Speaking to Thomas Gorton, the designer discusses blurred lines and Britain’s strangeness
“It takes a while to figure out who you are,” says designer Martine Rose. “As I’ve got older, I’ve got more confident. You spend a lot of time thinking there’s a system you have to follow, but I’ve just brought more and more of what I find important into my work.”
We’re in Camden, sat together in Castle’s, one of London’s iconic pie and mash shops, a last bastion of a London gone by. Rose is here to discuss her collaboration with Nike, a vibrant tracksuit that feels indebted to Britain’s forgotten high streets, but modified with draped arms and a slight ill-fit, an aesthetic decision that dovetails neatly with Rose’s methods: unconventional.
“I really love collaborating,” she says. “It’s challenging, good to have people questions your decisions. This Nike collaboration has been so fun – Nike obviously have the means to execute things so amazingly. I can’t do a trainer! [laughs] They can push their factories to deliver beyond what you think a trainer can do, and that’s what was really exciting.”
Nike x Martine Rose
This collection has been made available to buy on Craigslist (because it “felt really new as an idea”) from three specially chosen stockists – “London Steve”, a painter and decorator who lives next door to Rose’s sister on the cul-de-sac where she held a street party to show her last collection, a teenage trainer addict called Tesfa, and a photography student called Suraya.
A cornerstone of Rose’s work is community, drawing inspiration from the anarchic freedom of acid house and club culture, but also finding magic where others may see the mundane; her astounding A/W17 collection held in an indoor market in Seven Sisters was an exploration of four different male characters – the bus driver, the banker, the estate agent, the office worker. Rose’s vision is not just of a Britain that was, but a Britain that is possible.
“(Britain) is a very loaded term,” she says. “The feeling in me when you say it, it feels small and isolated. That’s just one aspect of it. But when I think of my experience of it, it’s completely not that. It’s open, it’s outward-looking. It’s full of strangeness.”
It’s lunchtime here at Castle’s, and the cafe is alive with Cockney accents furiously discussing the London derby over eels, and orders being called out for customers to collect their tea. Sat in one corner wearing a grey Nasa hoodie is “London Steve”, one of the stars of the new Martine Rose x Nike campaign, and a personal friend of the designer. Steve was instrumental in convincing the residents of St Leonard’s Square that hosting Rose’s S/S19 show there was a good idea, a neighbourhood that – according to Steve – had lost its sense of community after a fight happened there five or six years ago.
“People were coming up to me, saying ‘do you know about this fashion show?’ and I knew months before because I know Martine and Tams (Rose’s sister). People were saying they didn’t want it, and I was saying ‘why don’t we want it? We’ll bring the street back together, talk to everyone like we used to’. It went really well, it was brilliant. It got the street back together.”
London Steve is certainly not the type of model you’d normally find in a fashion campaign, a diminutive decorator in his 60s with grey hair. But after sitting with him for just a couple of minutes it becomes clear why he’s been chosen; he embodies everything that Rose’s work communicates – warmth, kindness, and a childlike wonder about the world.
“I had a big head for days,” says Steve about shooting the campaign. “People in the street were saying ‘why have they picked him?’ and I just said ‘it’s my turn, I’m just lucky.’”
Steve has seven kids and 21 grandchildren and admits that fashion means nothing to him, but “everything to them... I’m in the painting and decorating game so I wear work clothes,” he says. “My wife dresses me.”
It’s beautiful listening to Steve talk about his experience in fashion, and how it’s clearly a moment in his life that he’ll appreciate forever. “Everything has been amazing,” he says. “When I had the shoot, when they all left, I thought ‘now I know how stars feel’. I was on a bit of a downer. What am I gonna do now? But my kids and grandkids think it’s amazing, I’m just grabbing it with both hands.”
It’s a credit to Rose’s integrity and clarity of vision that casting an old family friend feels both surprising and completely normal, a testament to her fascination with the relationship and conflict between “high and low” fashion. Her interest in streetwear (“wish there was a better word, it’s so shit isn’t it?”) comes from watching family members get ready to go out to clubs. “My sister was obsessed with Gaultier, which has the high/low thing, Junior Gaultier in particular, Versace, Moschino, those labels that influenced and impacted each other,” she says. “What I was interested in was blurred lines, that’s where the fun shit happens.”
Nike x Martine Rose is available now on Craigslist