Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Martyn Bal - Part 3

Martyn Bal. Fashions new superstar.

Martyn Bal May Not Be A Name Familiar To Most, But Sit Up And Take Note. This Is A Designer That Means Business. From His Razor Sharp Tailoring, To His Astute Business Mind, Bal Is Already Making Waves In The Illustrious World Of Menswear. Ladies And Gents, Introducing Mr Martyn Bal...

Despite the fact that he looks about 17 years old, Martyn Bal has had something of a rocky ride over the last decade. Ten years ago, while still in school, he went to work with Dirk Bikkembergs, before leaving four years later to join the RCA and work on special projects with legendary Italian fashion dragon Mila Schön. He graduated in 2000 straight into Dior Homme, where he worked under Hedi Slimane on a kind of re-branding project that you might have heard of, and then went on to have a bash at reinventing Verri Uomo, only to find himself thwarted by the actual mafia. Well, nearly the actual mafia. Unperturbed, he took a job at Versace, before finally coming back to London to run the menswear division of Burberry under Christopher Bailey. Now, he has emerged with his own brand, made up of tough but sophisticated menswear - quilted leather jackets, sharp trousers, and interesting knits - which he has been quietly toiling away on for the last three seasons. Unsurprisingly, he’s got a fair bit to talk about.

Isaac Lock: So this is your third season on your own?

Martyn Bal: Unofficially, yes. The first two collections for me were really to just build up the relationships and understand where I wanted to go. I just wanted to give it time before I communicated and sold anything. I needed to build up the relationships with factories in Italy, do all of the research, so I think for me the latest collection, the winter, is definitely a nice platform to work from, and to take it from there.

Rest of the Interview

IL: This strikes me as a pretty commercial venture.

MB: Yeah. When I wanted to set up on my own, it felt appropriate to create something that was a full image, focused on the long term. Obviously it is more intimidating to set up as a fully business minded brand, but if you think about the long run, and your vision is clear, things work out.

IL: I read that you consider your brand to be intricately connected to music, art, and gender theory. How’s that? What does that really mean?

MB: I’m generally really interested in contemporary art. Gender theory is just something I’ve always been interested in. I just love dualities, and this can go from strength and fragility to anything really.

IL: But there is no literal connection? There’s no awkward Judith Butler project waiting in the wings?

MB: No. Not really. I don’t really go down an intellectual route with my work, and I don’t like the idea of sticking to a theme. So it’s just the idea of translating those influences into something that I feel is mine.

IL: It’s interesting that you say that you have to make it feel like your own. How do you do that? You were at Dior Homme from 2000 to 2003, and your aesthetic seems like it really owes something to that. How do you make something new?

MB: People will always make that connection. Hedi has been an incredible to mentor to me. I learnt a lot about how you can translate a vision into something that becomes a whole product or a picture, rather than just a jacket or whatever. In terms of how I try to get away from it, it’s tricky because it’s something my heart was very much in. I decided to leave only because I wanted to move on myself creatively. Of course I have tried to find ways of doing things differently, but I am what I am, and I came from where I came from, so if people still compare it to Dior Homme so be it. If you try and do things that are radically different just for the sake of it, you lose sight of yourself.

IL: When you left Dior it was to take on Verri Uomo. That’s quite a leap.

MB: Yes, it was a massive change, but it was an opportunity to step away from the assistant role. This opportunity came, and they offered me the chance to re-brand Verri in the position of creative director, so I thought “why not”? They gave me a carte blanche and I went for it.

IL: The response you got was pretty tough.

MB: It’s an area I like to forget actually! It was really tough: I arrived, and after my first season [SS05] I realised there were loads of financial problems in the company. By the time it came to my second season only 30 percent of the collection arrived a day before the show and I had to pull it together from that. Having the pressure of the press on top of that kind of chaos actually made me quite sick, but I kind carried on; I felt that I had to do a third collection with them, just for my own sanity. That last collection [SS06] was six months of hell.

IL: Because you couldn’t work in the way you wanted to?

MB: Yes. I had to deal with what was effectively a family run business, and it was a struggle. I probably shouldn’t say this, but there was a lot going on…it felt like I was getting involved with the Italian mafia. On top of that it was really hard just to get my ideas out: they wanted to produce in China, and had things done behind my back. Things came back from production bearing no resemblance to what I wanted, and then on top of that I had to pretend everything was great to the press.

IL: And weather their criticisms, putting up with people calling it Dior 2.0 and things like that.

MB: I know. I would even say at the time “what do you mean? It’s completely different”. The thing is, when you work for a brand you know it very intimately and small points of difference from it seem much bigger. You have a very sophisticated idea of difference, whereas the general public maybe see something else. I was criticised heavily at first.

IL: How did you handle that level of criticism?

MB: I think I was quite cool about it. It’s just about believing in yourself really and using it to your advantage. The bigger issue for me at Verri was that I couldn’t get my creativity out the way I wanted to. I felt like I was being criticised on the basis of something that was not exactly what I wanted it to be in the first place. That bothered me more. I couldn’t care less if people say it’s like Dior Homme. I think that will follow me for the rest of my career!

IL: And then you ended up at Versace, which is another huge leap. The Versace world and your world seem like polar opposites. How did that work?

MB: It just did. I got to meet Donatella and she saw my frustration and my passion and gave me the opportunity. At that time they were going through a huge transition. They wanted to make the menswear more serious and accessible and move away from some of the glitz and glamour of the 90s.

IL: It must have been interesting working with someone who defines a particular era so much, when you came from something completely different.

