ISSUE 35 FALL/WINTER 2019/20 OUT NOW         ISSUE 35 FALL/WINTER 2019/20 OUT NOW    

Martine Rose

Words by
Francesca Gavin
From Issue 34 – SS 19

Rooted in the atmosphere of underground innovation that permeated London in the 1990s, fashion designer Martine Rose has pioneered a new, off-balance sense of proportion in menswear. Playing into subcultural cues and exuding fun and authenticity, her work reflects her tomboyish attitude and refreshingly unrestricted definition of sexy, with a focus on pockets of communities and (extended) family.

At the cusp of the early 1990s, London was a very different place. Gritty. Abandoned buildings were parts of the cityscape. It was grey and worn down by a decade of Thatcherism. Yet, underneath, there was also an exceptional sub-cultural effervescence sprouting up in the city. Soul boys, acid house, the afro-centric sound system culture spilling into parties at the Africa Centre, These New Puritans and a new emerging queerness. This sense of underground innovation continued throughout the decade with the jungle and garage scenes. Music, fashion, clubs, drugs and magazines—everything was in flux. It is this background that influenced a very young Martine Rose, who went to her grandma’s house and watched her siblings and cousins get ready for raves and parties. It is this authentic, pre-Internet, naturally formed subcultural moment that helped inspire her to become a designer who is defining the direction of contemporary menswear.

For a fashion designer at the top of her game, Martine is surprisingly down to earth. In fact, her innate authenticity is part of what has made her so attractive to her fans, which include Demna Gvasalia and Virgil Abloh. Rose likes things big. She creates wide, oversized shapes: very baggy trousers, extra fat trainers, bulky Patrick Cox-inspired loafers. When she first started pioneering that sense of proportion in menswear, people were skeptical; today, it has become the silhouette of modern streetwear. “It’s the balance that feels a bit off that I’m always really interested in. Like when something isn’t quite fitting,” Rose says. “If you hate it, it’s fine. I think when you feel indifferent towards something, it’s a bit dangerous. I feel you have to be pushing things, and sometimes the result can be awkward.” 

Martine has become one of the most in-demand collaborators and consultants in fashion, transforming the perception and aesthetic for labels such as Napapijri and Nike, and helping to create an outstandingly popular menswear line for Balenciaga. In turn, her choice of collaborators is always personal and authentic. She chose to work with Gvasalia at Balenciaga simply because they clicked. “We get on. We really understand each other. He put an enormous amount of faith in me, really, because we didn’t know each other very well at all when he brought me in. There was a real sense of newness. There wasn’t the same pressure with the men’s, because it was completely new, so we could really take it in any direction we wanted. It was a great, exciting time,” she recalls. Rose worked on the label for almost three years, finishing recently as her own label grew. She is not against another big Paris collaboration, but she isn’t looking for it. “Never say never. For me, it has to be the right fit,” she says. “All of my collaborators really let me get away with murder in a way. They really allow me to be free.”

Her collaboration with Nike, meanwhile, was boundary breaking. Her Air Monarchs were an exaggerated take on the plump trainer popular in the early 1990s. With huge uppers added to normal soles and embellished with extra leather curves, the results looked closer to miniature sculptures than athletic footwear. She launched the shoe with a campaign with A$AP Eva, a middle-aged Chinatown jewelry supplier who has been accessorizing the world of hip-hop, including Playboi Carti and the Wu-Tang Clan, for twenty years. The shoes inventively dropped on Craigslist along with other limited-edition pieces, including a very British-inspired tracksuit. Her stockists included a trainer addict, a painter/decorator living next door to Rose’s sister, and a young photography student. Her entire operation echoed the DIY, in-the-know vibes of raves and wide boys, far from the standard approach of a giant label. The results exuded fun.

There is something tomboyish about Martine. Juggling babies on set, she wears a men’s blazer and jeans. “It was just my natural aesthetic. As I was going out to raves and stuff, it was like primarily men’s clothes, sportswear, maybe with a crop top—but it was all about dancing.” Falling into designing menswear was a natural step. The restrictions of men’s clothes were also very appealing. As she puts it, “I liked that there are rules because it means you can break them.”

When she first graduated from college, she set up a small label with her friend Tamara Rothstein called LMNOP. “Initially it was womenswear but really looked like menswear. It sort of morphed into menswear after a season or so,” Rose remembers. When she started her own eponymous label, she kept things simple and began with shirts. “There’s huge financial implications when you start making a collection. So I thought, ‘Let’s just get that right first—ten shirts. If I can do that a couple of seasons, then I can move on.’ I still needed to find who I was, my language.”

