Martine Rose’s studio is so new you can still taste the paint in the air. We’re in a renovated, 19th-century industrial building in Crouch Hill, north London, and the spacious rooms are delightful. But Rose is worried. “I look at this area, this studio, it’s all so smart. I do think: ‘Shit, am I going to start doing really polished things now?’”

This concern is understandable. The menswear designer has become an international name, one of those overnight success stories that has been 10 years in the making. She had beavered away, exploring ideas about menswear: twisting traditional workwear and the uniforms created by subcultural tribes into fascinating clothes. Then, finally, in the past year or so, she began to receive the attention she deserves.

Now men’s fashion is more, well, fashiony, her extraordinary wide-legged trousers, outsized jackets, logo tie pins and reclaimed dad jackets seem desirable rather than extreme. Rose is now stocked by Barneys in New York and Matches Fashion. “I’ve been a huge fan of Martine Rose for a long time,” says Damien Paul, head of menswear at Matches Fashion. “We launched her label in January and her urban mix of dress shirts and sweats resonated incredibly with our customers. Martine hits the sweet spot of being ahead of the curve and setting an interesting men’s aesthetic. It’s a rare talent.”

Rose is also now working for the most influential designer at the most influential house in fashion. Demna Gvasalia rose to fame as part of the Vetements collective, but his work as creative director at the French label Balenciaga has cemented his reputation. Rose is now a consultant on his menswear collection.

five male models in Martine Rose designs



‘Martine’s designs will become what everyone wears in the not too distant future’: collections ranging back to 2013

Anyone who’s kept an eye on Rose’s magnificently independent career would wonder how all this change – bigger premises, bigger business plans – is going to alter what she does. Since her first collection a decade ago, she has always pushed against the system. One collection was inspired by second-hand clothes, another consisted of just one outfit. Generally her work riffs on emblems of masculinity – uniforms, football, club culture – and she’s shown her designs as installations, as short films, at an indoor climbing wall. Once she really pissed off all the fashion editors by showing a collection on three models slowly rotating on turntables. Before she vacated her previous studio in Tottenham, she even staged a show at the nearby Seven Sisters indoor market. Stall owners carried on their business as models sauntered the aisles.

It was a long way from the catwalks of the West End. In an industry that loves a schedule and a traditional way of doing things, Rose has always felt anti-establishment. But she cheerfully admits that a lot of this is down to insecurity.

“I wish I could say I knew it was all going to work, or I had great focus, but I think it was mainly fear,” she says. “I’d invested so much in this, so what else was I going to do? I’ve never applied for a job. I didn’t feel confident enough in my vision or skill set.”

Creative director Gordon Richardson was a vital force in setting up London Collections Men, and has worked at Topman for 16 years. He thinks Rose’s work is visionary. “Martine has that innate ability to understand the essence of youthful style. She’s always understood shape and proportion and is never afraid to push the boundaries. What Martine designs will become what everyone wears in the not too distant future.”

All of her collections are very personal, and it was her family that inspired her to go into fashion. “I remember watching my siblings and cousins getting ready to go out clubbing. Clubs were the start of it for me. I started going out when I was pretty young and even then I loved looking at what clothes signified.”

A male model on the catwalk in a green shirt, blue tie, blue and orange bomber jacket and burgundy trousers



On the runway: Martine’s show at London Fashion Week. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

So she grew up happy in south London, part of a large Jamaican family, nicking her sister Michelle’s Pam Hogg and Jean Paul Gaultier dresses to go out in. “I only have one brother and sister, but I have billions of cousins. Lots of them lived in my nan’s house, so that was hub central. We always ended up there.”

Her parents knew she wasn’t going to have a conventional career, even when she was young. “They’re not very conventional themselves. I mean, Mum was a nurse and Dad an accountant, but they were in a mixed [race] relationship from 13, so how they chose to live wasn’t conventional.”

After a foundation year at Camberwell College of Arts, she studied fashion at Middlesex University. “I did womenswear, but it was girls in boys’ clothing, so it was always menswear, really.” Graduating in 2002, she started a T-shirt line called LMNOP with Tamara Rothstein, a mate from Camberwell who is still Rose’s stylist now. But in 2007, Martine Rose the label was born. She showed at new talent showcase Fashion East, got funding from the New Gen initiative, and has soldiered on ever since. She took one season off, after she’d had her daughter who is now two. Her second child is just seven weeks old and he is walked up and down – looking adorable and solemn – in the arms of Rose’s studio manager as we talk. Rose apparently met her partner when he called to her from scaffolding as she struggled to get rolls of material into her car outside her studio. Then he swung down from the scaffolding to help her out. They’ve been together ever since.

Though Martine Rose is her joy, working for Balenciaga is a bit of game changer. That is a very high-profile job on the international fashion scene. “It all happened through photographer Ollie Pearch,” she says. “We were working together and he mentioned Demna wanted to meet me. We sent each other mutual appreciation emails and when he got Balenciaga he asked me to Paris. I didn’t even know Balenciaga did menswear. But doing that has been a huge experience. I’m, like: ‘Oh, this is how it’s done properly.’”

Martine Rose, long dark hair in semi ringlets, wearing a denim shirt



‘There wasn’t a business element before. Now it’s interesting to see what sells where and to who’: Martine Rose. Photograph: Phil Fisk for the Observer

Rose can be charmingly off-message about her industry. She’s pleased that menswear has got some flair, gone a bit experimental, but is ambivalent about how mainstream it’s become. “Fashion used to be for outsiders. It was a weird, strange industry that people ignored and there was something special about that. Now it’s a trillion-dollar industry, and I’ve never been mainstream so it’s strange to be part of that.”

That’s not to say that she doesn’t love her new role as the next big name in fashion. She’s even enjoying learning more about the business side of the industry. “Well, until recently, this felt like it was just a very expensive hobby,” she laughs. “There wasn’t a business element so I didn’t have to engage. Maybe that was defensive, I pushed it away. Now it’s interesting to see what sells where and to who. There is a creativity to business – though my dad referred to me as an entrepreneur the other day and I was ready to die – nooo, Dad! He said it as a lovely thing, but I’m not Richard Branson.”

She may not be but, like Branson, Rose has a lovely hand-drawn logo for her brand. Is it her signature? “No, it’s taken from a vintage piece I found that had been signed by someone. Maybe I should tell people it’s my lovely script. My writing is shit.”

Her name is going to become more and more well known, though, no matter how it’s written. My favourite use of the Rose name is on this season’s tie pins, turning the functional accessory into a talking point. She nods when I tells her this. “That’s my job, though, isn’t it? Giving things a little flourish.” She laughs at that, sitting in her bright new rooms, with her bright new future ahead of her.

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