London-based Martine Rose has become a cult figure in men’s wear since launching her eponymous collection with a few shirts in 2007. She seamlessly blends tailoring with streetwear using quintessentially British youth culture references such as punk and rave movements that she blends with her Jamaican heritage to create an explosion of colors and textures — and a few eye-popping silhouettes such as wide-leg trousers and exaggerated button-down shirts.
She’s also become known for her out-of-the-box fashion shows where she’s embraced everything from a South American market to a cul-de-sac in Camden Town.
Here, Rose talks about her upbringing, inspiration and what’s next.
WWD: Where did you grow up and how did you get into fashion?
Martine Rose: I grew up in London. My father is Jamaican and my mother is English and we had a big, extended family. I didn’t get into fashion until much later but my influence was very much my cousins and the music and the different tribes that were going on at that time. My older cousin was really into acid house and rave culture and I was obsessed with him and what he was wearing. My sister was really into reggae and fashion. She wore a lot of Gaultier. I said I want access to this world, but it wasn’t really fashion, it was more music.
WWD: How and when did you start Martine Rose?
M.R.: I had a little label when I graduated in 2002, it was LMNOP and I had it for five seasons, and I learned quite a lot. I launched Martine Rose in 2007. I started with a shirt line because what I learned from LMNOP is that if I focus on one area, I could build on those blocks. My first fashion show was in 2012.
WWD: Who is the Martine Rose guy?
M.R.: I don’t know who my guy is. Every time I tried to design with someone in mind, it didn’t work and I think I lost something of me. Since I started doing my collection, the information I get back is he’s really broad: he can be 18 or 45. He’s cool, whoever he is. I’ve always been attracted to outsiders. It’s always something that interested me in all elements of culture: fashion, music, stuff like that. I think that comes through in my designs and it resonates with that person.
WWD: Is he an outsider?
M.R.: Yes, he’s a bit of an outsider. Since I started, what’s attracted people to me is that I wasn’t readily available. People had to seek me out. My collections really spoke to people who got it — a sense of connecting and belonging to a tribe.
WWD: Yet someone found pretty influential found you: Demna Gvasalia of Balenciaga.
M.R.: Demna was still working at Vuitton then and he e-mailed me to say he liked what I did and it was a friendly exchange. When he got appointed at Balenciaga, I e-mailed him to say congratulations and he asked if I would like to meet in person. Of course I did, and fundamentally, we really got each other. We connected and realized there were a lot of similarities even though we came from different places. And that’s when he asked me to help start the men’s line. There was a team there, but it was small and the focus was definitely on the women’s. Demna was obviously very keen to make it really big and make it exciting — it was pretty intimidating I have to say.
WWD: You’ve said this is the most important thing for your career so far. What have you learned from working with Balenciaga?
M.R.: I was there three years. I took one season off when I had my son. That really shone the spotlight on me. Demna very generously said to tell people — there was no secrecy — so I could tell people about it. It was my first job, and it was like jumping in the deep end. Before that, I’d basically been winging it. I didn’t really know how to run a business or build a brand or anything like that. I just did what I felt was instinctive. So going to a big house and seeing how they structure a team and how they work efficiently taught me a lot and gave me big confidence. Up until that point, I was still niche and a lot of people didn’t get what I was doing. I was doing a lot of crazy silhouettes for men and at that point, it was way wild. But having some credentials by consulting for Balenciaga brought a lot of attention.
WWD: Aesthetically, there’s something similar between what you did in your own line and what you did for Balenciaga. Did that help push your message forward?
M.R.: Definitely. It was one of the things that Demna found exciting about my work to begin with. Demna was also very interested in silhouette so it connected us and was very exciting and really pushed men’s wear ahead.
WWD: You did a show where you had a patchwork beer towel jacket. Critics loved you but a lot of people didn’t understand you.
M.R.: As I said, I’ve always been interested in the periphery of society and punk culture in the U.K., even though it was really just for a short time, it had a huge impact on popular culture. The punks used to patch their jeans with beer towels because you could steal them from the pub for free. They also made pockets with them. It was very iconic in England and I thought it was a very interesting thing to use.
WWD: You had critical success but the commercial side didn’t like it, especially the exaggerated wide-leg pants you designed.
M.R.: That was spring-summer ’13 and it was a commercial flop. The critics loved it and in terms of a show, it really started a lot of conversations, because we hadn’t seen an extreme silhouette like that in men’s wear. But we didn’t sell a bean. It got lots of attention, but no business.
