PARIS — Regular attendees of Pitti Uomo in Florence likely know Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella — the world’s oldest pharmacy nestled in a church, which once concocted treatments for the Black Death — having already stocked up there on potpourri and Carta d’Armenia burning paper. However, on Wednesday evening they’ll get to experience another of the historic complex’s gems: the Large Cloister, as the chosen show venue of Y/Project, the latest guest designer of the influential men’s trade show.
Given the label’s playful historic leanings — with art history (think Flemish Old Masters) and the medieval fabric of Bruges, the Belgian hometown of the label’s creative director Glenn Martens, an intrinsic part of its identity, alongside street and subculture — the 14th-century site couldn’t be more perfect in terms of setting.
And while when staging shows in Paris, where the label is based, it’s all about keeping to a tight schedule, the aim on Wednesday, Martens said, is to transport the guests “somewhere else,” with a “pretty elaborate” show concept up his flamboyantly constructed sleeve.
Features of the site include the Dormitory, located at the cloister’s northernmost end, with a double sequence of slender pillars supporting a cross-vault ceiling, and on the second floor, the Chapel of the Pope, decorated with Florentine masterpieces from the Renaissance and Mannerism periods, with artworks by Ridolfo del Ghirlandaio and Jacopo da Pontormo.
“The Stendhal syndrome really is true,” quipped Martens, who first visited Florence at age 17, and for whom Italy and the Renaissance era have always been a source of fascination. He described the location-scouting as an unreal experience.
“The Pitti Uomo team was beyond helpful, and they literally have the keys to the city. It’s ridiculous. Anything you want, they can arrange for you. We went from palazzo to palazzo, museums opened up after hours especially for us. They were probably the best two days of my life,” he said, adding with a chuckle that even masterpieces fade into the background when all you’re thinking about is the mechanics of a catwalk show.
The fall collection, he said, was already drawn prior to his Florence slot being revealed, so it won’t include nods to the city even if the new men’s footwear line launching on the runway and bulked-up bag offer were made in Italy. (The collection for the first time will also include men’s eyewear designed in collaboration with Linda Farrow.)
But given the big occasion, the thinking here, Martens told WWD in an exclusive interview at his Paris headquarters on Rue de Paradis, was to give the collection extra depth and voice. “It’s a bit of a celebration of what the brand has been doing the last few years, to reinforce what we stand for,” he said.
Known for his new take on engineered romanticism, conceptual detailing and warped proportions, Martens, who took over the brand’s creative helm in 2013 following the death from cancer of Y/Project cofounder Yohan Serfaty, has retained the foundations laid by that designer — the graphic, elongated sharp lines — while re-envisioning the brand through his own experimental lens.
Wearability and versatility remain the driving concepts, though, with a recent palpable shift into a cleaner, more controlled delivery.
Originally a men’s brand, Martens when he joined the house introduced women’s wear, which now represents around 70 percent of sales. Y/Project, the recipient of the 2017 ANDAM Award, generated sales of about 5.5 million euros in 2018, versus 3 million euros in 2017, and counts about 160 stockists internationally, including 10 Corso Como in Shanghai, Browns Fashion in London and Printemps in Paris. Its main markets are Asia and the U.S.
Uninterested in the idea of having his own name stamped on the house, Martens, who shuttered his namesake label when he was offered the Y/Project gig, is not one for star designer attitudes. One of his favorite memories from working for Jean Paul Gaultier — “a true inventor” — straight out of fashion school was being invited along with the entire studio to join the couturier for dinner before each show.
Similarly, he likes to see Y/Project as being a team effort, with stylist Ursina Gysi and photographer Arnaud Lajeunie also instrumental in shaping the label’s identity. “We are very aligned, we push each other,” he said.
“We’re all young, we enjoy working together. I’m in a very happy place. It would have to be something that would be worth leaving this situation,” added the designer, who has had other job offers but has not been tempted by them.
