How Martine Rose Built Fashion’s Last Subcultural Brand

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.) 

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