Nothing better than having a first impression debunked. Especially if that impression was construed through months of cyber-stalking an individual for a school project. Thus was the case for Glenn Martens, creative director of Paris-based label Y/Project, whose media persona seemed to revolve entirely around his ability to have fun. Articles will mention that he walked into his entrance exam at Antwerp with nothing but a few furniture sketches, that he’s now designing for the likes of Rihanna and Beyoncé, and most importantly, that his hair is platinum blond. An unquestionable link was made between his playful designs and his character. If he’s innovative, he must be rebellious. If he’s young, he must love to party. If his collections are streetwear inspired, it must be because he does nothing but roam the streets himself.
In their effort to depict this too-cool-for-school king of the night, journalists easily glance over the fact that the Bruges-born designer is also a hardworking team player who helped save a brand from bankruptcy. Y/Project was originally founded as a partnership between the French designer Yohan Serfaty and the businessman Gilles Elalouf. It was known as a sophisticated menswear label when Yohan unexpectedly died in 2013 and Glenn was asked to take over. The young designer didn’t feel a personal connection to the legacy, but eventually cracked for the opportunity to work with existing retailers and production structures. These weren’t as stable as Glenn had initially hoped, and for the first few seasons, he fought to keep the company afloat.
During that time, he also transformed the label’s identity, adding a womenswear line and renovating the staple black silhouettes into the explosive, baroque-inspired visions we see now. His postmodern mashup of high and low fashion references made him one of Paris’ most talked about brands and, more recently, the winner of the 2017 ANDAM Award.
I met him on one of the first sunny days in Paris, in a rooftop studio where he was overseeing a shoot for his latest collection. In between styling touch-ups, he replied to my nervous questions with careful consideration, taking time to explain his business plan, creative process and studies at the Antwerp Academy. The imaginary Glenn I had constructed in my head was now completely gone. But then again, so was his platinum blonde hair. Maybe the two were related?
With your latest collection, you have really grown into the identity that you wanted for Y/Project, what was the last season like ?
The new Y/Project is here since a year and a half. The third collection is where we really imposed our vision and our woman and our statement, so obviously every year or every season, we just reconfirm that story and add extra layers of fun and excitement. We also introduced shoes for the first time. The whole brand building happened very slowly. Because I took the brand over from someone who passed away, it was a difficult transition. There was mourning in and outside of the company, so out of respect for Yohan we decided to take a very slow transitioning. After one year and a half we reached where we wanted to be visually, and now we started adding new product groups. It’s very much the ideology of Y/Project to take it very slow. The visuals might be strong and extravagant, but how we build the team and grow internally, that’s different. I have a CEO with an economics background, he did Harvard, and I really trust his strategy. I see a lot of brands growing too fast and burning themselves, so we take it step by step.
“I see a lot of brands growing too fast and burning themselves, so we take it step by step.”
That is interesting. Young brands today will have that all figured out before launching – branding on point and media hype assured.
It’s true that we didn’t have the hype other brands had. To be honest, the brand wasn’t supposed to survive when I took it over. It was a brand in mourning, a brand on the brink of bankruptcy, with a very difficult image (close to Rick Owens), which is beautiful but hard to stand out with. Being a bankrupt company, only doing menswear, in a sensitive story… it was very difficult to manage. I’m sometimes surprised that we did it. Conviction plays an important role, you really have to believe in something for it to work.
It does make we wonder… what convinced you to take over the brand? Obviously, there’s the temptation of having production already figured out.
Honestly, when the job was proposed to me it felt like a very well-settled company. Especially after doing my own brand for three seasons, where I did everything by myself and was freelancing on the side to invest in it. After three seasons I already had a bit of a burnout. I was tempted by the structure of a settled company, I thought it would be easier, but it wasn’t. I was tricked! [laughter]
No, I’m really happy now, I get along really well with my team. The secret of every success story is the team. We knew it would be a long project, but as a team we restructured everything. I put a lot of energy into guiding everyone. Me being 30 at that time, I was the oldest of the whole team, my head of sales was 22, my head of studio was 22. They were all extremely motivated, but very junior.
“If you don’t have this massive network or treasury behind you, you should definitely take your time.”
Did having your own brand prepare you for this?
Not really, but it does teach you to be persistent. Before I had my own brand, I had a few experiences in the business – I worked for Jean-Paul Gaultier, the classic French couture house, then I worked for Bruno Pieters, a sustainable brand, Weekday, which is part of the H&M group, and I worked for an independent designer in Istanbul – so I really had a large variety of experience. This was definitely my school. Every student should take time to experience the industry and meet people.
There are designers who can start their own label right after graduation, but they either have a lot of money, or they’re very well connected. I saw brands in Paris that had twenty-five salespoints before even launching. If you don’t have this massive network or treasury behind you, you should definitely take your time. In the beginning you always make a lot of mistakes. Only by learning about them before, can you catch up on those.
