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The Duality of Man: Martyn Bal AW10

Martyn Bal is pretty brilliant. Having received rave reviews in June for his debut as Design Director for Gianni Versace menswear, here he presents his solo label’s AW10 collection, along with our interview with him about AW10 and his ideas of masculinity.

The young, dashing Dutchman has already crammed his cv with illustriousness, assisting Hedi at Dior Homme, heading up menswear at Burberry and oh so much more – including styling Erik Hassle, the face of Martyn Bal for SS10, in his own solo label’s AW10 for our Notion 44 cover shoot.

His approach is intelligent, bordering on intellectual – classic but fast-forward. His label’s theme is the duality of modern man, or rather Martyn Bal man: sensitive and hard, rockabilly but luxurious. Here, we present the full, un-cut text of our interview with him at the time of Notion 44, where we discussed his AW10 collection, Erik Hassle, bauhaus, constructivism, the relationship between music and fashion, and the key to good male dressing.

I’d like to start with a few questions about Erik. First – is it right you decided to work with him for SS10 because you saw him in the NME? What was it that initially appealed?

I first noticed Erik in a picture, in I believe it was NME, over a year ago. However, when I started to do some research on him I really couldn’t find much. All I found were a few pictures and some dance remixes of his songs. Time passed and we shot our AW.2009 campaign with Jacob Coupe. By the time it was August last year, that picture of Erik, however, was still in my mind. When I looked him up again online, I found many more images and reviews, but most importantly I finally managed to listen to some of his songs. The strength and combination of his soulful music, his fragile lyrics, and his multifaceted image really convinced me and struck me with excitement.

What is it that he represents which you think suits your concept of menswear and masculinity, generally?

Erik has a real duality that I love. He has the steely, tattooed veneer of an east London boy, but underneath, as you’ll hear on record, is an emotional soul.

I believe the clothes the MARTYN BAL man chooses should hold up a mirror to his inner strength. The core of this strength is versatility, born of a multifaceted nature in which apparent contradictions compliment each other effortlessly.

For me, what appeals about Erik’s music is the straight-forward, open emotional power of his songs. They are classically structured, unpretentious and beautifully delivered—I think he shares this with your collections. What works about his music for you?

It is both the completeness of the sound and Erik’s approach and commitment to his music that works for me. Also, the forceful delivery of his voice is flawless and his frequencies of his vocals take you to emotional highs. I believe we both have a constructivist approach to our work, where we both aim for unpretentious perfection that flirts with the raw and the primal.

What is it that is so complimentary and fertile in the relationship between music and fashion, to you? Music inspires fashion, seemingly, while fashion defines musical identity. It must surely be the most fruitful interaction between creative disciplines in popular conscious today. Is it, or has it been, important for you to find a musical ‘voice’ for your idea of masculinity and menswear?

There is a certain gravitational attraction between the two, since both mediums aim for gratification of the senses, for the sake of aesthetic pleasure and delight in color, sound and form of something. I use the rhythm of music as a springboard for my design and it is therefore important for me to find a musical voice. Collaborating with Erik helps me communicate and visualise my ideas of masculinity and menswear to a greater extend.

Do you think it is significant that you are both ex-patriot Europeans who have made a home in London? Is there something which you think London represents which you both share and are drawn to?

Over the years I have lived in many different places, but I feel mostly attracted to London. It is a greenhouse of creativity, a place where creative people experiment without fear and picture their influences with forceful expressions. London is a great international platform; a good place for research and opportunity.

I’ve been pleased when reading comments you’ve made previously that you seem very interested in working towards a specific ‘conception’ of a man and of masculinity. The duality of a figure who is tender and strong, romantic but minimal. Do you think this is a very modern man, or a classical one? Are you harking back to an idea of masculinity or looking forward? – Perhaps it is both. While silhouettes may be classic, detailing is very forward thinking. Is this another of your dualities?

I am not necessarily aiming to define the modern man. What is important to me is to define a certain character or personality, which is aligned with my ideas about mens fashion. The essential problem for menswear designers is how to project an image in a meaningful way when a show ultimately means variations on shirts and pants. Therefore, I believe it is fundamental for a designer to understand the conception of masculinity or femininity before starting a design process. Ultimately it is about the totality of a brand’s ideology, the clothes and the person that represents the clothes; all function as elements within a laboratory of artistic exploration and help to find a new way to be masculinity.

Do you think that the most exciting area to consider is the conflicted space between those dualities? where a man might be brutal yet tender (art brut, perhaps!), solitary but loving.

It is when two contradicting ideas fuse into one entity what makes it exciting for me.

Having fitted so much into the fifteen years you’ve been active in the fashion industry as a designer, is it difficult to imagine settling down to your own label for the foreseeable future? Will you get restless?

It all depends on the opportunity. For the moment I am really happy and excited about this project and I feel I have reached a fine equilibrium in my personal work. I am picturing my influences, but what I am really doing is discovering myself. It’s an exciting and challenging journey, and every day I look forward meeting new people to collaborate with and make this project a long term success.

How has the AW10 collection, which we have shot, progressed from the previous two seasons since you’ve gone commercial? Do you notice a specific development in your design, or do you feel your voice, aesthetic and conception are fairly solid at the moment?

I certainly feel my voice aesthetic and conception are solid. However, with AW|2010 I wanted to move forward in terms of product and accessibility. It remains a challenge to create a collection that is both creatively satisfying and commercially viable with the small budget that we have. I aimed for a collection that is more relaxed, cool and comfortable but with an image that is still very much under control. I believe AW|2010 feels a bit lighter and free but still is very much MARTYN BAL.

Your colour palette is very much monochromatic – do you think that there is something un-masculine about colour? Is it too fussy and preening?

My work is very graphic and constructed, and I feel using lots of colors could compromise this. I don’t believe colours are un-masculine, but I like to use black in clothing to make a statement of self-control and mystery. I see black as a restful emptiness from which anything could emerge or disappear, while it also provides a sense of potential and possibilities.

To develop that point: you’ve said that ‘Martyn Bal Man is effortless, tolerates no preening.’ (I agree completely.) Do you think masculinity requires precision and control? – and do you think this is borne out by aesthetics such as Modernism, Futurism and Constructivism? The subtle power of straight lines and angles…

Futurism was about a new sensitiveness; courage, audacity and revolt. Cubism was about formal experimentations and Modernism was about eliminating the unnecessary to embrace functionality. All of these conceptions play a major role in the way I design my collections. However, for me masculinity itself is not about precision and control, but more about a certain confidence where clothing or ways of dressing are used to make a bold statement of precision and control.

And finally, a basic and fun question: What is the key to good male dressing?

New influences take over as circumstances change; fashion is impermanent and influences are as well. I believe it is important that you dare to work with the dance of transient form and always pay attention to the smallest detail.


Images all from Martyn Bal AW10 campaign, shot by Richard Stowe and styled by Phil Bush, featuring Andrej @ Storm and Sid @ Models 1.

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