007, Rose founded her own label, initially selling men’s shirts with heat seal bonding details at the chest pocket. Lulu Kennedy of the nonprofit designer support scheme Fashion East saw her work and invited Rose to take part in her AW-09 Menswear Installations in London, just when the city was waking up to the men’s fashion potential on its doorstep. Here’s where Rose’s story begins to diverge from what might be considered the normal trajectory of a young designer. She showed at Fashion East’s menswear initiative, then known as MAN, three times. She had no money and was unable to support her label. She also had no interest in pretending she had backup and chancing it. So while other emerging designers tried to set up businesses and sank into debt, Rose just seemed to be going nowhere. Can you see what’s happening here? The language of the fashion industry pushes me to write sentences such as “Rose just seemed to be going nowhere,” as if what matters is not her creativity or her intellect, but her perceived success or failure within a commercial, profit-driven system. These are the criteria with which the industry judges all designers. It’s a disaster. Over the years, Rose put on sporadic shows and presentations while constantly refining her understanding of clothing. Her pieces looked lived-in: tracksuits, bomber jackets, denim, often with off-kilter proportions that seemed imprinted by the real bodies that could have worn them. Search online for her AW-13 presentation and you’ll find track pants that pool over the foot. Rough-cut little denim jackets. An oversized parka. A shrunken bomber. At the time, the pieces felt abrupt. I didn’t understand them. Their resonance now is extraordinary. By 2015, Rose was struggling with a personal housing crisis, her label again seemingly in stasis. She was squatting with her partner in Hackney, east London, when their first child was born. They were kicked out of the squat and placed in temporary housing in Catford, an outer district in the city’s southeast. It was a “bedsit” – an outdated British term for a studio – with everyone living and sleeping in one room. Rose was still living in temporary housing when Demna Gvasalia, who’d just been appointed artistic director of Balenciaga, asked her to meet for a coffee – then offered her the position of menswear consultant at the Kering-owned fashion house. She had never applied for a job at a luxury brand – she had never thought they would want her. Yet her work at Balenciaga has been crucial in the label’s turnaround, helping define its extreme, real life-inspired take on what clothing can be. Rose recently concluded her time at Balenciaga. In her three years there, she gained both the confidence and the financial liquidity to make her own label viable. She has a home for her family. Her experience shows us that the most relevant creatives may not immediately resonate on the capitalist register of alleged success. (And we might apply this understanding to how we consider all artists, musicians, writers.) Now Rose has the opportunity to redefine what it means to be a designer and stand firm against industry expectations of seasonal change, novelty, growth, and ugly, empty ambition. She wants to create fashion for her love of clothes and to understand their impact on society. One note: I am writing this at a time when many in the fashion industry are feeling gleeful about a swing toward what they call “tailoring” and away from what they call “streetwear.” This analysis is problematic and it is false, because what they deride as “streetwear” is actually fashion. It’s clothing. There can be as much precision in a track pant as there is in a blazer. I have no interest in using the word “streetwear” and have no interest in framing questions around it in interviews. If I were to do so, I’d be legitimizing the lack of understanding demonstrated by those who use the term, those who think of such apparel as a novelty, a passing trend. That word will not be mentioned in our conversation. Rose and I meet in a café on Broadway Market in east London. Before I press the “Record” button, we are already talking about her living conditions in the period before she was asked to join Balenciaga. I ask if it would be OK if I start recording. She says it would. This is where we join the conversation:

MARTINE ROSE: Demna will never know the circumstances that he took me out of. I’ve never told him I was squatting when he approached me. I will always have such affection for him. I don’t think he knows the impact he had on my life. Not only taking me out of a pretty fucking hard situation, which meant I could afford rent, not only did he change that, but then he validated me to everyone else. It transformed things on loads of levels. Not only what that [Balenciaga] income was able to do for me, but also in other people’s eyes. It shined a little light on what I was doing. It was pretty amazing.

CHARLIE PORTER: Demna recognized the true value of your work when you had nothing. He saw that your work had meaning, and it didn’t need these indicators of success.