You do seem to have arrived at a moment in Paris where there’s more space for young designers. You are often associated to this new generation of Parisian designers bringing youth back to the city. Do you feel this as well?
The Paris fashion week has always been one of the best ones in the world. Brands like Céline and Vuitton are obviously amazingly beautiful houses with amazingly interesting creative directors, and Paris is saturated with them. It’s true that, since it’s so saturated, there’s not that much time or energy to put into young designers. Journalists and buyers end their fashion week marathon in Paris. They enjoy ending on this high of luxurious, and consistent, collections. There’s no surprises, it’s always good. Then there was this Vetements phenomenon, which broke everything open. This definitely brings attention to the fact that Paris could be something more than just established houses. These young designers have always been there, we just have the spotlight now. Everybody is talking about this new wave, and I’m very blessed to be part of it.
Talking about cities, let’s go back to Antwerp, where you studied. The school is such an explosive source of international talent, but it’s based in this small town. Coming from Antwerp, do you still feel connected to this community?
I graduated in 2008 and I really enjoyed my studies there. As you say, it’s a provincial town. There’s a bit of art and a night life, but in very small doses. It’s a very safe and calm place to be. The academy is an island filled with extravagant people, each of them crazier than the other. You work together, live together, and for four years you’re practically in a sect. This is not bad, because you inspire each other.
The other thing which was amazing in my time, is that everyone in my year was very different, and each of us had a very different story. We made it a statement to be as different as possible. The point is that people won’t confront you with your classmates, they can’t make parallels between you because you really focus on your individuality. What happens however, is that you create very individual people, who have a very individual way of working and communicating, so once we leave the school, most of us have a very independent story. We keep contact of course, but we don’t continue working together.
“We made it a statement to be as different as possible.”
Talking about competition between students, did you ever feel this towards previous students? So many legendary designers came from Antwerp. Was that ever overshadowing or stressful?
Antwerp is a school which has a lot of history and a lot of crazy good designers, so obviously, you want to be like them. Antwerp also has a dropout system, which means that you start with eighty students and every year people quit until you end up with a small group. In the beginning, you’re very stressed by that and you try to understand the reasons why certain people pass and certain people fail. You can become obsessed with the work of your predecessors. The trick is, the moment you let go of that, is the moment you succeed in Antwerp. Trying to copy someone else’s work strategy is just too time-consuming and it takes so much energy.
What’s your creative process like?
Honestly, we really don’t care about what the mainstream opinion is. We take any reference we feel like using at the moment, historic or ethnic, and the only question we ask ourselves is whether we’re not taking it too far. We might understand it, because we’re in the process of making it, but will an outsider understand it in the same way? We want to be a brand that raises questions, but as we often play with the codes of good and bad taste, you have to make sure you don’t cross the border too far. We work hard, we respect our work and we want people to feel that. There’s a lot of humour of course, and a lot of winks left and right.
I wanted to talk to you about taste. You like to flirt with those boundaries. How do you make sure you do not take it too far?
Indeed, anything can be high or low taste, it all depends on the attitude. Once you understand this, you free yourself from a lot of boundaries. Nothing is really tasteless or tasteful, it all depends on how you put the spotlight on it. I’m always attracted to things that aren’t necessarily nice. I had a very classic upbringing, in a bourgeois small city, where everything is perfectly in balance. I was obsessed with classic Western beauty for a very long time. When I was younger, I was always looking to replicate those codes. At a certain point, I understood them and so I wanted something that challenged me more. Fake fur and velvet aren’t appealing, so I like to question myself – why isn’t it and how can I transform it into something beautiful?
What is the starting point of your collections?
For me, it’s both technique and research. We always try to develop a story that is used both in mens- and womenswear. It’s always something technical. For AW, the metal wires that created absurd and psychedelic volumes. For SS, everything was attached with cufflinks. It’s often a single technique, that we take further into an atmosphere. For AW we wanted a royalty vibe, but without being classical. It was more a Flintstones royalty vibe. Looking into hip-hop and rap figures from the 90s, and portraying them as contemporary loyalty. So we imagined Tupac as the Henri VIII of the 90s. So you’ll see these renaissance sleeves in nylon bombers.
Going back to inspiration. You often mention how the city of Bruges and its gothic architecture inspired you. Is that really something that influences your designs, or is it just a nice story?
Obviously it’s a good story, but growing up in Bruges really coloured my aesthetic. Walking around in between these gothic austere things, it makes sense for me to confront classic elegance with something else – even in my trashiest silhouettes there’s always some classic beauty. You might think a model is wearing a cocktail dress, but up close she’s also wearing leather and nylon and a jogging. It’s always about bringing both worlds together.
