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How Being a Fashion Outsider Gave Designer Martine Rose an Edge in Menswear

London-based designer Martine Rose found her groove when she began breaking down the barriers that typically stood between the glossy and manufactured world of fashion and the average consumer.

At the WWD’s Men’s Style event last week, Rose shared how her “outsider thinking” led her to a place in her career where she has multiple collaborations, a hand in Balenciaga’s recent success and a cult following for her own eponymous label.

“I have always been attracted to outsiders. That has always been something that’s interested me in all elements of culture, music, fashion,” she said. “Even personally, it’s always the people in the periphery that I’m drawn to the most. And I think that that comes through and my designs, and that resonates with that person.”

Rose launched her namesake collection in 2007, following a couple years at the helm of LMNOP, a men’s T-shirt line she founded with Tamara Rothstein. While the Martine Rose label was on the radar of fashion critics, it was still an underground label on the commercial side—mainly because it was a commercial flop.

On one end, the “outsiders” began collecting pieces from her collections. “I think what attracted people to me is that I wasn’t readily available. People really have to seek me out,” she said. “The way that I designed and the elements that are included in my collections really spoke to people. They got it.”

And on the other end, her eccentric silhouettes like extra-wide jeans were too forward for the time. “A lot of people still didn’t really get what I was doing,” she said of her early collections. “I was doing a lot of crazy silhouettes for men and at that point it was still way wild for men.”

A turning point, Rose said, was when Balenciaga creative director Demna Gvasalia brought her on as a menswear consultant for the French label in 2016. In terms of design, Gvasalia, a long-time admirer of Rose’s work and a fellow outsider, was cut from the same cloth. “I think fundamentally, we just really got each other,” Rose said. “We connected and we realized that there were a lot of similarities even though we come from completely different places as people.”

As Rose explained, the Balenciaga gig gave her “credentials.” The experience also offered up several key takeaways for her own business, like how a large fashion house structures a team and works efficiently.

And rather than keep a shroud of secrecy around its design team as many big labels do, Gvasalia “generously” encouraged Rose to tell people she was behind the successful collections. “It shone attention on me and my work and what I was doing,” she said. “It gave me a huge amount of confidence because really up until that point, I was still niche.”

Fall/Winter 17-18, the season after her Balenciaga start, was a turning point for Rose. Feeling less intimidated, the designer introduced her first tailored pieces and created an environment for the collection’s presentation.

The show was staged outside of London near Rose’s Tottenham studio inside a South American commercial-meets-community center where she gets lunch from time to time. “People go there on Saturday morning and they don’t leave until later that night,” she described.

The production was the beginning of experimental fashion shows, and more importantly, Rose said, it took fashion insiders outside of their comfort zone.

“I had been in this area for 10 years and I thought now is the time to really bring people to the part of London that I felt has nurtured the label, Rose said.

Martine Rose

Spring/Summer 2019 Martine Rose show

For Spring/Summer ’19, Rose democratized fashion even further by turning a Camden cul-de-sac into a catwalk—literally. The presentation put fashion editors side-by-side with residents holding their cats in what turned out to feel more like a celebratory block party than a runway show.

“I knew when I was looking at the rehearsals and there were kids running on the catwalk and other people setting up their deck chairs with their pints of beer…I was like this is exactly the atmosphere that I wanted,” Rose said.

The runway show was also a reminder of what sparked Rose’s interested in fashion: family and a sense of community. “A lot of references are from the people that influenced me when I was growing up in those really formative years,” she said of her designs. Older cousins, the music they followed and the “tribes” they were a part of weighed the heaviest on Rose. “I used to sit on the edge of the bed and watch them get ready and think, ‘I want access to this world,’” she said.

And whether it’s through runway shows held in ordinary spaces, or by giving outsiders something to covet, Rose is now giving people access to the fashion world, and in doing so, she has been able to add commercial success to her resume. Rose’s recent designs—notably printed denim, hybrid jean jackets and Dadcore outerwear—have become staple pieces in the luxury streetwear uniform.

That success, however, doesn’t come with some drawbacks. “Fashion is brutal,” Rose admitted.

With every well-received show, comes questions about how it can be improved next time. Rather than compete with herself, Rose says she pushes herself to believe that it’s not about being better. “It’s about doing something else,” she said. “And it’s always about what is the right thing at that moment, what is the right thing for the connection.”

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