Style
Where the runway meets the street

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Returning from a two-season sabbatical for Fall/Winter 2016, London menswear designer Martine Rose is currently experiencing a significant spike in online buzz. During her absence, Instagram seemed to increase its grip on the fashion world, becoming an even more essential medium — both artistic and commercial, for any contemporary brand. Rose’s distinct vision — which artfully remixes and re-appropriates the codes of retro subcultures to create something entirely new, has immediately been welcomed into this fold. An aesthetic that strikes an obvious chord with the new generation of post-subculture millennials, that seem to be the app’s most engaged community.

Rose’s work could be seen as part of a wider what’s-new-is-old wave, where a significant handful of brands seem to be offering different takes on thrift-store style eccentricity. Spearheaded by a roster of new creative directors, the uppermost echelons of fashion appear to be moving away from the monotony of uniformly-presented collections. Instead, outfits that feel more naturally thrown-together are hitting runways, looking pre-owned and character-based on an almost look-by-look basis. At Saint Laurent, Hedi Slimane may have recently departed, but the spirit of his indie rock ‘n’ roll revamp, which always felt born of a personal nostalgia, still lingers on in stores. At Gucci, Alessandro Michele seems to have raided the brand’s archives, amping up his findings to create clothing that’s eccentric, ornate and often outright kitsch. And at Balenciaga, where Rose herself recently consulted on the brand’s menswear debut, Demna Gvasalia has offered something of a post-Soviet streetwear aesthetic that helped build his name at Vetements. A look that’s inspired by the dated adoption of Western trends, the designer grew up with in ’90s Eastern Europe.

Whilst groupings of this nature are a given in the fashion industry, discussing Rose as part of this wave — or any wave, in fact — feels unnatural. Her utterly authentic vision may have gained a new kind of relevance through this changing context, but the reality of her aesthetic is that it’s long-honed, and with its truly personal approach, intrinsically independent. Her own take on the lived-in look dates back almost a decade. Referencing without ever being derivative, her designs refract rather than reflect the past. A process that often abstracts and embellishes well-remembered details; adding just the right amount of strange to what are otherwise easy to wear pieces. A just left-of-the-middle balancing act that’s especially appealing in menswear, where it seems the best brands exist on a fine line, where conventions are bent but never fully broken. Beginning her career with a simple line of shirts back in 2007, Rose has since developed a full range of menswear with a loyal and international customer base. Her designs are shot by the most important publications, have been worn by the likes of Rihanna, Chris Brown and Drake, and yet manage to maintain a decidedly underground sensibility. Wearing one of her garments is like wearing an artifact somehow; some kind of memento of an unplaceable period. Something which, despite being brand new, is already invested with its own sense of memory.

The pre-owned quality of Rose’s work seems predestined when you consider the recording artist ring to her own name. Written signature-style even across a simple white T-shirt, the feeling of rare concert memorabilia or other collectable keepsakes seems to occur naturally wherever her logo is applied. Just as natural is her approach to construction and fabrications. Instead of presenting collections that stringently segue from one look into the next via strictly recurring motifs (a firm convention of many brands), Rose’s approach seems much more organic. Silhouettes range from shrunken to billowing; these two extremes reiterating the sense of a prior owner, whilst materials have a found quality and often mix incongruously. The result is collections that mimic the sense of discovery that secondhand shopping brings.

Our acceleration consumption of fashion has afflicted the high-end, though it’s a tide Rose has successfully managed to move against. Whilst many labels have run themselves ragged through increasingly exhausting calendars with tight deadlines and the following of other unspoken requirements, Rose has always managed to operate slightly outside the system. Her output has been steady and at times slower than the norm. As well as her recent sabbatical, the scale of her collections has varied from within the normal London standards of twenty-plus looks, to showing just one outfit for Spring/Summer 2015. A setup that avoided seeming statement-based instead felt true to the ebb and flow reality of creative output.

Discussing this with The New York Times at the time, Rose simply stated, “Sometimes that’s all you need to say.” A slower and less conventional approach to the staging of collection launches has also allowed a clearer idea of the Martine Rose man to emerge. Though initially benefitting from the platform of runway shows — showing in London with the support of British Fashion Council backed initiatives’ Fashion East and New Gen Men — Rose’s man came further into his own when he left the catwalk, and began to be placed in an almost exhibit-style presentation context. Though ultimately defined by an evasiveness that sees his character switching between different elements of fairly disparate cultures, a more static format seemed to encourage a deeper viewing and better understanding of characteristics that remain constant. This began with Autumn/Winter ’13, where models took to a small runway before taking it in turns to stand on a slowly rotating platform. Somewhere between a sculptures plinth and shopping-channel set piece, it perfectly played the chord between art and commerce. Rose described the device as “perfect for a buyer, to get to see this thing rotating slowly, like a rotisserie chicken.” This rotation also helped to reiterate the recurrent, self-referential nature of Rose’s work; something that naturally appeals to menswear customers, who, in terms of shopping patterns, tend to be creatures of habit. Here, the oversized jeans, boxy shirts and consistent reimaginings of the MA1 Bomber jacket — Rose’s key signatures — gained a stronger prominence.

Whilst fashion itself is often defined by insecurity, with its constant need to herald the new, Rose’s continuous reworkings of core products feels quietly confident. In fact, there’s a knowing quality to her clothes, something that suggests the fruits of a slow and steady approach have always been known. This kind of knowingness is a common trait in that rare tribe of born-and-bred Londoners the designer belongs to, who often seem naturally ahead of the curve. Hearing of Rose’s experiences growing up in the city, you immediately understand the conviction of her aesthetic. Her fascination with subculture is almost life-long, and born of direct experience. Whilst many designers are able to recall a specific moment they realized they wanted a career in fashion, Rose claims she “can’t remember a light bulb moment, actually. I wasn’t one of those kids who was making clothes from an early age or anything.”

