Fashion from Antwerp: influence & identity with Glenn Martens
Sharing his views on the ‘Belgium quality label’ is award-winning designer Glenn Martens: born in Bruges and a graduate from Antwerp's Fashion Department, he has since worked his way to the top as Creative Director of cult favourite Y/Project in Paris. He has so far won two prestigious ANDAM awards and was the first designer to receive the title ‘Creative Director’ from Italian powerhouse DIESEL.
MoMu talks to Glenn Martens about the reputation of Antwerp and Belgium, and wants to know whether there is still work for promising newcomers.
MoMu: You graduated in 2008 from the Fashion Department in Antwerp. When looking for a job, did you immediately notice that the school's name meant something in the international fashion world? And have you noticed any changes in its reputation?
GLENN MARTENS: "Belgium is a big name in the fashion world. It was the case back then and remains so. Fashion labels and brands know that Belgian methods are different to those of a French or Italian designer. A Belgian tends to go for a more conceptual approach. There's a reason, a story behind every decision. There is much international respect for this way of working. This is clear from the number of Belgians working in the fashion industry – despite the size of our country. I have the feeling that you take a closer look when you receive a portfolio from one of Antwerp's fashion students – because you know they will often be more thorough and professional. Also, you know that the alumni have been through a long curriculum of intensive studies - Antwerp's fashion academy is a challenging school."
Do you also feel that there are prejudices concerning ‘Antwerp’ designers?
"A possible disadvantage is that employers know they will be dealing with intense characters. (laughs) I think that the Antwerp Fashion Department is one of the only schools where they tend to bring out the creative director more than the designer. They really push you to think independently. That's clear in the four-year curriculum, without an apprenticeship. That's a good thing on the one hand, but on the other hand, not at all. Most schools include apprenticeships in their courses. Those students graduate and know how to function in a team, how to handle a boss, how the system is structured, how a 'label' works."
In Antwerp, after studying for four years, you enter the world with a famous degree. You know how to draw, how to make a collection that is very beautiful and well grounded – but actually you have little knowledge about the real work. I think that's a very idealistic approach. After all, fashion is about working together. There's not one fashion designer who has a one-man job.
Every fashion academy has its own reputation, we suppose?
“Yes, that's true. Central Saint Martins is often criticised for being too commercial and for receiving too much financial support. Alumni from La Cambre can be found almost everywhere in the fashion industry, because the students do different apprenticeships, which means they meet the right people. They also help each other to find a position.”
Our impression is that there is still a feeling that there is a shortage of fashion jobs. You have a good overview of the current industry. Are there still opportunities for young talent?
“I think there's a lot of work and potential for those who are ready and willing to seize their opportunity. The work has grown more flexible due to Covid and all the restrictions. The young people I’ve recruited recently work very independently. One of the more positive effects of lockdown is that we need to have more faith in each other.”
As chief designer for both Y/Project, and now also DIESEL, you have acquired your own creative freedom. Which intentions guide you in approaching a new position or creating a new collection? Are there any recurring values?
“Growing up in Bruges has certainly made me the person I am today. I think I have always been an aesthetic person, as a child I was extremely interested in beauty and artistry. Bruges is a very harmonious and elegant city. It's also very severe and Gothic. However, this enchanting city is also a little ‘trashy’. A complete contrast, don't you think, those thousands of day trippers, aggressive congestion and little chocolate shops? Then, at night, when everyone’s gone, you can wander through the history and find yourself in another world."
Those contrasts and playing with what's ‘wrong’ often recur in my designs at Y/Project and most of my work. In fact, you can even see it in my interior design. I love to layer on the contrasts and also try to find an elegant balance including historical references in my designs. That's down to my parents and their love of history which inspired me from a young age.
How did your time in Antwerp affect you?
“I love to experiment, and perhaps that's what I learned most at the Antwerp fashion academy. Something else that affected me: when I graduated, only two out of the 14 in my class were Belgian. The other students came from all corners of the world. On my first day in Antwerp, I had no idea what had hit me, my vision of the world was turned completely upside down. Another nice thing was the casting by the students for the graduation show. Everyone gathered the most extreme and attractive personalities. It was a wonderful journey. I think that's something I learned in Antwerp: an ‘addiction’ to powerful people and personalities, who are not shy, and don't try to fit in."
Antwerp gives you that self-confidence and is particularly good at encouraging creative, independent profiles and flamboyant personalities. After working for four years in that kind of environment you also seek similar kicks in the world outside. In fact, I believe I still do that. I may look very 'normcore', but in my lifestyle there are still remnants of that Antwerp fashion academy experience: after all, I still love extremes.