London's Own: A Look at Martine Rose
London's Own: A Look at Martine Rose
- Words Jacob Victorine
- Date October 15, 2018
In the age of Instagram influencers and instant fame, Martine Rose is an aberration. Unlike many of today’s most recognizable luxury streetwear designers—Demna Gvasalia, Virgil Abloh, Samuel Ross and Heron Preston—who have risen to the forefront of fashion within years or even months, Rose has built her career steadily over the past fifteen years. Yet, unlike many of fashion’s longstanding elite, Rose has never constructed her own garments: “I know this might make me sound like a bit of a fake, but I never made my own clothes,” she said to Purple in 2017. Difficult to categorize (Is she streetwear? Is she high fashion?) and fiercely independent apart from in-house collaborators Sharna Osborne and Max Pearmain, Rose crafted a career that defies many of the fashion industry’s beloved processes and conventions. For years foregoing trends and runway shows, Rose lay the foundation for a new generation of British designers through an approach that looks toward subcultures and other art forms, in particular music, to create clothes that are less about a concept and more about feeling.
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Born in South London, Martine Rose was raised by parents who defied the time’s social views toward race. “Mum was a nurse and Dad an accountant, but they were in a mixed [race] relationship from 13, so how they chose to live wasn’t conventional” she said to The Guardian. Although Rose’s immediate family was small, her close-knit extended family was not and was instrumental in shaping the designer she became. “I only have one brother and sister, but I have billions of cousins. Lots of them lived in my nan’s house, so that was hub central. We always ended up there,” she said.
Rose’s Jamaican heritage helped instill an ethos of “make-do it yourself, make it happen, cobble it together.” Her sister Michelle introduced her to designer fashion, while her cousin Darren initiated her into London’s various subcultural music scenes, including rave culture, that have since influenced some of her most praised collections. “My sister is 15 years older than me and she was obsessed with Jean Paul Gauliter, Katharine Hamnett and Pam Hogg; she was really ahead of her time in terms of what she wore, a real trailblazer and she kept loads of her stuff, a load of Bodymap so I actually nicked a lot of her stuff to wear,” she said to Paper Journal. While Rose raided her sisters closet for high fashion hand-me-downs, her cousin, who is ten years her senior, introduced her to ’90s British streetwear brands such Joe Bloggs and Boy London. For Rose, even as teenager, it was never just about the fashion, but rather the subcultures that inspired the clothing and the relationship between the two.
A looming presence in her life, Rose’s sister Michelle not only inspired her style but also introduced her to the inner workings of the music industry at an early age. “My sister was really into reggae music and knew all the massive artists in Jamaica, so when they used to come to England, she would take me to their recording studios—I was only about eight or nine,” she said to SSENSE. Meanwhile, Rose’s cousin Darren would go out clubbing on Saturday nights with friends, returning to their grandmother’s house early Sunday morning, giving Rose her first taste of the subculture. “He went to Raindance and stuff—he’s 10 years older than me. On Sundays, when they used to come back from raving off their faces, they would then go to Clapham Common and carry on partying. All the cars would pull up, open up and play music. And they just carried on dancing into Sunday night. It turned into this unofficial rave in the park, and because it was a park, I could go,” she said. As a result, Rose started raving at just thirteen, going to clubs such as Velvet Room, Twice as Nice and World Dance and even having her fourteenth birthday party at an illegal club called Strawberry Sundays in Vauxhall.
Rose initially attended Camberwell College of Arts, where she intended on studying sculpture, before deciding to study fashion design at Middlesex University, where she graduated from in 2002. After receiving her degree, Rose immediately established the clothing brand LMNOP with longtime friend and stylist Tamara Rothstein. With no backing, Rose and Rostein started out by producing t-shirts, growing their label over time into a unisex collection that was stocked internationally, but, in 2005, after only five seasons they shuttered their brand. In 2007, Rose officially launched her eponymous label. Focusing her early collections on a single garment category—shirting—she organically expanded from there. “They’re a classic men’s staple that runs through menswear at all levels, which I think is a good place to start when designing menswear. There’s already such a structure and format to shirts, so that’s really fun to push and play with,” she said to VICE.
Although Rose’s line didn’t debut to much fanfare, her vibrant color-blocked shirts gained her important stockists such as oki-ni, as well as support from London-based non-profit Fashion East—an incubator known for promoting emerging British fashion designers, including Craig Green, Christopher Shannon, J.W. Anderson and Grace Wales Bonner—which showed Rose’s collections from Spring/Summer 2011 through Spring/Summer 2012. The three seasons offer a glimpse at some of Rose’s defining characteristics—unique takes on rave, bondage and British work class tropes, paired with silhouettes and fabrics rarely associated with menswear, even more so when the debuted. In the early years, Rose also gained support from established workwear labels such as CAT and Timberland, who she collaborated with on footwear and outerwear respectively.
