"We understand each other": Martine Rose on her surprise collaboration
"He rhymed my name with Sardine," says Martine Rose, reporting from her home in north London. 'I didn't even notice until Grace Wales Bonner texted me. I thought to myself, 'Really? And so I went on the internet to read the texts to double-check. In his defence, I don't think Martine is the easiest name to put in a rap verse'. The fact that Kendrick Lamar compares one of the most important and culture-changing designers of the last decade to a canned fish is an absurd twist of fate that perhaps only Rose would be able to find funny. I imagine the cast of ragtag characters she reproduces on the catwalk (who are not - but look like - ICT technicians, geriatric swingers and disgruntled TFL workers) might enjoy a steaming lunch of olfactory Omega-3s every now and then. "Makes sense, doesn't it?" he adds.

Rose has just returned from a weekend at the Camp Flog Gnaw festival in Los Angeles, where she was quoted in real time as cousins Kendrick Lamar and Baby Keem performed as 'The Hillbillies'. The stylist had dressed both musicians in custom looks and had also dressed most of their fans in limited edition band T-shirts, some of which bore her pseudonym 'Martine Sardine'. "Well," she explains. "We wanted to give a sense of humour and lightness to it all, almost as if the pieces were printed with old rave graphics. I think this kind of festival is probably the closest thing to an old-fashioned rave for most people, so we wanted the collection to feel rooted in that experience. Everyone bought those pieces to feel connected to their music scene'.

There are seven pieces in total, including skew-whiff football shirts, some rave brochures (which, on closer inspection, are scarves) and an ironic T-shirt with the words 'Best Dressed'. This phrase might have been taken from one of the verses of 'The Hillbillies', but it also recalls one of Rose's most popular products: a fake Carlsberg T-shirt, which reads 'Probably The Best Designer In The World'. The irreverence and bravado, like everything Rose produces, comes from a place of real warmth. "The pieces were meant to be rooted in lyrics and there's even a print out of Kendrick's own handwriting, taken from when he was jotting down the opening lines in a notebook. I don't know if you can classify it as merch or fashion, but I don't think it matters'.

As with Rihanna and Drake, Rose's relationship with Kendrick Lamar developed organically, albeit with a touch of kismet. "The first time I worked with Kendrick was during his last UK tour," says Rose. "I was lucky enough to meet him backstage and I remember feeling there was such an authentic connection. I think we understand each other on a creative level." This (perhaps unexpected) collaboration has seen the world's most famous rapper dress in 'Barnsley' hats and attend award ceremonies in the kind of oversized, awkward windbreaker usually reserved for bird watchers. "His work is rooted in people's experience and this is the way I also approach collections. They are fragments of things that look real. So we jumped at the chance to design merchandising. Like 'Erm, Yes!'".

I wonder how these mega-merchandisers can shift the meaning of Rose's work. What happens when the signs and symbols of British subculture enter the American mainstream? And what happens when our pop culture heavyweights start dressing like some of London's more eccentric oddballs? 'It's something I'm becoming more and more interested in,' says Rose. "I just hope the work transcends those boundaries. Because, in a way, it's about the human experience. It's like music: we might not have experienced what the author is talking about, but we can still empathise." Rose may not be from Compton, but she can still understand Kendrick playing with the term 'Hillbillies'. She too has spent a career seeking out and valuing 'the underdog, the crushed and the marginalised'.

It is also relevant that this collaboration emerges in the midst of a broader conversation about career opportunities for women designers. It's a thumb in the eye to anyone who might think that these people lack the creative and commercial skills to lead conglomerate brands, but it also presents an alternative: that perhaps they don't even need them. "The giants always take longer to catch up," says Rose. "You know what I mean? But I don't get too carried away by it all. There are so many alternatives doing really interesting things - and I'm not necessarily putting myself in that bracket - but there really are. So who cares? It makes them seem even more out of touch." Martine Rose doesn't need creative direction to make a real impact. A T-shirt will do just fine.
June 27, 2024