THE BOYS ARE BACK

AFTER THREE DECADES OF WOM­ENSWEAR, AUSTRALIAN PARIS-BASED DE­SIGNER MARTIN GRANT HAS PUT MEN ON THE MENU AGAIN – AND IN THE NO­TO­RI­OUSLY HIGH-PRES­SURE FASH­ION IN­DUS­TRY, HE’S DO­ING IT ALL ON HIS OWN TIMETABLE.

The Australian - Wish Magazine - - MOTORING - STORY FIONA MCCARTHY K POR­TRAIT JAMES CANT

AQan­tas pi­lot’s uni­form and a French awards tro­phy – an odd cou­ple of objects, both key to how Paris-based Australian fash­ion de­signer Martin Grant fi­nally de­cided in Jan­uary to add menswear to the revered women’s prêt-à-porter col­lec­tions he shows each sea­son. The idea of go­ing back to menswear – where Grant started his ca­reer as a teenage fash­ion prodigy in the early 80s – has been sim­mer­ing at the back of the de­signer’s mind for a few years now. As Qan­tas’s re­cently ap­pointed cre­ative di­rec­tor of fash­ion, his re­designs for the air­line’s pi­lot, ground and flight crew uni­forms proved the ini­tial im­pe­tus.

Then early last year, a client asked the de­signer to whip some­thing up for her friend, co­me­dian Vin­cent De­di­enne, to wear to the pres­ti­gious Molière the­atri­cal awards (De­di­enne won the Moliere d’Hu­mour). “This is where it all started for the tuxedo,” says Grant. “I ab­so­lutely loved Vin­cent al­ready – he is in­cred­i­bly funny, in­tel­li­gent and good-look­ing in a slightly quirky way. For me, it’s char­ac­ter like his that’s much more in­ter­est­ing than just dressing bland beauty,” Grant says.

Fi­nally, Grant’s own need for some new wardrobe sta­ples pro­vided the fi­nal mo­men­tum to kick­start the col­lec­tion, which launched in Jan­uary. “I ac­tu­ally needed a coat, it was as sim­ple as that,” he says. After spend­ing a week­end in a freez­ing Lon­don with­out suit­able cold-weather at­tire, “I came back to Paris and went straight into the ate­lier to start work­ing on a pea coat. I can’t re­mem­ber the last time I made some­thing for my­self. The team thought I was skiv­ing off, tap­ping their feet as they won­dered when we were go­ing to start the next wom­enswear col­lec­tion.” Lit­tle did they know that a new di­rec­tion for the busi­ness was in the mak­ing: after the pea coat, Grant de­signed for him­self a duffel coat and a clas­sic sin­gle-breasted jacket. The Martin Grant menswear col­lec­tion was born.

His men’s de­signs aren’t a world away from the sleek, chic fem­i­nine silhouettes for which Grant has be­come renowned, sought after by A-lis­ters in­clud­ing Cate Blanchett, Mar­ion Cotil­lard, Tilda Swin­ton and Lady Gaga. “I’ve al­ways in­cluded a pea coat for women in the col­lec­tion, so for the men’s col­lec­tion, I worked with the same ver­nac­u­lar but in­cor­po­rated a more fit­ted shoul­der and straighter cut to lend a more sub­tle, masculine touch,” he says. In the mix, there is also a bold checked suit – “a gang­ster-style jacket with a skinny pant,” he says – and a deeply tac­tile shear­ling coat in mid­night blue along­side clas­sic pieces such as tai­lored over­coats, Grant’s ver­sion of an over­sized trench, and var­i­ous sin­gle and dou­ble-breasted suits (many with a slight 1940s twist) in tex­tures such as jumbo cord, al­paca, a soft, light 100 per cent wool and dis­creet pin­stripes.

