how-martine-rose-built-fashion’s-last-subcultural-brand

How Martine Rose Built Fashion’s Last Subcultural Brand

British-Jamaican designer Martine Rose has made a whole career out of morphing the weird into something cool, but even she had to be surprised by how directly her recent work has captured the zeitgeist. The uniforms and imagery of football (that’s soccer to you Americans) have always been a part of her collections, which plunder the oddities of the past three decades of British culture, but this season she yanked it front and center. She was thinking about a time during her childhood when the arrival of ’90s club culture led to a decline in crime among football fanatics. It used to be that if you saw a guy in a football jersey, you crossed the road, she told me this past weekend on the phone, sitting in her backyard in London. “And I remember in 1989, the summer of love, when rave music came to the UK, almost overnight football hooliganism stopped. And the reason was that instead of fighting on the terraces, they were now dancing with each other, joining in on club culture. It didn’t matter what club you played for—everyone was at the club on Friday night, doing drugs and loving each other.” She remembers, at age nine, seeing all these guys congregating on a green in South London, “still clearly on drugs, though I didn’t know it at the time,” dancing into the night, their jerseys tucked into their back pockets.

A few days later, she debuted her second Nike collaboration—a football jersey and hat as well as a film directed by Rosie Marks, reuniting the Lost Lionesses, a group of young British women who had traveled to Mexico to play soccer 50 years ago and found themselves treated like celebrities, shortly after their home country had lifted a ban on women’s soccer. Until Rose put them at the center of the Nike collaboration, they hadn’t seen each other since. “I was in floods of tears,” she said. “It sounds so cheesy, but it’s honestly—chills. Why don’t we know [about] this? We thought, Well, obviously we have to find them. I can’t tell you the amount of tears I’ve shed during this project.”

A still from “The Lost Lionesses.” 

The collaboration features a reversible football jersey and cap. It looks a little off, in the good way, but comes from the heart, as these things usually do in Rose’s world. “It started with Megan Rapinoe—she wore her shirt inside out as a protest against unequal pay,” Rose said. The inside-out jersey, her design team came to discover, has a history as a form of protest in soccer, and one of her designers shared with her the story of the Lionesses, who star in the film alongside other athletes and artists, including the first woman to be appointed referee in an English Football League match.

Rose in 2017.

David M. Benett

Then her brand’s football mania coincided with the country’s: all of a sudden, the English team was on an improbable fantasy run, culminating in a match against Italy in the Euro 2020 final. “Maybe I’m going to take all the credit,” she said sarcastically. “Obviously, it’s nothing to do with the skill of the footballers—it’s all to do with me, right?”

Of course it was only a coincidence, but it is also an example of a very Rose-ian pattern, one that’s defined her career since she launched her line in 2007: she did big silhouettes, then everyone else did them. She did loafers, now everyone else is saying they’re the new sneakers. She did a soccer collection, and now the team was in the finals! 

When I suggested this, she laughed—her sense of humor is like a dark cherry, rich and bitter and and juicy—and said, “I have to say, the oversized silhouette, when I was first doing it, people thought I was insane. So that took a really long time before anyone thought, Oh, maybe it’s cool. That did not happen as quickly as people imagine it did. And the loafers—that was a strange hit as well. Never thought that was going to be what it turned out to be.”

A still from “The Lost Lionesses,” a short film directed by Rosie Marks for Martine Rose’s Nike collaboration.Courtesy of Martine Rose.

Rose is attracted not to outcasts like the romantic Rick Owens or to free spirits like Gucci’s Alessandro Michele, but to people and things on the fringes, those who don’t quite fit in but don’t know why or how. “From the beginning, I’ve only ever been interested in things on the periphery,” she told me last December. “Things on the outside, things that haven’t really gotten a light shined upon them.” In 2019, she took Nike’s dullest sneaker, the Monarch, and made it all “wobbly,” as she put it, like it just arrived warped after traveling through another dimension from the future—or maybe it’s the shape of a late night walk home from the pub. One of her most popular products is a T-shirt that states that Martine Rose is “probably the best designer in the world” (a play on the Carlsberg slogan, “Probably the best beer in the world”). It’s cheeky braggadocio, which is a signature—but anyway, with those tough clothes and the refreshingly impudent humor, Martine Rose is at least the coolest designer in the world. Her celebrity fans—Drake, Bad Bunny, Rihanna, Hailey Bieber—seem to agree.