While Rose’s Fall/Winter 2012 and Spring/Summer 2013 collections seem especially prescient now—the former showcasing near-comically stretched and cropped bomber jackets and the latter introducing instantly recognizable JNCO Jeans-inspired wide-legged raver denim—many, including Rose, cite Fall/Winter 2014 as the turning point in her career. Revisting Rose’s younger years clubbing in the UK through design details such as screen printed patches of rave fliers Rose said the “collection was a big shift for me—I learned a lot about myself as a designer. I’d finally accepted and felt comfortable with what I wanted to explore. Up until then, I had explored big silhouettes using strange fabrics, but I didn’t have the confidence that I found with Fall/Winter 2014. I’ve subsequently realized that this is what I’m interested in—volume, proportion, tension in fabrics, and colors.”
Though there is an effortless cool to the Fall/Winter 2014 collection that can make some of Rose’s earlier designs look deliberate, there is no doubt that she had begun honing her process and aesthetic before what she considers her “big shift.” Persona has long played a role in the clothes Rose designs and the way she presents them, as demonstrated by her Fall/Winter 2013 show, where she styled her models in Rick James-inspired wigs to insure their personalities took a backseat to the themes of the collections. “We used street-cast boys, but the whole street casting thing has become such a thing in London, so the boys become sort of familiar faces dotted through all of the shows. We sort of wanted to steer away from that because that’s why we didn’t use models in the first place, because it’s supposed to be the average boy. So the wigs are a way of taking it back to anonymity—we sort of covered their faces with it,” she said to The Fader. Additionally, Rose’s Fall/Winter 2013 “beer mat” collection was presented in such an unusual way—a mere three models wore twenty-five looks, while taking turns positioned on a runway-mounted turntable—that she received hate mail for it.
While the aforementioned collections may have been less polished than those since, they clearly demonstrate Rose’s ethos of challenging the fashion industry’s status quo. “I just find it important to get people to think. Understandably when anyone does anything—the same thing over and over again—you just get into the zone which doesn’t require much thought and I always want to provoke,” she said. Whether that means designing a menswear collection that equally appeals to consumers of various gender identities due to the way it disregards “rules” of how men are supposed to dress, shying away from a traditional runway show for eight seasons—from Fall/Winter 2013 to Fall/Winter 2017—or making wide-leg trousers a staple garment just because they’re fun, Rose is eager to break convention. “It’s like pushing at the edge of what is reasonable to expect people to wear. Fashion should be fun. It should be silly. As well as giving off codes and messages, such as our sexuality, our political affiliations or our music scene, clothing is also fun and playful,” she said to Matches Fashion. In fact, Rose’s career has been so unusual that a few years ago she committed what many fashion insiders consider career suicide, taking Spring/Summer 2016 off to give birth to her second child, yet returned to lead her brand to even greater success.
Unfortunately, Rose has failed to receive credit for the numerous ways she has influenced other designers over the past ten-plus years, from labels such as Grace Wales Bonner and Danshan that defy typical gender expressions and favor cropped tops and wide-legged silhouettes to those such as Heron Preston and Vetements that riff on social and cultural codes of dress. While Rose was nominated for the prestigious ANDAM prize for emerging designers in 2017, she has received a modicum of the press or praise of someone like her friend and fan Gvasalia, who she currently consults for at Balenciaga: “Well, the funny thing is, we have a mutual friend—photographer Oliver Pearch. Ollie told me, way back in 2014, ‘There’s this guy Demna that I’ve done some stuff with, he loves your stuff. He’s asked me to give him your contact.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, okay, that’s nice.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, he’s started this label, I think he’s gonna call it Vetements or something,’” she said to Purple.
While Rose seems to value her relationship with Gvasalia, and his been in the designers orbit since Vetements inception, it’s a bit unsettling to see how closely he’s riffed on her approach, down to the fact that both designers’ Fall/Winter 2017 collections explored social uniforms. While Gvasalia took a literal approach, Rose worked to subvert “maleness” and fashion elitism through a brilliantly strange show staged in her beloved Seven Sisters indoor Market in Tottenham. “I know I couldn’t do it when the market was open, so I asked the stall holders to open outside of hours, but I really wanted people to have a sense of what the market was like, as a living/breathing space because it is a living/breathing space, quite literally it is the heart of the South American community in North London. I asked the stall holders to make food, I asked people to make hair appointments, I asked people to make nail appointments, so it’s almost like a set, a set you could never build in a way, so they could really get a good feeling about the market as a living/breathing space,” she told Paper Journal.
Imitators and collaborators aside, being a trailblazer in the fashion industry, particularly as a black woman, is not easy. “At the end of the day fashion is an establishment. Designers themselves tend to be alternative thinkers, but the industry is establishment. So the same challenges exist in fashion as they do elsewhere with proper black representation,” Rose said to gal-dem. And therein lies the answer to why it’s taken Rose over fifteen years to build the type of career that some of her peers established in a mere few. At the end of the day, fashion is a profit-driven industry, and culture, not money, has always been Rose’s foremost language. “I certainly wasn’t willing to compromise the design in order to be more commercial so I could get more sponsorship in order to get a show,” she said to Paper Journal. “That just seemed weird to me, it didn’t make sense.”