One wintry afternoon in London, Martine Rose is wearing an assemblage of clothes that should go horribly wrong but that somehow comes together with ease on the 38-year-old designer. She’s dressed in a Disney sweatshirt, navy Jil Sander trousers, and white-and-cream high-heeled brogues that bring to mind the ’90s footwear of club-kid favorite Patrick Cox. “Yeah, it’s all secondhand,” Rose says by way of explaining her peculiar, casual look. “Research, research, research—that’s my skill.”
Indeed, Rose is the queen of forensic fashion foraging, constantly scouring flea markets, traders’ storage units, and charity stores. Her other main sources of inspiration are dance music and clubbing—from the messy raves she loved in the ’90s to the gender-open purlieus of today, where gorgeous young things, indifferent to binary codes, devise extravagant looks. “I’ve always seen clothes as clothes, beyond gender,” she says. “But I hate the term unisex. It’s so flat, a bit naff.”
Rose started her label 11 years ago, slowly making her mark with men’s wear tropes that acknowledge, then subvert, archetypes—the suit, the anorak, the jeans. It’s only recently that the fashion world has caught up to her, thanks in part to fans like Rihanna and Drake, who have an eye for her enormously oversize Levi-style jackets, leggings in dazzling two-tone Lycra, and stonewashed denim separates that hark back to the ’80s but are generously cut, like raver wear. Rose styles her models with hatlike wigs and dangly earrings, and stages her shows in unexpected venues like a climbing gym or an indoor market in a decidedly unfashionable area of North London. “I had to ask them to keep the nail bars, hair salons, and food stalls open,” she says. “I wanted the fashion folk to get some flavor!”
All things considered, it’s not surprising that a couple of years ago Demna Gvasalia, the creative director of Balenciaga, swept Rose up to become a consultant for the brand’s men’s wear range. “It was beautifully made, but with no real story to it,” Rose says of Balenciaga’s men’s offerings. “Demna wanted it to be a thing.” She brought in a new team, and has created striking collections notable for their contrast of über-skinny and supervoluminous silhouettes. “She just comes from a parallel world of fashion, where all is cool and chill,” Gvasalia says approvingly.
Rose grew up in South London, in an British-Jamaican family. Their house—always filled with music and an assortment of cousins—was in a part of town that she describes as “a bit rogue. It’s only when you move away that you realize how wild it was down there.” She studied fashion at Middlesex University and started producing women’s wear, but it was “very boyish; big, strange shapes,” she says. “A bit like what’s happening now.” She graduated in 2002, and while many of her contemporaries moved to Milan or New York to join established labels, Rose stayed in London, producing T-shirts with her best friend, the stylist Tamara Rothstein, and working and interning occasionally for quirky fashion outliers like Richard Nicoll and Jessica Ogden. She tried a bit of styling. “I quickly realized it wasn’t for me, all that pleasing advertisers and performing for photographers,” she says.
Despite her growing recognition, Rose has stuck close to her roots. Her studio is in a reworked 19th-century dairy, in a part of North London known for the ethnic diversity she thrives on. She drives there from her home in East London with her infant son, Reuben, while her 3-year-old son, Valentine, stays at a playgroup. “I don’t know how it all influences me, but you can tell from my work that I’m from London,” she says. There certainly are clues, such as the little cardboard coasters printed with lager logos, found in every pub, which Rose suspended from zippers and sleeves in her fall 2013 collection, or the club flyers, screen-printed onto fabric, that she patched onto trousers a year later. “I’m not precise, I’m not even logical, but I’m good at creating a narrative and communicating it,” Rose says. Gvasalia describes what she does as devising a story, then letting the clothes explain it.
Rose reprised both the lager logos and club flyers in her most recent collection, which celebrated her 10-year anniversary. “I went through my own archive and reissued the best bits,” she says. She didn’t put on a show, opting instead to build a set and give three female photographers one day each to shoot the collection. “We went to the National Portrait Gallery to research poses and looks,” she says, “and used as models slightly younger men, for their angularity, awkwardness, pale skin. Mine’s not a lustful gaze. It’s not sexual.” Seeing the results, Rose realized that perhaps the time has come for her to fully step into the limelight. “I feel really proud of it all,” she says. “But then I remember, I like being under the radar.”