Conversations: Martine Rose
Today we hopped on the phone to check in with Martine Rose, designer of the eponymous UK label and menswear consultant for Balenciaga. Martine Rose’s unique approach to the culture behind fashion has established her place as one of the industry’s most authentic and respected voices since the debut of her personal label in 2007.
Martine Rose holds an unequivocal outlook towards her work: she loves what she does but is unconcerned by pre-existing systems and expectations that have governed fashion for decades. Her clothing speaks to the firmness of that conviction, while presenting a dialogue of sub-culture and artistic influence through design that subverts the limits of industry expectations.
Raw, instinctual, and human-centred are less than apt descriptions for the head-turning looks Rose is developing at her Tottenham stomping grounds. For this issue of Conversations, we spoke about the nebulous state of the industry, jolts of inspiration, and how our formative years develop our personal tastes. Our Conversations series continues with Martine Rose.
RG: Thank you for taking the time. First things first, we wanted to check-in to see how you’ve been keeping!
MR: Well through these strange times, I have to say it’s been really interesting. It’s the first time since I started working that I ever stopped for this long. I haven’t been personally affected or directly affected by knowing anyone who’s gotten the virus badly or anything. So, I know that it’s against a backdrop of sadness where people have lost a lot of work and stability. For me it’s been a huge recalibration… a time to pause and reflect, talk to my family and do things that I didn’t realize I needed to do, but realized I need to do. It’s been nice.
RG: You’ve been spending a lot more time with loved ones of course?
MR: Yes exactly. The interesting thing is you wonder, during your working life, how it was enough to just see them for an hour or so in the evening before everyone goes to bed.
RG: I think that’s something we also resonate with. Some of us don’t have our own families yet but it’s definitely the case where you think a lot more about the people around you. Work is less of a focus.
MR: It’s much more. Our thoughts are much more present, you know. I know my thought process has been a lot more localized. You just think, was it all that necessary? Was all that craziness necessary?
I guess design by nature is a solution-based concept. Design comes about to fix problems, but for a long time, it hasn’t been about that.
RG: Yeah, our mindsets are definitely moving from this with greater awareness of our priorities. We’re seeing the pandemic as a positive shift, if anything. We have a question from Sam Ross of A-Cold-Wall* that addresses that idea actually.
MR: Love him.
RG: He asks, how has COVID-19 resonated with you, from your previous life to the life you live now?
MR: Let’s see… I don’t know if it’s been long enough to have a full picture or have the benefit of hindsight. I feel like I need to be a little bit further along the line before I can really measure the two. I still feel like I’m in this hybrid state and I’m yet to see the full effects of that intense “hype-pandemic” and how things have shifted. Also, we all snap back into our lives quite quickly unless we’re very aware of not doing that, so I don’t know if I’m going to be able to see the full impact of everything till next year maybe, looking back.
It’s more about this broader sense of fundamental change. How and when is still nebulous and unclear. But the intention will push change forward; it has to happen.
RG: But perhaps in this moment right now, we’re being more present as you mentioned.
MR: I’m being more present, definitely. My thoughts are like… I don’t know, I’ve also been having the most inspiring conversations that I’ve had with people for a very long time and that’s because we’re thinking of solutions to problems, right? You know shops shutting, not having stock, missing fashion week, ways of showing, new ways of buying. I guess design by nature is a solution-based concept. Design comes about to fix problems, but for a long time, it hasn’t been about that. I’ve been having amazing and inspiring conversations. Something about this has jolted the industry. Everyone’s gotten a bit comfortable, but it’s good to have that comfortability challenged in some type of way.
RG: What types of conversations have you had that inspired this change?
MR: I guess it’s hard for me to be specific, and I don’t know if it’s really the time to be specific yet, if that makes sense? I think that’s the difference between then and now. It’s not necessarily about “maining” something in the industry and going “that’s it.” It’s more about this broader sense of fundamental change. How and when is still nebulous and unclear. But the intention will push change forward; it has to happen. The conversations I’ve had with all kinds of creatives from digital agencies, to in-house studio teams is with this knowledge in mind. These conversations have got a slightly different tone.
RG: It’s great to see that creativity doesn’t exist in a vacuum. People still seem to be looking at ways to improve and diversify themselves rather than working within unneeded limits. Do you have a home studio where you’re able to work indoors?
