When he was a design student at Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Glenn Martens plied an austere brand of fashion synonymous with the Belgian school, and also his hometown of Bruges.
For example, his fourth-year project involved organza constructions that looked like Gothic cathedrals. “The Belgians, we always try to find beauty within the unexpected,” Martens said.
That he was recruited straight after graduation by Jean Paul Gaultier — he of sailor stripes, corsets, cone bras and punk tartans — did not surprise him.
“At the end of the day, Jean Paul is always about very elegant, sophisticated silhouettes. It doesn’t matter if it’s made of trash denim or things that are falling apart. It’s really about reaching beauty.”
To be sure, Martens, the designer behind Paris-based Y/Project and also the creative director of Diesel, has been relishing the opportunity to create a one-off haute couture collection for the house that Jean Paul built, now inviting a guest designer each season to interpret his rich legacy. He is only the second to pick up the gilded scissors, after Sacia’s Chitose Abe, and will unveil his collection at Gaultier headquarters in Paris on Wednesday.
In an exclusive interview, Martens made it clear he didn’t want to squander this “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity to live the couturier dream, and so he went for gowns, gowns and more gowns.
“I said, ‘Let’s make it precious and very beautiful,'” he said, taking a break from fitting a cream, knit column dress, the model wobbling on her platform mules. “It’s definitely about all the things I could never have done [without a couture atelier]. So I really went for it.
“Obviously, it’s a very different exercise than being a full-time creative director of a house,” he explained. “My job here is to celebrate couture, to celebrate Jean Paul and to celebrate Y/Project and whatever I have in my personal, creative expression and to just make something gorgeous.
“It’s really doing what I love to do — creating the dream and creating the artistry around fashion.”
Martens noted that one of the joys of doing couture is, “I don’t have the stress of selling that much. Actually, we did sell already a few dresses before the show even, when clients came for fittings for the last collection and saw what we were doing.”
Rather than focus on a single idea or period from Gaultier’s vast oeuvre — as he did with his recent Y/Project show, which unveiled a spinoff ready-to-wear collaboration focused on illusion body patterns from Gaultier’s ’90s-era “Cyberbaba” collection — Martens cherry-picked various ideas.
“I took some inspiration from the most iconic codes of the house and translated them into my own language,” he said, showing how he melded Y/Project techniques, such as using wires to shape garments, to interpret corsetry, marine stripes, denim and knitwear in new ways.
To be sure, Martens considers his one year of employment at Gaultier an important formative experience, and an extremely pleasant one. While many of his fellow students painted a grim picture of fashion houses as mean-spirited, gossip-y snake pits, he discover a “joyful, friendly way of working,” where even junior staff ate at the same lunch table as Gaultier himself.
Gaultier recruited Martens as junior designer for his women’s pre-collection and the G2 men’s label in 2008, and the graduate stayed for one year, also pitching in “sewing and gluing” when a couture show was in the works.
“Even though it wasn’t my direct responsibility, it was beautiful to see all the seamstresses creating all these magic dresses overnight. So it was a good school,” he said. “I think it was very much a blessing because it’s a really good starting point for a fashion career, mainly, of course, because Jean Paul is definitely one of the true inventors, in my opinion.”
Martens would go on to join Y/Project in 2010 and take the creative helm of that brand in 2013, accruing a reputation for innovative cutting and an experimental approach to fashion.
The designer, 38, likes to tumble together disparate references, from classical tailoring to streetwear to offbeat historical references, including Flemish Old Masters. He is also known for his avant-garde silhouettes that incorporate exaggerated and twisting volumes.
His one-off couture collection will be under the moniker “Gaultier Paris by Glenn Martens from Y/Project.”
“I think it’s also great that fashion can also be an artistic expression,” he said. “A lot of the dresses that you will see in the couture are inspired by gowns we have made with Y/Project. So there’s a lot of Y/Project solutions and their own constructive twists, so it’s really a marriage of both worlds.”