Of course, some people will never know all the trends that arguably started with Rose. That would frustrate many designers—your work is some of the most influential of the past decade, and yet you remain something of an underground darling. But for Rose? Meh. And that makes her that rare, special thing: in an era of fashion when everything is for everyone, she remains a subcultural brand. Some of her weirdest pieces catch on only among the very few—and that’s her intention. “I’ve never really wanted to be part of a big thing,” she said last year. “Anything that is mainstream—since I was small—hasn’t really appealed to me.”

It’s almost impossible to run a successful fashion business today without the support of famous musicians or actors, but Martine Rose’s relationship to celebrity is unusually organic—like her relationship with Drake. The Lost Lionesses film is Rose’s second project to take place in a virtual Martine Rose world—on the film’s site, you wander through a typically British metropolis of tube stops and store fronts, that then leads you into a subterranean amphitheater, where the film plays against a Brutalist wall. The such first project, “What We Do All Day,” brought viewers into a digitally-rendered British estate housing project, where, in three live performances staged throughout the day, the camera zoomed in on live feeds of regular people going about their day indoors—folks like the skirt-fanatic dad Mark Bryan, DJ Big Youth, and…Drake.

“God, what a sweetheart!” Rose said, a bit in awe. “I just love him.” They’d initially met through her first Nike project, then she tracked down his number and texted him, “and he was just like…‘Yeah! Sure!’” He’s long been a fan of the brand, and his pop-in was the perfect merger of their two sensibilities, which share a certain, well, sensitivity. He was just suddenly in the studio, right on your computer, live. “Was that really Drake?” a friend of mine texted me while it was happening. It was that casual, that subtle. So off-the-cuff, content to be underground. So Martine Rose.

Perhaps what draws Drake to Rose is that, at the center of all this coolness, is Rose’s abundant warmth, a sense of tenderness. That is the soul of Rose’s brand, which she has quietly, steadily built over the past decade and a half, with a three-year period working as a menswear consultant for Demna Gvasalia during his early years at Balenciaga, starting in 2015. (“The unicorn of fashion jobs, isn’t it?” she said.) If Balenciaga is a billion-dollar empire, Martine Rose is a family business. Her first entree into fashion was a brand launched with a longtime best friend, Tamara Rothstein, who now serves as Rose’s go-to stylist; completing their quartet are Chua Har Lee, a shoe designer responsible for Rose’s out-there loafers, and Meera Sleight, a textile developer and designer. They’re not formally part of the team, exactly—it’s something a little more unique, and closer, than that. “They contribute and consult and inform so much of the collections by virtue of being so close to me all the time,” Rose said last year.

“It’s like when you’ve left school for the first time [as a kid] and you have always been an outsider and then you suddenly find your people,” Rose continued. “So when I say that I never wanted to belong—I’ve only ever wanted to belong to a certain group, and when I found those girls, I felt like I’d found my group.”

Rose’s clothing is the product of rigorous design experimentation. She’s a classicist in that her vision shifts happen primarily through changes in silhouette. She helped perfect the big silhouette at Balenciaga, taking it from the Margiela-reverent lengthiness of Gvasalia’s years at Vetements to something beefier, scarier, more reminiscent of the strongmen from Gvasalia’s working class Georgian upbringing (Rose, like Gvasalia, is Georgian Orthodox), or the bouncers outside clubs and rave warehouses Rose grew up idolizing. (That the shape is still catching on in various levels of the fashion ecosystem—in fast fashion and pop culture, for example—is a sign that she hit on something truly weird, and therefore excellent.) 