The “un­der­stated” sil­hou­ette that res­onates through both his men’s and women’s col­lec­tion is for “some­one who wants to look smart,” says Grant. “It’s more im­por­tant to me that you see the per­son, not their clothes – but it takes a quiet, per­fectly cut so­phis­ti­ca­tion in the cloth­ing to en­sure they don’t look bor­ing.” The an­drog­y­nous twist to the way Grant de­signs means a slouchy sweater looks as great on a man, with tai­lored trousers, as it does for a woman teamed with a mini-skirt and tow­er­ing heels from Chris­tian Louboutin (Grant’s go-to cob­bler since he first be­gan).

Grant’s early path into fash­ion owes ev­ery­thing to his beloved grand­mother Nancy. “She had worked for a pri­vate cou­turier in Mel­bourne but she hated do­ing that work and be­ing in the city, so as soon as she had kids, she stayed home and worked as a pri­vate dress­maker,” he says. “For as long as I can re­mem­ber, there was al­ways the sound of the scis­sors cut­ting cloth against the din­ing room table and the whirring sound of the foot pedal on her sewing ma­chine,” he says.

The freedom of a child­hood grow­ing up in Black­burn, a sub­urb of Mel­bourne, cer­tainly en­cour­aged his lat­eral think­ing. “I look back now and re­alise it was a bit of a cre­ative en­clave, full of slightly hip­pie artists and mu­si­cians, where the sur­round­ing ar­eas were wild and nat­u­ral, never primped or clipped,” he says. His par­ents lived in a house de­signed by lead­ing mod­ernist ar­chi­tect Robin Boyd. “They were quin­tes­sen­tial in­tel­lec­tu­als, my fa­ther a uni­ver­sity pro­fes­sor, my mum al­ways mak­ing things. They never tried to block me. School once de­scribed my want­ing to make dresses as ‘weird’ – my mother’s re­ply was ‘well, no it’s not, it’s fine’. I was al­ways en­cour­aged.”

At 15, he needed to es­cape sub­ur­bia, to be part of the ac­tion. “I didn’t re­late to peo­ple at school. In the city, I met like-minded peo­ple I felt com­fort­able with, the ma­jor­ity of them at least 10 years older than me,” he says. It was the early 80s and at night­clubs, punk had mor­phed into New Wave and “it was all about dressing up”. Through the in­flu­ence of his grand­mother, he’d grown up with all the clas­sic fash­ion ref­er­ences of Dior, Ba­len­ci­aga and Chanel, but here, it was just to have fun. “In hind­sight, a lot of what we wore was ter­ri­ble, but at the time it felt in­ven­tive, fresh and young.”

To­day, the ac­tual mak­ing of a dress or a jacket in­spires him as much as it did when work­ing along­side his gran. “It’s the thing I love most – the ac­tual metier, the struc­tur­ing of a gar­ment. Of course, style comes into

it too, but I’ve al­ways loved the tech­ni­cal prob­lem­solv­ing that comes with mak­ing clothes,” he says. Although he might sketch out a whole col­lec­tion on paper, he says he of­ten throws out what he’s drawn, and works best when play­ing straight on to the man­nequin with fab­ric. “The way it re­acts and falls from drap­ing the fab­ric al­ways in­form the shape and de­tail I want to use,” he ex­plains. “I like go­ing with the flow, em­brac­ing the way one idea leads on to the next.”

It’s prob­a­bly no co­in­ci­dence that when he took a brief respite from fash­ion in his early 20s it was to ex­plore sculp­ture. “I’d dropped out of school and started work­ing at 15 – in­sane to think now when I look at 15-year-olds to­day glued to their iPhones and won­der how I did it,” Grant says of launch­ing his first col­lec­tion at just 16 from a stu­dio on Lit­tle Collins Street; by 20, he was run­ning a busi­ness with three full-time employees and boast­ing ac­co­lades such as Coin­treau Young De­signer of the Year. At 21, feel­ing burnt out, he de­cided to step back and study sculp­ture at the Vic­to­rian Col­lege of the Arts, mak­ing wed­ding dresses on week­ends to help pay for his school­ing.