I was really obsessed with Bruges when I was younger. My first holidays as a young adult, I was always disappointed. My first trip to London, I thought it was so much less coherent and more chaotic than Bruges. The city is one big medieval town, the overview is very austere, while London is so eclectic. Bruges was a big input in my appreciation of art and beauty. Classic elements are always present in my work, these elongated silhouettes, an explosion of decoration – which maybe does refer to gothic cathedrals. I then transform this, so it’s never a literal translation, but you can get the vibes.
“It’s rare to find a piece that’s entirely genderfluid. Our clothes are prolongations of their wearers.”
You mentioned how men’s and women’s collections influence each other. From the start, this got you labelled as a gender-fluid designer.
We combined men’s and women’s collections for a very simple reason: we didn’t have the budget or the team to support two full collections. In the beginning, we did try to combine men’s and women’s, but it was very difficult to convince our clients. The sleeves were always too long, or the shirts too wide. Obviously, since the genderfluid hype arrived two years ago, it’s been much easier for us to communicate on that. But I don’t want to be a genderfluid brand. The unisex pieces are extremely masculine when worn by a man, and extremely feminine when worn by a woman. We often work on changeability, so it depends on how you want to wear it. It’s rare to find a piece that’s entirely genderfluid. Our clothes are prolongations of their wearers. A lot of brands create armies – when you wear the brand you become one of them – with us it’s more about pushing the individuality. You really have to reflect upon yourself and think about how you want to wear something.
Now that you have been doing Y/Project for a while, does the financial side become any easier?
As my boss is from Harvard, that’s his thing. But I also want the brand to grow. I want the team to be happy, to get more money into the company, so they can have a nicer quality of life. I don’t do this brand just for my ego, I do this brand because there’s a whole team behind it and I want everybody to feel happy and part of a movement. I think we’re reaching that. The good thing with Y/Project, is that the collection plan is very eclectic, so we have a lot of different products, from basic jeans to extravagant couture tops. Thanks to that we reached a very broad market. Our market is worldwide, I can’t even say which continent is more interested in us. I can’t even say which kind of product is doing better.
Was that intentional?
Oh, yes. I’m a very restless person and I need a lot of inputs. I would never be able to do nothing but streetwear, as I would never be able to do only sophisticated silhouettes. I need to touch everything, and I’m curious. I need to know how the body works, how a cocktail dress works, how tailoring works… I want to play with everything.
When I arrived in Antwerp I didn’t know anything. The Antwerp academy is mostly people who’ve already studied fashion somewhere else. So to them it’s a really big thing to arrive at that school, and they usually are very cultured. I was the only one who didn’t know shit about fashion. I knew Karl Lagerfeld maybe, I just thought it was fun. I didn’t even know you had to sew. As I arrived there with such a handicap, I got extra eager to succeed. I wanted to squeeze everything out of it.
You felt like an outsider in Antwerp, do you still feel that way sometimes?
My life is very hectic – I’m not just designing for Y/Project, I’m also teaching in Geneva and consulting, and I also travel a lot because I love to follow up on production. I like to visit the factories. There’s a lot of movement, so the thing that keeps me in reality are my friends which I have since forever. It’s a small group, but the moment I’m off, I’m with them. Our lives mainly revolve around eating together and getting wasted in the kitchen. In that way I’m an outsider because I rarely go to any art or fashion related events. Mostly I go to concerts, getting beers, birthday celebrations, hiking. This saves me, because my life can be hectic. Those people are the only steady thing I have right now.
I am pleased to hear that you keep up with production, especially since fashion has so many issues with transparency. What are the advantages to you?
I think it’s nice to get to know the people who are making your clothes, and to see how they live their lives. They are as important as my design team in the chain of this product. It’s nice to create a contact, and I know how far I can go with my designs if I know what the practical limits are. It helps motivate both myself and them. Technically we produce 80% in Europe, the rest is in a French company in Tunisia. I worked at Honest by so I was really educated into ethical thinking, it’s something I care for. I worked for another company in Istanbul, where I didn’t see the best working conditions. When I’m in Tunisia, I see the difference. The workers are proud and happy to work there. They also love meeting the person who makes these crazy tutus.
The company atmosphere is very important to me. I have an extremely happy team. I live in a small apartment, so when I need to draw something in the weekend, I often come to the office. Every weekend I do that, I’ll always find someone from the team here, picking up something or having a coffee. I think it’s cute that they come back to the office so easily, it’s a good sign. It’s an intimate atmosphere.
Yes, in fashion you are expected to work after regular office hours, so if the company you are in doesn’t have a nice atmosphere…
Yes, it can be done by fun, or by fear! [laughter]
Words Aya Noël
Images Quentin de Briey