The person that Martine is designing for, in her mind, is sexy—something she admits is “very un-PC”—but her definition of that term is refreshingly unrestricted. “Sexy can be so broad. There’s so many different versions of masculinity I play with. For me, a man wearing a woman’s top, a really high-waisted jean and a loafer can be really sexy. I try to explore attitudes about masculinity. Sometimes, it’s not until you make it and you see it, that you realize, ‘Damn, that is sexy.’” “What attracts me to Martine’s work is sex,” says filmmaker Sharna Osbourne. “The conversations we have are often about a sexuality that her work inspires and is inspired by. It’s a male sexuality, and one that we spoke about coveting through its elusiveness to us as females. So shooting her clothing and contextualizing it visually allows me to fantasize and in a way participate in a world I am not naturally privy to.” Osbourne has extended Rose’s aesthetic and references to fashion films since 2016. Often shot to look like they were on VHS, the grainy, colorful clips feel closer to old skate films or hip-hop videos, mixed with the naturalism of camcorders. “She can see so clearly with still and moving depictions of her work, which allows her to be really specific and demanding. It really allows me to see the value and weight of elusive and nuanced notions, and go deeper and deeper into a rabbit hole.”

Like many in the industry, certainly historically, Rose does not actually make her own clothes, but rather approaches the design process in a similar way to an artist dealing with medium. “I work very three-dimensionally. I work with clothing. I form new silhouettes with clothing that I already have. I like feeling clothes and really interacting with them in a physical sense,” she notes. Her process involves spending time sourcing vintage clothing and playing with proportion and material rather than picking up a pencil. The designer originally studied at Camberwell College of Art in South London, experimenting with sculpture as part of her foundation before choosing to focus on fashion at Middlesex. “I was always interested in form. It just happens that I choose to use clothing to explore it.” 

One of the strong recurring motifs in Rose’s work is patchwork. What she places and how it is sewn together varies immensely, from toweling beer mates to fabric emblazoned with rave flyers to old denim. Combining materials, shapes and prints in a new way is innately part of her approach. “I like when things feel a bit punk. I like when it feels a bit undone, a bit like you’ve done it yourself, a bit loose. I think it imbues clothing with a life. It’s always such an amazing thing when you find something in a market that’s been personalized. You get the sense of a life before,” Rose enthuses. “For me, couture isn’t the most expensive fabric, isn’t the finest this or that, it’s how you treat it. For me, cotton can be couture, or a very cheap plastic can be couture. It’s what you imbue it with, a sense of focus and beauty. Patchwork imbues the clothing with a sense of time, dedication. It’s still a laborious task. It’s a very time-consuming thing; you can’t really speed it up. Even if it is industrialized to a sense, it still is imbued with a sense of hours spent on it.”

Rose’s studio is in Finsbury Park and she lives nearby in Holloway. Neither area is particularly “cool,” but they are places where people live. It reflects her focus on community, something she often emphasizes. Her shows are notorious for taking place in unusual urban spaces: she once turned a Kentish Town cul-de-sac into a runway, inviting locals to take a pew and watch alongside fashion editors; another presentation took place at a South American community center in Tottenham. These “pockets of communities” are a strong influence on Rose’s work. “I’ve always really been inspired by how these little ecosystems form. They are as precious as they are rare and rarer.”

Family is also very important to her. On the shoot for KALEIDOSCOPE, she is surrounded by babies, cousins, nieces, nephews, siblings and parents. Rose turns 40 this year and has two young children (one boy, one girl)—taking pauses and then strapping them on as part of her life. “I would say that family really formed me as a person. There was a central house, which is my nan’s house. We all gathered there on the weekends,” Rose recalls with a smile. “That’s really where I think my interest in clothing and music and everything was formed. People used to just drop by all the time. There was always food for anyone that came. It was always the old cousins that got you into stuff, and so there was a real sense of safety and security there. It has become really part of my identity and who I am.”

That sense of family expands to her friends and long-time collaborators, including Rothstein, Osbourne, and stylist and fashion editor Max Pearmain, who worked with Rose for five seasons. “Martine was the first person I really worked with, so it was based on a steady mix of inexperience and respect,” Pearmain recalls. “That AW13 presentation felt like a really nice coming of age for both of us—beer mat pieces, a clear idea of Martine’s man, the right amount of appropriation and oddness to feel identifiable. Plus people were livid with that method of how we presented it. It was all quite organic and loopy.”

Rose plays into subcultural cues that people get in a way beyond the ebb and flow of fashion seasons. “What I’m interested in is the anthropological side of clothing: how people wear it, why they wear it, what it means, what they choose to show about themselves. I just love clothes, because it’s almost like you can’t separate them from these communities. There’s always some sort of significance with clothing for everyone of every age.” She is big fan of market, car boot sales and fairs. These are communities on the edge of capitalism working with a cash-in-hand way. “It’s really subversive, do you know what I mean? I love that,” she says mischievously.

There is a political element to what Rose does, but the designer isn’t outspoken about it. “I don’t go on Twitter or Instagram and spout my political views, but I feel very strongly about certain things and that definitely comes through. You can give covert messages in everything you do.” Some of her graphics and prints that touch on football or pubs or parties seem to prod at British class structures. “My dad was a Black Panther. Politically, my family has been very engaged, and that sort of filters through. I guess that’s also an added element of subcultures and youth cultures. It’s always about kicking back. I love this idea of resistance. It’s really inspiring.”

Martine Rose (British, B. 1980) is a menswear designer who lives and works in London.
Francesca Gavin is a London-based writer and curator and a contributing editor of KALEIDOSCOPE.

Photography by Pascal Gambarte
All clothes throughout: Martine Rose, shoes: Martine Rose and Nike

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