The rue de Paradis – a 10-minute walk from the Gare du Nord in Paris – has been a magnet for the creative classes and the demi-monde for centuries. Once a center for ceramics and glassmaking, it offered venues for alternative shows and DIY clubs in the 2000s and has since undergone a transformation again, with a rash of organic food stores, macrobiotic cafés and boutiques propped with the millennial’s favorite plant, the cactus.
The street is also now home to the Y/Project studio. It is reached via a cranky gate lift that takes you to a bright, sunny roof space, presided over by the vivacious 34-year-old designer Glenn Martens, who in 2013 became creative director of the niche menswear brand founded by the late Yohan Serfaty. Having worked there as a first assistant, Martens was the top choice for CEO Gilles Elalouf. “I wanted the brand to be more eclectic and also happy,” says Martens. “I work with young people from different backgrounds and that’s a real pleasure.”
The designer has subsequently transformed the brand into a buzzy mens- and womenswear label known for its hype-worthy streetwear (including gigantic, wader-style Ugg boots), innovative and audacious ‘transformer’ pieces (jeans with a slash at the top of the thigh and removable legs), jeans chaps, and fun-filled flamboyance with swaggering troubadour blouses and explosions of draped tulle that add grandeur to everyday sweats and denims. Rihanna, Marion Cotillard, Gigi Hadid and Chloë Sevigny are all turning to Y/Project for its off-beat glamour.
Martens has recently returned from a camping trip in the Canary Islands and is proud that he was able to put up with all the hardships. He’s also chuffed that he could leave his team to develop the new-season ideas, which he once would have overseen at every stage. “We are turning into a house at last,” says Martens, who can now more fully assume the role of creative director. “I draw up the concepts and the team has a week to develop ideas and create drawings based on my stories. It’s ridiculous when a designer claims he does it all himself!”
Martens’ story briefs might include anything from a historical costume to a snap of someone on the metro bundled up in skew-whiff layers to a cheesy Hollywood film. One of the cues for his Fall/Winter 2018 collection was an image of American actress Debra Paget performing an erotic dance in Fritz Lang’s 1959 film The Indian Tomb. Paget, in a crystal-embellished, embroidered nude bodysuit, cavorts in front of a huge fake python wearing a leery grin. Martens’ eclectic mindset chimes with the crazy array of information we cherry-pick on a daily basis, resulting in clothes that feel fresh, surprising and uncontrived. Trompe l’oeil effects, squiggly seams, graphic tailoring and multiple-cuff trousers are in the mix.
In 2017, his design approach was recognized when Y/Project won the Grand Prize of the coveted ANDAM Fashion Awards. Not only did the studio receive €250,000 ($300,000), but also €10,000 of Swarovski crystals. “I was not attracted to crystal at first, as I always associated it with bling,” says Martens. “But I love antique jewelry, so I thought, ‘Let’s try!’”
Martens chose a pear-shaped cut stone (“I like the vintage feel”), and rather than use the crystal as “classic embellishment like a collar”, he treated it as embroidered decoration, covering the breast on a sheer top and the crotch on trousers – a look he featured for Fall/Winter 2018.
This playful creativity is making Y/Project essential viewing at Paris Fashion Week. Alongside a new guard of independent Parisian brands, including Koché (also supported by Swarovski) and Atlein, the label offers an alternative perspective of the city, one with a sense of street-born glamour that is distinct from the perfumed luxury of the traditional houses. Martens enjoys this juxtaposition of the gritty urban and the soignée. As if to make the point, he showed his Fall/Winter 2018 collection in the Art Deco splendor of the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, located on the avenue Montaigne – a street lined with high-end fashion stores and nose-to-tail Mercedes, Ferraris and Aston Martins.
In his collection were striped sweaters with cape backs, worn with spiral-cut cuissarde boots and denim shorts; ingenious double-layered trench coats with removable inner layers; tie-front, leather shirt dresses; and swagged chintz-print blouses married with shorts. For the evening, he showed fringed flapper dresses and voluptuous duchesse-silk bustier tops imbued with both 18th-century grandeur and Eighties New Romantic style.
Martens, who had studied interior architecture as a student, recalls his passion for history. “I grew up in Bruges where the medieval city is almost untouched,” he says. “I want to grasp history, but not directly. The way Galliano modernized history at Dior was amazing, but, for me, it’s more about the vibe, like the emotion a Rubens can bring!”
History, Martens’ personal past and the fantasies of today all collide in his work. “I’m a Nineties kid and I went through numerous phases, from skater to leftie,” he says. “Lately, I read that we listen to the music of our teens because we’re nostalgic for the era when we were so in tune with our emotions. I still listen to Portishead, Massive Attack, Björk; it’s part of my psyche.”
As a student, Martens was accepted on the fashion course at the prestigious Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp. His focus back then was on purist designs. “I wanted to understand classical beauty and my collections were about that – elegance in sculptural silk organza and chiffon,” he says. “Successful design is about understanding proportions.” The rigor of classicism stood him well. He interned for the brilliant conceptualist Bruno Pieters before being hired at Jean Paul Gaultier. Martens recalls his time at Gaultier: “His archive is ridiculously beautiful and he is such an inventor. The mentality of the company is full of joy and that’s so important – work is not a ‘pain’ and Gaultier really embodies that – he’s such a smiley person.”
When Martens joined Y/Project, the label’s legacy was serious-thinking menswear in vegetal leathers and artisan wools. Under his creative direction, it has added womenswear and a whole category of gender-fluid pieces. The line is now sold in boutiques such as Boon the Shop in Seoul and Browns in London, and online at Net-A-Porter.
Beyond Y/Project, he has lately attracted the attention of Diesel’s Renzo Rosso, who invited him to design a capsule collection for the Diesel Red Tag Project. Francesca Bellettini, the CEO of Saint Laurent, who mentors Martens as part of the ANDAM award, also has an eye on the designer. “Martens has a passion that will help fashion remain relevant,” she says. As for Martens, it is simply about feeling “the joy of the work in the clothes”. Let’s dance to that.
This story appeared in the Autumn/Winter 2018 issue of SALT magazine.
Image credits: Broadimage/Rex/Shutterstock; Emma Le Doyen; Jason Lloyd-Evans