“There’s just something that I find beautiful about these enveloping shapes,” she said. “Sort of being cocooned. And it’s quite punk.” Essential to the largeness is a sense of tension, she explained, like a more fitted top with a looser trouser, or a lacy peignoir tank paired with fitted butch cruiser jeans. “You can’t just have big silhouettes. There has to be at some point some definition. Otherwise, it’s just a mess.” Then she went the opposite route for Spring 2021, shrinking everything down, which called even more “challenging” to achieve.

Fall 2021.Courtesy of Martine Rose.

Fall 2021 is lean, pencil neat, like an exclamation point. But you can see all the Rose signatures, her uncanny chic: the unusual looking men perched on weird pedestals; the slightly grimy location with outlets galore. There’s the kink of the leather-chap jeans—the erotic always pulses just beneath—and workwear and tailoring stretched ever-so-carefully in absurd directions, both conceptually (a purposefully ill-fitting double-breasted suit) and literally (dress-length football jerseys).

Last year, I asked her how retailers responded to her particularly bizarre pieces—like a button-up shirt from Spring 2021, which gaped and pulled as if every wearer were too busty. She responded with something like a mission statement. “They’re not massive sellers,” she said. “I think the outer edges of what you think is possible, or what should be possible, are just not big sellers by their nature. They are on the further reaches of what most people could consider aesthetic or practical or all of those sorts of things that most people take into consideration. But they will appeal to a small percentage of the population and I always want to keep speaking to those people.” There’s a subcultural resonance at the heart of everything she does: “I want to speak to everyone, I want to touch everyone on some level, but it’s the small percentage that really inspires me. As long as I’m talking to them, resonating with them, I’m good.”

A look from the Fall 2021 collection.Courtesy of Martine Rose.

Which makes it that much more surprising when the weirder stuff becomes a hit, as has been the case with her loafers—cheesy, elongated slip-ons that would make Uncut Gems’ Howie Ratner blush. “Back in the day, you couldn’t wear sportswear to the club,” Rose explained—no tracksuits or sneakers. “So there was a point where all the boys got either Gucci or Patrick Cox loafers that they would go clubbing in.” Style then was “very flamboyant,” defined by a mood she describes as “this flash arrogance that came with dressing up. ‘Look at me, big shoes, lots of money, showing off.’ It was this slightly obnoxious attitude that I liked.” So she made the shoes themselves obnoxious: the outer silhouette extends three centimeters longer from where the toebox ends inside the shoe. Clown loafers, basically, for the coolest kids on earth.

Perhaps surprisingly, Rose has become something of a celebrity favorite. And while strong backing from the famous usually implies a sort of blandness, Rose seems to have the opposite effect—her clothes make the wearer look cooler, serving as a token of their fashion bonafides. Any A-lister can wear Supreme or Off-White, but Rose is a little freakier, requiring a more confident spirit. She’s popular among a certain kind of celebrity: Kourtney Kardashian and Hailey Bieber, two of the funkier dressers in the world of influencer-celebrities, dig her work, as do true risk-takers like Lil Uzi Vert, Bad Bunny, and A$AP Rocky. Bieber’s stylist, Maeve Reilly, told me that the star found the brand herself, while shopping in the men’s section of H. Lorenzo—which is to say that Rose’s clothing rewards those who are attracted to hunting out what’s special.

The challenge, for now, lies in the question of scale: in Rose’s efforts to collaborate with companies like Nike and world-famous musicians like Drake while maintaining her interest in, and appeal to, her treasured weirdos. “It’s a constant conversation we have in the studio: how can we do something big that still has the warmth and the texture that we want it to have?” she said last year. “It’s a conversation we’ll keep having, that we have to keep having, because as long as we’re talking about it, it means we still care about it. When we stop talking about keeping that balance is when we’re like, Who cares? Let’s just sell T-shirts.” This being Martine Rose, of course, those shirts are liable to be pretty good. As another one of her tees, which places the brand name in a take on the Durex logo, reads: “Expect perfection.”

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