MR: Oh no, no, no. That’s been a new thing actually. I discovered that I actually can work from home. I’ve never liked it before. I’m not really disciplined person by nature, so I’ve always had to leave the house. I find it a bit morose. It can easily feel like a bit of a slump or something if I’m in my house. It’s a bit of a different thing now because the whole world is indoors. I really miss the social interaction while working with the team though.
It’s not exactly that I don’t like the word fashion; it just never really related to me. My introduction to fashion came because I was obsessed with clothes and there was another world that was fashion. That was really far away from what I was........That was really how I got into clothes. It was through culture, through music, through tribes. It was how people related to each other and what people wanted to say about the tribes they belonged to........It was very relatable.
RG: Are online meetings still happening with your team, at least?
MR: Yeah so many! All day, every day.
RG: I don’t think COVID stopped us at all. We probably worked even harder, especially with us being such a tight-knit operation. All of a sudden, responsibilities seem to stack up because they get more visibility. But while many of us are definitely home-bodies, working at home is tough. Or at first you might have the thought that you might not be able to work from home, but you slowly realize that maybe you can.
MR: Maybe I can actually! I did find a rhythm or working from home that actually worked. It wasn’t a conventional workday, because I’ve got two small kids as well, so I’d have to work a little bit here, a little bit there. Then you sort of have this comfort that everyone in the world is doing the same thing. It’s just different, isn’t it? It’s interesting. Now I’m not frightened of working from home if I need to because I know I can, although my preference is really to come to the studio and work with people. I’m really sociable.
I was only 9 and after church my nan used to take me down to find Darren at the park. He would be dancing his head off and I remember being 9 years old, surrounded for the first time by this unity, while seeing people you wouldn’t normally see together dancing like their life depended on it.
RG: We know you don’t like the term “fashion” based upon what we’ve read in previous interviews. Can you shed some light on what that means to you and what influenced the unique way you engage with clothing and the culture behind it?
MR: I don’t think it’s so binding. It’s not exactly that I don’t like the word fashion; it just never really related to me. My introduction to fashion came because I was obsessed with clothes and there was another world that was fashion. That was really far away from what I was. I found it interesting that it didn’t feel like something I could relate to. How I got into clothes was through – I was the youngest of a big extended family. I’ve got older sisters, an older brother and lots of older cousins. I used to watch them get ready to go out and they were all into different things. My sister was really into reggae, my cousin was into acid house, my other cousin was into hip-hop and they used to go and get ready to go out. They used to wear different outfits: my sister was really into Jean Paul Gaultier – it was Junior Gaultier actually because that was really one of the labels that had two sides. Moschino, Versace… they all had this currency that translated into streetwear. There were a few labels that trickled down, or trickled up, whichever. They gave energy to each other, you know. That was really how I got into clothes. It was through culture, through music, through tribes. It was how people related to each other and what people wanted to say about the tribes they belonged to. I love fashion obviously, but that was not what it was for me. It wasn’t “fabulous,” it was “fab,” but in another sense. It was very relatable.
RG: It seems like a far-reach, right? Like you’re into fashion but wouldn’t necessarily wear clothing in the same way as it’s represented on the runway.
MR: Exactly, yeah. Or you interpret stuff. If you found a Chanel jacket or something, you’d wear it with your Nike trainers, you know what I mean?
The backdrop was reggae in the house. That was really important and formative, but it was more in how my friends were turning fashion into their own language. It was in how we appropriated things........It wasn’t necessarily about what we wore, but how we wore it, how we made things into our own, and how we customized things to fit our personal style.
RG: Definitely. You mentioned the influence of your family and subcultures of music like acid jazz and reggae. Does interest simply start from what people in these subcultures tend to wear or do the subcultures stand out themselves? Is there a moment in engaging with culture that resonates with you or does it trail off into more abstract forms of interpretation?