Leaving the commercial department and Y/Project chief executive officer Gilles Elalouf to handle the business side — a luxury after the 24/7 pressure of handling every aspect of his own brand previously — Martens relishes having the full freedom “to do whatever we want to do.”
“We have developed since the very beginning a brand that is very conceptualized. Even the most basic T-shirt has a constructive concept. At this stage, our customers really want that, and I haven’t yet been forced to make a simple blazer, so I can still have fun and experiment. Together with the team, we are able to push it that way,” he said.
In Martens’ role at the helm of a growing brand, with a staff of 25 versus seven five years ago, and a soon-to-expand atelier, he is nonetheless mindful of his responsibilities. It’s a tightly run ship where, he explained, there’s no margin for error. “Ninety-five percent of the collection, once I’ve drawn it and given it to my team, will end up [on the runway] and in the showroom,” he said.
With four collections a year and every pattern produced in-house, his creative department for now doesn’t get to do that much creative work because they’re mostly developing things, he lamented.
Research trips are the stuff of luxury giants, whereas Martens soaks up inspiration from the street and things like Instagram. “It’s become the barometer of everything, and people can travel through historic collections of things. Designers are trained to see and dissect and take whatever they take out of it. It’s a very fast process,” he said of the social media platform.
Building on the subject of creative osmosis, the designer shared memories of his artist grandfather Michel Martens, “a very independent person and free spirit, who traveled the world in the Sixties.”
“He’d be sitting on the sofa smoking a pipe and would say: ‘I’m working,’” said Martens. “Same with me. I might be walking home at the end of a day working on the collection, so everything is still fresh in my head, and it just happens,” he said.
Martens attributes his penchant for deconstructing and reconstructing garments to his first experiments as an interior architecture graduate, later adapting the process to cloth as a fashion student at Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts. “In the beginning my clothes looked more like boxes, everything was super-stiff. My very first skirt was basically a pizza box,” he said with a grin.
From the outset, reconstructed denim has been one of Y/Project’s biggest product groups — hence Martens being tapped to collaborate with Diesel Red Tag. But the brand, he underlined, is all about diversity. “Denim, tailoring…depending on my mood, we can jump from one to the other. We’re always a mix,” he said.
The starting point for men’s wear is always classic archetypes that are then twisted.
“Coming from Bruges, being from a very classic background, I do love a traditional Harris Tweed jacket, and it’s nice to play with that,” Martens said. “If we’re choosing colors for an argyle sweater, say, we will always think about what is the most archetypal color, as there are a lot of things happening construction-wise. People recognize the base, and then we can go crazy with things like panels over the shoulders. It’s all about balancing.”
For fall, he played with layering, taking a ground print with a transparent one placed on top to create a psychedelic twist. “It’s psychedelic, but on traditional bases like pinstripes and tartans,” the designer said.
For the footwear, which encompasses a range of materials and styles including signature waders, Martens took classic boot styles and “went really crazy on it. Some of them are standard, some are quite experimental,” he said.
Black nylon bags suspended within a brown leather frame structure on which the wearer can clip on elements such as extra pockets come in different versions, including a cool backpack style and a fanny pack.
Last season’s “pop-up” concept, where a second panel was used on the fronts of looks to create a 3-D effect — a technique that was more constructive on items like denim jackets and flopped into a drape on silk shirts — will also be a key theme in the collection, which will introduce the brand’s first tuxedo.
“I’m extremely excited about the tailoring. In the past, we did a lot of oversize shoulders, and now we’re coming back to something more fitted, using the principle of the pop-up [concept] in a soft and elegant way,” Martens said.
Following in the footsteps of designers including Virgil Abloh, Jonathan Anderson and, most recently, Craig Green, Martens sees the guest designer slot at Pitti Uomo as a major sign of recognition from the men’s wear industry.
“It’s a huge compliment to be part of the family,” he said, commenting on how selective Pitti is when it comes to choosing who they think “at this stage today is relevant.”
“So it’s quite nice to be that one,” concluded the designer. “It’s a very good confirmation that you’re doing the right job, that you’re going in the right direction.”