It was so not wrapped up with any sort of status for him. He didn’t approach me because I had anything, really, other than the fact that he liked what I was doing. It resonated with him. It was actually quite a lot of responsibility, because there was no menswear team at all and he was preoccupied with the women’s. It was really just, “Make this happen.” It was really generous of him, really brave to share the good thing that was happening for him. Because that’s what he did: he shared it with me. He’s very democratic like that. He’s not elitist.

He understands there’s something else to fashion.

He doesn’t want to align himself with profile or status. He’s just interested in good work. The Balenciaga experience was fantastic. I enjoyed the process so much. I’d never apply for a job in Paris, absolutely not. I’m not a wildly confident person about my own work, so I would never have assumed I had the credentials. I actually find Paris really intimidating, not necessarily very me. But because this job came to me, it was easy to step into it. It was a bit like The Wizard of Oz. Paris seems like this huge glossy thing, and actually it’s not really. It’s just a bunch of nice people doing what I do when I’m in my studio in Tottenham, but on a different level. It really broke down that exterior.

And people come to live in Paris from all over to do what they love.

Exactly. That’s it. One of the reasons Demna and I got on so well was that our process was similar. We’re actually into the same things. Sometimes I sat thereand thought, “I can’t actually believe I’m getting paid for this.” I think everybody’s got imposter syndrome, but I really had it when I was there. I was waiting for someone to come up and just go, “I don’t know if you should be here. Let me escort you out.”

You were designing uncompromising garments that went into the stores undiluted.

Yeah, there was no watering down. Demna’s really uncompromising in his vision. He was very clear on how he wanted things and how he saw things, and that’s incredibly inspiring to work with. He was so clear about his vision for the brand and the label – it was really impressive to be swept up in that confidence. It absolutely made you believe that this was 100 percent the right thing to do.

I hope you realize that you must have been an inspiration to him – your way of looking at clothing that is real, and understanding fashion in a different context than many designers’ irrelevant fashion fantasy.

Yeah, I think I was really untrained. Maybe it was an advantage to never have been in that system. I’d only worked in my little studio in Tottenham – I’d never had a job before Balenciaga. I didn’t know how it was done properly. I’m an English girl, I went in swearing like a sailor, and people would be like, “What?” Literally, “What?” But I didn’t know. I only really know how to talk how I talk with my team or to my friends. But I think he liked that. I think that was something different. I’m not a formal person anyway.

But since you started making clothes under your own name, you’ve had training in saying “No,” in not joining fashion’s game.

It’s a game I wasn’t interested in playing, and also I wasn’t invited into it. I actually physically couldn’t do it – whether it was financial limitations or loads of other reasons why.

I also think that psychologically you did not want to enter into the structures and systems presumed of fashion designers.

I just don’t want to. I might as well be in telesales or something. And make much more money. When I was 17, I worked on an industrial estate selling cruises. I might as well be doing that. If I’m going to compromise what I’m actually going to do in order to get this other thing, I might as well not do it. This is the hard way. Or at least it was when I literally couldn’t afford a bus pass. Or a Travelcard.

Meanwhile, institutional bodies like the British Fashion Council are always asking you to come in for a business-mentoring meeting.

I can’t even get there. Literally. “Why don’t you come for a business meeting?” It’s like, OK, if you pay for my tube to get there, or I might be two hours late because I’ll be walking from Tottenham to the Strand. And that is in no way to say that I had such a vision that I really knew it was going to work. I did not know it was ever going to work at all. And really, if I had another option, I’d have taken it, 100 percent. Because it was grindingly fucking hard. But I’m not really good at anything else. I don’t think I took the brave option. I just think I have an amazing capacity to endure painful fucking situations for a really long time. Because people always say that to me – “You must have had some vision.” No, I really didn’t. I liked what I was doing. I believed in what I was doing. But I didn’t ever think it was going to come into fruition and come into something that could support me. No. A constant conversation was actually, “What the fucking hell am I doing?”