MR: I think it was around me from a really, really young age. The influence of my siblings was just immense. I do remember specifically at the age of 9 – that was 1989 which would have been the Second Summer of Love. I do remember, my cousin Darren used to come back from Camden Palace, which is a club. Everyone used to come in convoy back down because they didn’t want to go home yet, as they had taken E’s. All the kids would congregate on this park or this common, which is a massive green space. They just used to carry on dancing, and it was very informal. They used to open car doors, pull out stereos, and it started to become this formal thing. Sound systems started to be driven up to the park, so it became this sort of day rave. Because it was in a park and unofficial, I could go. I was only 9 and after church my nan used to take me down to find Darren at the park. He would be dancing his head off and I remember being 9 years old, surrounded for the first time by this unity, while seeing people you wouldn’t normally see together dancing like their life depended on it. Embracing… feeling like they were in tune with something that I couldn’t quite understand, but what I recognized was big. I think at that point I just knew, I just sensed – it’s something I’ve always been attracted to, like a moth to a flame if that makes sense. I think around that age is where my third eye opened or something. I knew that was where I wanted to be.
RG: Can you recall any music from that time?
MR: It was the start of acid-house. I’m trying to think of a really iconic acid-house song… It was a bit of Frankie Knuckles and all of that sort of stuff. It was dance music and this mix of sounds from Detroit and Chicago. These very repetitive sort of beats.
It takes a while to find your feet as a designer. Sometimes you don’t really know what you’re drawing on and the subtext of where your taste comes from........Once you’ve got that down, you understand yourself and your taste and you grow confidence in that.
RG: That definitely trickled into how you view clothing.
MR: It’s just culture, you know? It ignited something inside me. This sort of intense interest in sub-cultures, music and how people relate to music. For me, I’ve always moved through music scenes because of my changing taste. When I was younger, it was definitely dance music, but then it expanded since my family are Jamaican. The backdrop was reggae in the house. That was really important and formative, but it was more in how my friends were turning fashion into their own language. It was in how we appropriated things, how we wore things to the club as well. That was important. It wasn’t necessarily about what we wore, but how we wore it, how we made things into our own, and how we customized things to fit our personal style.
RG: There’s a practical approach to it.
MR: Exactly, it was practical because we’d be dancing for like 12 hours so it would be baggy, loose, easy and comfortable or sometimes it would be really fancy. The mood behind it was the culture.
RG: Now we fast forward to your collections that channel the same energy. Was that intentional?
MR: No, not really! It takes a while to find your feet as a designer. Sometimes you don’t really know what you’re drawing on and the subtext of where your taste comes from. Gradually you start to understand it and go, “Oh! I know why I like that” or “That reminds me of this.” Once you’ve got that down, you understand yourself and your taste and you grow confidence in that. That takes a while to build as well… but it wasn’t intentional. I wasn’t putting up pictures of acid-house up, or anything. It was just my taste, then it became easier to identify.
RG: It’s something embedded within you right? Once you learn to ride a bike you never really forget how to do that.
MR: It’s exactly that. It’s in all of us though, our formative years. However we choose to express it later, it’s there.
It’s all out of sync........If we’re going to shift everything to where it works for everyone, it has to be systematic. It has to work from every level, and everyone needs to be involved in it.
RG: Continuing on with some of your earlier work, can you speak a little bit about your role at Balenciaga as a menswear consultant? That definitely pushed the Martine Rose name above ground. Does one brand inform the other, or are you wearing separate hats?
MR: I thought when I started consulting that you could have two different hats, you know? You could have your hat and then you could have the hat you’d wear when working with a client. It’s actually harder than you think because your taste is your taste. There are some things that are undeniably who you’re working with and there are some things undeniably for your own label. Essentially, you are one person and are choosing what fits better where. I think people imagine you have these two hats, and maybe some people do, but it’s quite hard.
RG: We could only imagine. “Fashion” is such a personal thing, right?
MR: That’s it. You just like what you like.
RG: As someone who is very honest with their approach, we wanted to get your insight on the changes being proposed to the fashion calendar recently. We really sat down last month and drew a little timeline of when we started receiving goods in January but that was the end of sales. Then February was the first month of regular pricing… then in March the pandemic happened. All of a sudden everyone started to go on sale. Technically we only had two months of regular priced selling which is insane to think about!
MR: It’s crazy. I welcome it definitely. I think all of the suggestions of delivering see-now, buy-now. I think that’s relevant, it’s obvious. It’s all out of sync. There’s stuff delivering at the wrong time. I hope it’s not a situation where it’s CEOs, designers, and shops paying lip service to something, and that they really invest in proper change. It takes hard work. If we’re going to shift everything to where it works for everyone, it has to be systematic. It has to work from every level, and everyone needs to be involved in it. It can’t just be, “Oh yeah, we skipped a season and just shifted. We’ll just carry on doing that.” That isn’t real change, you know?