WWD: But your cult following continued to grow and now you’re commercially successful. So how do you walk that line of not losing the cool factor and making money?
Staying niche was pretty easy because it wasn’t commercially viable. It’s really hard and people often say, you just have this crazy focus and you knew it was going to work. Well…I hoped it was going to work but I didn’t know it was going to work. It was really difficult at that stage because I was getting a lot of press interest and verbal support from people, but no one could actually make the leap to buy. There was time I felt I was really shouting down a well, but at the same time, there were a lot of people coming to me and asking for trousers and other things, so that created a conversation and a cult feeling.
WWD: How did you manage to grow?
M.R.: [Autumn-winter ‘17] was really a turning point. It was the season after I started with Balenciaga so I had that behind me. It was the first season I’d done tailoring in my own collection. I’d gotten confidence working at Balenciaga and was less intimidated and it was the first time the environment became a really strong part of the collection as well. This collection was shown in a location that was way out of the fashion circuit. It was where my studio was, it was really cheap. I used to get lunch there every day. It was a rundown neighborhood but the market was very South American, it was like a community center with Colombian and Caribbean food, there are South American lawyers in there. It’s a real hub, people go there on Saturday morning and don’t leave. It has an incredible energy and I had been in the area for 10 years and thought, now is the time to bring people to the part of London that inspired the collection. I asked the storeowners if they minded and they didn’t really get it. I asked each stall to stay open and to develop their own specialties: empanadas in one place and chips in another — not very fashion, the opposite of canapes — but it was really fun. People were getting their nails and hair done and they were besieged by the fashion crowd. As we know, fashion shows don’t really last longer than five minutes and there’s a lot of drama with it, so they were like: Is it finished?
WWD: That was in 2016 and the beginning of experiential shows and it helped us understand who you were.
M.R.: Then we went to a cul-de-sac in Camden. I had to do a lot of schmoozing. People thought I was getting paid by the council — there was all sort of gossip going on. They thought it was going to be a carnival. But the clincher was when I told them they’d all get a free pair of Nikes. And then they were so into it. It was a beautiful day and they were setting up tables in their front garden. I’ve got a picture of a woman holding her cat out the window. During rehearsal, there were kids running on the catwalk and people were setting up their deck chairs. And I said, ‘This is exactly the atmosphere I wanted.’ And they bullied themselves onto the front row. They were like, ‘It’s my street.’ So there were editors and then Steve from next door.
WWD: Let’s talk about your collaborations.
M.R.: The biggest ones I’m doing at the moment are Nike and Napapijri. They’ve been amazing and fun. In the Nike collaboration, we really did use Steve from next door. He was in the campaign. I like working with people I connect with. The Nike thing has been really successful.
WWD: You once said that in order to be successful, you have to get your own lunch. What does that mean?
M.R.: There’s a lot of noise and it’s very easy to become disconnected and warped by what you define as success. It’s very easy to get removed from those things that make you you. If you’re not getting your own lunch, you’re not connecting with the person who’s giving you lunch. That little bit of conversation, these are all the things that you not only bring to your work but also keep you you. If you get removed from that, you become this weird satellite and before you know it, you’re not recognizable.
WWD: In the age of social media, who do you look at as outsiders today or are you always looking to people from the past?
M.R.: I’m not on social media myself. I’m too much of a compulsive person, I’ve got no measure. A lot of the references that influence me are nostalgic and the people I knew growing up. There are some exciting people now that I use as reference, but for me, it’s mainly nostalgic people.
WWD: Now that you’ve done the cul-de-sac, does that create pressure to keep raising the bar?
M.R.: Yes, it does. Fashion is brutal and you’re really hard on yourself and you keep thinking: “how can I outdo myself?” But it’s not about doing better, it’s about doing something else but what is the right thing at that moment and what is the right thing for the collection. I’ve never been one to show in a linear way anyway so I’ve got to stop the urge of how to compete with myself. But it does create pressure.
WWD: Is there a difference when you’re working on collaborations and when you’re creating Martine Rose?
When I started, I thought: how do you do this because you have the same taste and you’re into what you’re into. You try to compartmentalize it and say, this is for that person and this is for that person. There are some times when things jump out of you and you think, that’s definitely a Nike thing or that’s definitely a Balenciaga thing, but instead of spending a lot of time try to compartmentalize things, you might as well just be relaxed about it.