Fashion relies on success narratives and stories of growth, or of how people “make it” in the industry. These rely on a belief in the existence of time, in that a human has a journey through time from one place to another. But I’m more and more interested in the fact that time may not actually exist.

I completely agree. I think time is a total man-made construct. I think everything’s happening like this [motions circularly, expansively with her hands].

Yet our understanding of fashion is so connected to time: seasons, newness, prediction, discussions of influence from previous decades.

It’s torture, actually.

If time is a man-made construction, then everything that is connected to time in fashion is in some way false.

Completely. And deeply unhealthy. I get really embarrassed saying that I’m a fashion designer. It’s like the new estate agent. And that actually sounds quite insulting to estate agents. Fashion is so caught up with such bourgeois rubbish, and seasons, and depressing commerce.

Your work from the beginning has been more anthropological, looking at the real clothes that humans wear, disconnected from fashion’s obsession with seasonal change.

Exactly. It’s nothing to do with the reasons I’m interested in clothes. The idea that I’m forecasting what people are going to wear is also really bizarre. I don’t imagine that next season everyone is going to be wearing really ridiculously high-waisted jeans. If they are, fab. But that’s definitely not the process that I’m going through in the studio.

And if time doesn’t exist, then it’s not like you’re some American Idol redemption story of hardship followed by success. It’s more like: you went through hard times, and those hard times still exist now, just as this success existed then.

Absolutely. This gratitude comes from all of it. Squatting wasn’t shit. Being rehoused in a bedsit in Catford with a three month old, that was pretty shit, but it wasn’t like this really dark period. Because I hadn’t known anything else, not really. It’s not that I have gratitude that I’m not in that place anymore – it’s gratitude for having that experience to draw on. It’s not, that was then, this is now. I haven’t left that behind – it’s part of it all.

Can you talk about your AW-17 show? [This was Rose’s first after Demna’s Balenciaga men’s debut in SS-17, and also her first runway show in four years. The show was held off schedule in London, in a covered market in Tottenham. It’s one of those shows that’s passed into legend status. It also repositioned Rose’s label: suddenly stores took her seriously.]

That market show, that really was something. Balenciaga finally gave me confidence in myself. I don’t think I would have had the confidence to go off-grid, to ask people to come that far out of London, to do it in that environment, on a Sunday, in the rain. I’ve had my studio in Tottenham for ten years and I’d been eating at the market. It was such an opportunity to show a little bit more about the label and where it was born. We got all the traders to take appointments during the show. We asked all of the food stands to prepare their specialties. It was not “fashion” food. It was South American – empanadas, serious frying. Everyone was so happy to eat. Fucking yes! They were starving. It was just fun, and the market traders were just so excited and flattered it was happening there, and really proud – they were whooping and standing in their doorways. They were gutted it was so quick.

You’ve held three shows since, but have also presented two seasons by lookbook only. You’ve gone against the fashion presumption that each consecutive show should be bigger and more impressive than the last.

I’ve always been really scared about doing that. This is something that was born out of necessity. When I started, I couldn’t do it every season because I didn’t have the money. I had to be really creative, doing one look or whatever. I had to find alternative ways. Then it became part of my DNA. Why are we doing this stupid system? I’m not going to do it. I’m going to do something else. That became an extension of my collection: I had something to say in my clothes, then I had something to say in the way it was shown.

Right now it’s a common narrative in fashion that there’s a swing back to tailoring, away from the s-word I won’t mention. To me your work shows there’s so much more to a track pant or a t-shirt than it just being a fashion novelty.

I’ve been asked, “What’s your favorite item?” And honestly one of my favorite items in my wardrobe is a BOY London t-shirt with an acid smiley face on it that my cousin gave me when I was nine. It’s paper thin now. It’s like silk. I can’t wear it because it’s so see-through. I’m 39, so I’ve had it for 30 years. To think that there is the possibility that someone would hold onto a t-shirt that I made for 30 years is so unbelievably humbling. That’s what it’s about: owning something that is actually precious. If you can make something that becomes precious to someone, that’s incredible. If it becomes interwoven into someone’s life, and if they have an emotional attachment to it, that’s really powerful, and that’s what clothing can do if that intention is there. Not only the intention, but also the understanding that clothing should have that power. I just think that clothes transcend everything. I guess music does the same thing and books have the potential to, but clothing is different, I think, because you take clothes with you. They’re physically close to your body. They’re so interwoven with who we are. There’s something profoundly close in our relationship with clothing.

