Our idea of luxury fashion isn’t often associated with the everyday. Clothes with four-figure price points are designed with the elite in mind – fashion folk, industry insiders, the rich and the richer. To most, normality is not ambitious. Then there’s
“I like to skew things that are really familiar,” says the 41-year-old, who calls me over Zoom from her North London studio. Rose is widely regarded as one of the nicest people working in fashion, and it shows. Her smile is wide and generous, only partially disappearing when a cluster of curls falls in front of her face. It’s a Friday morning in early December and the faint sounds of her studio team working on her
Since launching her namesake label in 2007, Rose has let her design hand be led by what she sees on the streets. A born-and-bred Londoner from a Jamaican family, the world she envisions unifies outcasts from all walks of life.
It’s through her collections that acid house ravers and junglists dance alongside hikers and Camden punks. There are footy lovers thrown into the mix, too, as well as Caribbean rudeboys and kinky inner-city bankers who wear garter belts beneath their suits.
“I actually think of lots of people [when I’m designing]. It’s mainly people that I know or have known, but there are these sorts of characters that I just make up in my head – people I’d like to hang out with,” Rose says. She has a knack for bulldozing a series of archetypes into one collection, or even a single look, messing with silhouettes so proportions become blown up and shrunken. Normal dressing, as if viewed through a funhouse mirror. As she plainly puts it: “making things wonky”.
Cool denim has become a pillar of her business, alongside bulging outerwear, cartoonish, square-toed loafers and swollen tailoring which wraps around the body in skew-whiff formations – all done with a wink and a nudge.
“Fashion is fun; you should always continue to push the envelope,” she says, when asked why she thinks her clientele has stuck around all these years, no matter how bonkers the ideas become. “Some things work, and some things really don’t. I want to challenge where my limits are. To see what I can get away with.”
Her anthropological approach to design is painted by real-life experience, be it watching her older cousin, Darren, get ready to go out clubbing when she was a child – “I just watched him like a hawk, everything he wore, every place he went, the music he played, I was obsessed!” – or the subculture she saw in the bustling Kensington Market as a teen.
Over the last few years, her fashion shows have come to epitomise an inimitable togetherness, born from Rose’s community, which seeps directly into the clothes. Held
Before the pandemic, Rose was a self-diagnosed digiphobe. And so, the idea of swapping an IRL show experience for something purely online had, at one point, made her “really want to just die”. Luckily for Rose, her debut virtual audio-visual experience had all the texture, warmth and humour of one of her London catwalks – just now on a global scale.
The idea to do something purely digital was conceived pre-Covid with the help of design studio International Magic. The intention, Rose says, was to find new ways to cut down the waste that comes with staging expansive shows. Then lockdown came. Overnight, shops shut, living rooms became the new boardrooms and, suddenly, you could be slapped with a hefty fine for something as simple as popping around to your mum’s house for a cuppa.
“The conversation turned to addressing the reality of the actual situation we were all in,” says Rose. “No one could leave the house, no one could do anything. This nothingness became a launch pad for us wanting to travel around the world and visit people in a digital way.”
There was a guy getting his lockdown locks shaved in Mexico City, a family in Palestine playing video games together and a Japanese mother braiding her daughter’s hair in the bathtub. Oh, and Drake popped up too, from his recording studio in Toronto. “He’s such a sweetheart,” says Rose of the Canadian megastar, who she met through Nike a few years back. “We thought: wouldn’t it be amazing [to have him featured] because the whole point was that we are all doing the same thing, which is fuck all, so in order to really tell that story it was a bit like ‘How about we get the biggest pop star in the world, also doing nothing?’”
It wasn’t long till Rose reprised the project, this time in July of last year, when it was announced she had designed England’s official supporters’ jersey for the delayed 2020 Euros. Rose doesn’t shy away from the fact that when Nike called to offer the gig, she was bricking it. “I felt huge pressure, actually. This is the most commercial thing I’ve ever done – everyone watches football, everyone watches the Euros, everyone’s going to have a shirt.” Her incarnation of the team’s kit was reversible, stamped with a special-edition crest that honoured the Lost Lionesses: England’s 1971 women’s team, who won the unofficial women’s World Cup in Mexico but on home turf have been written out of the history books.
“They were treated badly; I mean really badly. It’s a story so many people still don’t know,” says Rose.
The designer’s team were able to reunite members of the squad for the first time in more than 50 years for the shirt’s promotional film, directed by Rosie Marks. “It was incredible, a lot of them are still playing, just walking football now.”
Throughout her career, Rose has been applauded for doing things on her own terms. She describes her approach a bit like running in the opposite direction than the route she’s, quote- unquote, supposed to take. “That’s not necessarily a good thing,” she adds, “it’s just something innate in me. I find something threatening about lots of people all doing the same thing – it’s a bit mob-like.”
Before showing off-schedule, or even skipping seasons altogether, became part of her brand’s handwriting, such aberrant choices were born out of sheer necessity: “I couldn’t afford to do shows, I did installations. I couldn’t afford to have 30 models, I had one model. I couldn’t afford to go to Paris. I had no choice.” The early years were tough – in one season, Rose could muster enough dough to only produce a single look. Many buyers didn’t understand the radical concoction of British subcultures that radiated from her collections. It didn’t take long for Rose to realise that fashion was turning out to be less of a career and more of a cash-gobbling passion project.
“I was insecure about it all,” she says, “[because] you just want to be seen in the beginning.” Was she confident it would all work out in the end? “I wasn’t at all. I didn’t know if it was going to work. It was just all I could do.”
Rose’s prowess as a designer meant industry eyes have never strayed too far away from her, despite the nightmarish shadows of owning a brand becoming, at points, pretty bleak. Then, one watchful gaze from the other side of Europe had life-changing effects.
Rose’s subversive stamp can still be felt across Balenciaga’s menswear today. The gig not only meant she could focus on her brand full-time – before then, she was picking up shifts in bars and clubs to keep her business afloat – but Demna’s encouragement validated her approach, too.
In her most recent collections, the designer has begun self-referencing her earlier work. “You realise, when you start, [that] you are speaking to a really small audience and no one really saw any of that stuff,” she says. The raver flyers that stamped her AW14 collection have found new meaning in a euphoric rush back to the clubs post-lockdown. Her
Despite now having a raised profile, a bubbling e-commerce platform and ongoing link-ups with heavyweights like Nike and Napapijri, Martine Rose’s sights are set still firmly on those living on the fringes. “I’ve always just had a natural interest in those that don’t fit in by choice,” she says. If you’re ever stuck on where to find her, she’ll will be lurking on the outside, “creeping around, looking for stories. That’s where all the best people are.”
Imagery: Martine Rose’s SS22 collection, photography by Sharna Osborne, Rosie Marks and Camille Vivier. Taken from Issue 55 of 10 Men – FUTURE, BALANCE, HEALING – is out now. Buy your copy