MB: If you look at old Versace campaigns from the 80s, or even at the menswear Gianni did in the 80s, there are so many people who have been inspired by it. You can even see things in old Dior Homme ads that relate to old Versace Jeans ads. There’s the same kind of romanticism. Versace was about a very hedonistic, glitzy, romanticism, and Dior was more stark, but the two were quite linked in terms of style. They were similar ideals demonstrated in different ways. It was two takes on the same kind of decadence.

IL: And then you went from that to Burberry, which is something else entirely again, in such a short space of time…

MB: Yeah I was with Burberry for nearly a year, which was great, but it’s a really corporate company. It’s all comfortable, you earn a lot of money, you have a massive team working for you, but what you do creatively is tiny compared to the administrative process. I felt that I spent a lot of time and creative energy turning around stuff that previously I could have turned around in two weeks. It was that that lead me to think that it was time for me to do something on my own.

IL: So you found it boring? It bored you in to launching this new line?

MB: Yes. Very much. I was very excited to get started. Leaving Burberry I felt confident in my creativity and what I was doing at that moment. I just wanted to take that forward and give it my own touch. I never had any fear about it; I never thought “shit, this is going to be heavy”. It is heavy, but it just doesn’t occur to me. I guess we’ve had a little bit of bad luck in that we’ve hit the recession full on, but again, you have to look at it as a learning curve. Everything that has happened has just made me resilient.

IL: Yeah what are you doing about that boring economic situation? Just going for all out creative indulgence because no one is buying anyway?

MB: I am now yes. I think it is the only way. I still like to create products though, and I like to see people wearing my clothes, even if it is particularly hard to get it into shops!

IL: Well the most recent collection still seems very commercial - even the more tricky long jumpers etc. are very wearable, and you’ve done really saleable things: bags and shoes, leather jackets.

MB: I think it’s finding the right balance. I don’t think my work is extravagant at all. The way I am working doesn’t depend on fashion shows, and I’m not interested in making show pieces to just sit there. Right now what I want to do is create beautiful images and show my work that way. I think there is a lot of new talent coming through in terms of visual talent, and I want to align myself with that generation. It’s time for a bit of a shake up. Time for a change.

IL: Who do you consider to be this new generation? And who do you consider to be your contemporaries in terms of other designers?

MB: I like to work with Mark Pillai and Richard Stow. In terms of fashion, I put myself in the line of Raf Simons, Rick Owens, people very much along those lines. I think the way Raf Simons works is very similar to the way I work: we are both very constructivist. Helmut Lang of course.

IL: But in terms of your generation, who are your contemporaries? I mean the Rick Owens customer may not necessarily be going out looking for new designers.

MB: Well I think my customer is someone that’s a little older. 35 and upwards even, because it’s that masculinity that I like. I like using youth culture and masculinity to make something a bit more adult. So yes, the response from people in my own age group is fantastic, but I think I have an older customer.

IL: So do you consider yourself beyond the other menswear designers based in London?

MB: I am excited about anything expressive, and I think there is a lot of expression coming out of London, but as I said before I am interested in sustaining a business. I maybe feel like I have grown out of the London scene. Maybe I haven’t though, because really I am in the same situation as them. I just feel like but throughout my experiences maybe I have matured a bit more.

IL: I wanted to ask about Mila Schön? You worked with her at the RCA right? That must have been an incredible experience.

MB: Well I went to the RCA when I had already been working for four years. I was working for Dirk Bikkembergs, and I was in a fashion school in Holland that doesn’t exist anymore, but it was more about engineering and tailoring. I was offered a place in Arnhem, but because I had been involved in bigger brands I wanted to do something more business focused, so I went to the RCA. When I was there I won an award to work with Mila Schön on an all white project. I’m quite addicted to luxury, and her people came in with all of these double faced pure white cashmeres, which was perfect for me. It was beautiful, all of these graphic, white fabrics. It was one of the most satisfying projects I have ever undertaken. It was purely based on constructivism and architecture.

IL: So you worked with her directly? Wasn’t she in her 90s by then?

MB: Well she came in once or twice, to give the award and the present the project, so I spoke with her a bit. She was quite reserved. Is she still going actually?

IL: No .She died in 2008. I think the brand still exists but she’s not still doing it, obviously. Not from beyond the grave. You said you loved luxury. What do you think the difference is between luxury and fashion? How essential is one to the other?

MB: I have leant that as a young designer luxury should not be an issue. I work with the best factories in Italy who produce for Dior, McQueen, Burberry, and they are pure luxury. If I see a jacket or a coat I look immediately at the way that it is made, and the construction and the fabric, which is really important to a brand like Dior or Vuitton, but I actually don’t think it’s essential to a brand that’s starting out. You have to think about price points. People don’t buy new designers if they’re too expensive. When you start a brand you have a different customer base to what you’re going to have in ten years time, when you can start selling product purely on quality. It’s really difficult to even get that customer to look at you when you first start out.

IL: I think young designers that start out are often too hung up on that kind of thing. It’s a romantic story to say that you started a successful luxury brand out of a bed-sit in Dalston, but nine times out of ten that’s not going to work out.

MB: You have to find a balance. I want to establish what I am doing, and I am taking it very seriously, and thanks to my background the way I am set up now is that I have a really good production and distribution base. If I sell a thousand coats tomorrow, I can produce them, whereas if I was just starting out ten years ago, purely indulging my creative urges and then selling a thousand I would be screwed.

(excerpted from PonyStep)

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