Fashion writing is so focused on clothing up to the point of production, before it’s been worn. I’m now only really interested in talking about our relationship with clothes after that.

That’s a massive distinction. I’m really interested in the imperfection of clothes. When we get too slick, it’s as if I’ve moved too far away from what I actually like. It’s this life that I really love in clothes, and it’s a fucking challenge to get that in new clothes. We wash them, we boil them, we try to fuck them up. The balance of trying to imbue clothes with a sense of warmth and identity before they’ve been seen, and at the same time trying to push a new idea, or a shape – that’s really fucking hard.

What was your first rave?

Oh god. I was nine. It was 1989. My cousin Darren was really into rave. He went to Raindance and Labyrinth. Camden Palais was another big one, and when everyone had finished at Camden Palais, they used to congregate on Clapham Common. It got massive. They were still buzzing off their tits and they didn’t want to go home. People would pull up in their cars, open their car doors, and carry on playing music – it would turn into this impromptu rave. Then sound systems would drive onto the common. Because it was a park, I could go. So, on a Sunday after church with my nan, we used to go and meet Darren, who was definitely still off his face, and all of his mates on the common. And I used to dance with them. It was this really transforming time. They were people who would have been football hooligans two years before but were now dropping E and hugging, full of love. There were crusties, rude boys – all having the time of their lives on the field. My sister was really into Studio One, reggae, lovers rock. She was 24 at the time, 15 years older than me. The Jamaican community in London was quite small then, so when reggae artists came over, everyone used to know them. She would take me everywhere. She took me to Dennis Brown’s recording studio, Freddie McGregor, Prince Far I, Gregory Isaacs. I didn’t know the scale. On one side I was with my cousin raving after church, then on the other side I was hanging out with Dennis Brown in recording studios. It was this other part of British Jamaican culture that was really incredible.

Reggae in particular is music and a culture disconnected from the anxieties of time.

That time really formed who I am and what I am interested in. My sister was really pioneering in what she wore. She was obsessed with Pam Hogg. She wouldn’t define herself as being into fashion, but she was so into style – it’s quite a Jamaican thing. Fashion doesn’t exist. Fashion kills, actually. Fashion is silly but style is everything. You might not have two pennies to rub together, but how you put together your tatty threads is absolutely everything. My sister had this Pam Hogg dress. It was very tight, bright orange; it had Tudor arms, studs, pleats. Fucking amazing. I think about that dress all the time. When I used to watch her get ready, I used to be like, “Fucking hell. One day.” It was so good because it was connected to something. I love clothes. They’re fucking great. I could talk for ages about clothes and what they mean.

Are you now able to exist within this fashion system and also make things you’re interested in?

It’s actually pretty intimidating when I think of it in that context. The BOY t-shirt, the Pam Hogg dress – that’s something to live up to. Can I get to that level? I fucking hope so.

It’s an interesting moment for you. You’re no longer working with Balenciaga, and it seems like a chance for you to breathe, to establish how you want your label to be, rather than pushing it in the way most people do.

No, fuck that. Then I might as well be doing tele-sales. You have to be thoughtful about this. Otherwise you’re churning out product, and no one needs more product. More meaningless product. And let’s face it, we’re fucking wrecking the planet doing it, so let’s be a little bit more thoughtful about what we’re producing.

It’s clearly connected to a neoliberal, capitalist system, making billions of profit for straight white men.

Still those old straight white men. It’s why I feel so far away from it. To think that what I do is in some way connected to that – that’s really hard to reconcile. It’s weird. It’s not a comfortable truth. Because I’m fine. I don’t need more money. I don’t want to sit on top of an empire. I’m really happy. I can feed myself. I can feed the family. I can actually have a nice life. I don’t need more.

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