I think ultimately the future is opening a real dialogue between the store, the designers, and the customers. That’s been broken down somewhere, that conversation. Unless we get that understanding of each other’s needs flowing again, we won’t get anywhere.
RG: That’s definitely a concern because as we share personal conversations with other boutique owners on what they think, there’s always the question of it being wishful thinking. Even if 9 out of 10 boutiques follow new regulations, if 1 decides to ignore that to cash out and go on sale, then this whole thing shuts down.
MR: It falls apart. That’s exactly what I mean. It really has to be planned. It can’t just be “oh yeah, yeah definitely. There’s too much product, let’s do it.” Yeah, we know that. We’ve known that for a long time. Yes, this has forced our hands slightly, but in order to maintain it and actually commit to this idea of delivering when it should be ready to have the stock. We’re going to need to invest in the backend of business.
RG: Can you shed some light on how that affects your design approach? Is it something where work revolves around a calendar or do collections come together in more of an organic way? If we do push for these changes, would that affect your design habits? We think this might encourage designers and brands to concentrate their collections. A few designers who we’ve interviewed have mentioned the possibility of capsule deliveries, where seasons are divided into splits.
MR: I think ultimately the future is opening a real dialogue between the store, the designers, and the customers. That’s been broken down somewhere, that conversation. Unless we get that understanding of each other’s needs flowing again, we won’t get anywhere. That should be the first step. I think it’s about working really closely with your partners or working with less partners in a more meaningful way.
Even when I did women’s wear in college with my first label LMNOP, I made girls’ clothes that looked the same as boy’s. I do consider myself a men’s’ designer but essentially, they’re just clothes. Clothes that girls wear too.
RG: That’s why today it seems like a battle of art and commerce. There’s definitely brands you personally like and maybe share your passion for their perspectives on your platform, but at the end of the day, will consumers accept it based on your personal interest? Maybe not. That becomes a difficult story. On the inverse are brands that you might dislike personally but know will sell. If we fall into the trap of buying solely for the masses, you lose credibility. We exist to help influence taste, not the other way around.
MR: As a designer you have to have that sort of conversation with yourself as well.
RG: Do you think there’s a new voice or perspective emerging from this situation for you personally?
MR: Like I said, it’s a jolt. It’s jolted something in me, definitely. It’s forced me and loads of other people to think differently. I think that creates new neural pathways, right? You’re like “Oh, I haven’t been there before, let’s go down the rabbit hole a bit more. In a really broad sense, in terms of what shows will look like, and how when collections are sold. All of that feels different.
Take your time. Time is your friend. I wouldn’t encourage anyone to do anything too quickly........it takes a while before you know who you are, what you want to say, what you like and why you like it........Also, mistakes are good. You actually learn a lot more mistakes than you do from getting it right.
RG: We’re curious about why it’s always been menswear for you.
MR: It’s just my natural aesthetic. I’ve always wanted boy’s clothes myself, but I didn’t really see it as boy’s or girl’s, it’s just clothes. I guess I just wore what was comfortable and practical for me. My natural aesthetic is more boyish, I guess. Even when I did women’s wear in college with my first label LMNOP, I made girls’ clothes that looked the same as boy’s. I do consider myself a men’s’ designer but essentially, they’re just clothes. Clothes that girls wear too.
RG: To wrap up, is there a last piece of advice you could give for anyone trying to break into the industry right now, with all the recent challenges we’ve faced?
MR: Take your time. Time is your friend. I wouldn’t encourage anyone to do anything too quickly. As I was saying to you earlier, it takes a while before you know who you are, what you want to say, what you like and why you like it. It takes a while to form all those things. I guess it’s easy to have a couple of really great collections but what’s really hard is maintaining it. Having years of really good collections. That’s really hard. In order to have that, you need to know who you are as a designer, and that really takes time. Also, mistakes are good. You actually learn a lot more mistakes than you do from getting it right. This virus thing has given us time back and that’s really been valuable. Don’t be frightened, it’s fine. Take your time, there’s no rush. The speed that we’ve been galloping along and scrambling can get crazy.
RG: Finally, what would you like to ask our next interviewee?
MR: Who are your top 5 dinner party guests?
RG: Finally, something fun! Thank you so much for taking the time Martine!
MR: It was a pleasure, so lovely to meet you. Thanks so much!