Instead, her interest seems to be a byproduct of a deeper love of music. Most formative are her childhood recollections of the after-parties that once occurred on Clapham Common on Sundays. Often cropping up in interviews, they’re described as democratic gatherings that attracted a wide cross-section of characters — kids included — purely on the basis of music and a desire to dance. It’s easy to imagine the seeds of Rose’s melting pot approach, which, over the years, has tackled everything from Rastafarians to crusty ravers to skinheads. The concept that “what you wore was really connected to what you listened to” is one Rose understood early on. Out partying from the beginning of her teens and knowing about “that night world” even before that, with “years spent sitting watching everyone else getting ready to go out,” her experience of this connection is deeper than most.

There is a long list of scenes the designer has been a part of or feels a special affinity to. During her childhood, the sounds of reggae, rare groove, soul, hip-hop and broken beat filled her home. In her teens, she explored house, techno, jungle, drum and bass, and garage, and had brief dabbling with punk and heavy metal. And into adulthood, she explored the mid-noughties renaissance of full-face-paint, club-kid culture that occurred at nights like Golf Sale and Dirty Fairy, which, as a symptom of the internet’s increasing reach, weren’t as easily defined by one sound.

Given the archival quality that Rose so naturally imbues into her work, it’s little surprise she’s managed to hold onto some of her most significant scene-signifiers. Her most precious item is an original Boy London smiley face T-shirt that she clearly cherishes. “I’ve had it since I was nine. It’s practically transparent now, so it’s like this precious fragile part of me. I love how it’s become my own little piece of couture. It was my cousin’s from 1989, and my mum tried to stop me from wearing it after it was all over the news that the smiley face was a reference to ecstasy.” Whether remembered through actual reference pieces, hazily recalled or perhaps even logged subconsciously, equipped with these experiences, Rose has become adept in the language of subculture itself. Understanding the importance of small details especially, the coding in her own designs tends to place a significance on actual language. Sometimes this has appeared slogan style, with the most memorable examples including her tongue-in-cheek reworking of the Carling beer logo, spelling out “probably the best designer in the world” across T-shirts. The repeated use of “90-91 Autumn & Winter collection” also gave fresh-off-the-rack garments an obscure deadstock quality, further reiterating the sense that Rose’s clothes have been excavated from some impossible, imaginary archive.

More subtle and more unique, however, is her use of lettering in sewn-on patches, which appear to have been collected as an act of fandom — or perhaps boy scout-style — to mark certain achievements. For many brands today, the notion of a narrative is treated as an almost antiquated thing; something that should be ignored in favor of a wearable reality. But in the case of Rose, subtle garment additions like these are key devices in what she openly describes as “storytelling.” Most commonly used as final flourishes in her simplest garments, they prove that wearability and a certain kind of fantasy can successfully coexist. To further illustrate her stories, since Autumn/Winter ‘14, Rose has collaborated on many of her patch designs with Steve Terry of Wild Life Archives. Something of a kindred spirit, Terry is a hardcore collector of club-land ephemera, whose impressive catalog of club flyers have proved a consistent source of inspiration. These are items traditionally collected by revelers and subsequently stuck to bedroom walls, in a manner not dissimilar to the badge-of-honor effect Rose now achieves with her garment embellishments.

The act of collecting — which often goes hand-in-hand with identifying yourself as part of a subculture — is something Rose and Terry riffed on further with their first collaboration. As well as circulating Autumn/Winter ‘14’s lookbook via a digital inbox ping, hard copies were offered through Terry’s Wild Life Press in a vibrantly printed, saddle-stitched format — the quality of which served to emphasize the importance of tangible, physical experiences in Rose’s vision. That’s something the designer now seems keen to pass on through her sideline gig as a lecturer at Middlesex University — where she once studied herself — despite her own online popularity.

“I notice how different it is now to when I was at university,” she explains. “Trying to teach my students to research properly, basically, to go to the library and curate their own bank of images rather than using the imagery that they’re presented with on Tumblr or Instagram, which is essentially curated by someone else.” She isn’t, however, someone that’s overly nostalgic or mournful of “the way things used to be,” clearly understanding the benefits of new technologies in terms of creativity. “It’s naïve to dismiss the value of this entirely, and also expect them or myself to somehow try to ignore the developments in the availability of imagery. It’s about balance and understanding the difference between them, I guess.”

Rose’s return to Middlesex, the site of her first formal forays into fashion, is arguably the reason behind the sense of maturity in her vision since her hiatus. It seems no coincidence that, during this period, she also became a mother. Without discussing either theory explicitly, the designer does concede that “we all grow up and change, and I guess my collections reflect that in some ways.” Mirroring this progression, Alex Brown — a model that Rose has used since he was 14 years old — makes a return in Autumn/Winter ‘16’s lookbook. Now bearded, tattooed and chisel-jawed, his newly authoritative presence seems to mark the exploration of a new kind of masculinity.

While previous seasons have contained a certain adolescent awkwardness, the new Martine Rose man seems perfectly put-together in his own sort of way; somehow self-assured in his eccentricities. Her silhouette now appears bolstered by heavy leathers and hardware adornments that offer her vision a more dominant quality, whilst silk scarves and layered polo shirts portray a certain finesse. This new-found confidence is matched by the confidence Rose herself continues to display in her signature marriage of unlikely reference points; which, this season, include post-punk musician Mark E. Smith and erotic art photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. This blending of unlikely references is something the designer has down to such a fine art form, you’re guaranteed to look at the final product and wonder why this unlikely blend didn’t sound perfectly complementary in the first place.

This article was first featured in the new issue of Highsnobiety magazine. Pick yourself up a copy today at the link below. 

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