“I felt I had to do it be­cause I’d left my ed­u­ca­tion so young. I thought if I’m go­ing to do fash­ion, I want to be sure it’s what I re­ally want to do,” he says. Some­how, he felt art had more sub­stance than fash­ion, but Grant’s aca­demic fa­ther’s re­sponse to his re­turn to school wasn’t as ex­pected. “I thought he’d be pleased I’d come around to want­ing to ex­plore some­thing else, given he was head of his­tory and pol­i­tics at the Uni­ver­sity of Mel­bourne – but he thought I was crazy,” he laughs. “He said I’d found some­thing I liked do­ing, I was quite suc­cess­ful at it, most peo­ple never find that.”

His dad was right – con­cep­tu­ally, sculp­ture wasn’t so dif­fer­ent from what Grant had been do­ing with fab­ric. “It helped to con­sol­i­date the things I was do­ing nat­u­rally and in­stinc­tively in my head, but ed­u­ca­tion­ally, I thought it was go­ing to be some­thing com­pletely dif­fer­ent,” he re­flects. “I don’t even think I fin­ished the first year.” After a brief so­journ in Lon­don, work­ing as a pat­tern cut­ter and gen­eral dogs­body for a tiny com­pany set up by two Kiwi girls in a base­ment in Soho, he went to Paris, lured by a Ger­man woman he’d met at a trade show who wanted to start a menswear col­lec­tion. “It’s not what I’d planned to do, it all hap­pened by chance,” he says. He had no French, no money, and no friends, but the job came with an apart­ment, so Grant de­cided to go.

The job lasted all of six months, but by then Grant was set­tled into Parisian life and he stayed. “I loved that I was com­pletely for­eign. Back then, an Australian was pretty novel – half of them didn’t know where Australia was.” Lon­don had been a bit of a grind, but “Paris had a softer edge to it, a café so­ci­ety like Mel­bourne that didn’t cost a for­tune. And ob­vi­ously the whole cul­ture of fash­ion was deeply em­bed­ded in the city.”

Grant started out “do­ing made-to-mea­sure for my friends, and then friends of friends”, which grad­u­ally grew un­til he had enough pieces to show as a col­lec­tion in 1994. “It was very Parisian, quite tai­lored with a 40s-50s sil­hou­ette,” he re­mem­bers. “I held the show in a lo­cal café, La Chaise au Pla­fond, where the ter­race was

“I started work­ing at 15 – I look at 15-year-olds to­day glued to their iPhones and won­der how I did it.”

the front row and the girls ar­rived from the street.” Naomi Camp­bell made a sur­prise guest appearance. Soon after, col­lab­o­ra­tions with big names like Agnona (part of the Ermenegildo Zegna group) and Mon­cler fol­lowed; for 10 years, he was also artis­tic di­rec­tor for the depart­ment store Bar­neys Pri­vate La­bel. In 2004, the French Fed­er­a­tion for Cou­ture and Prêt-à-Porter in­vited Grant to show dur­ing its of­fi­cial cal­en­dar. Re­cently, he has also de­signed a small cap­sule shirt col­lec­tion for Chris­tine in Mel­bourne.

Fast-for­ward to 2018, and Grant is still play­ing the game his way. Pri­vately owned, Grant’s la­bel is based out of a light-filled show­room and ate­lier in the heart of Paris’s Marais district, with al­most 50 stockists world­wide. Au­da­ciously, the de­signer has changed the way he presents his col­lec­tions, switch­ing from four shows a year to two. In Jan­uary and June, Grant will show pre­c­ol­lec­tion wom­enswear (ac­count­ing for 80 per cent of his busi­ness), menswear and cou­ture to­gether, eliminating the need to cre­ate new ad­di­tional col­lec­tions for the tra­di­tional spring-sum­mer and au­tumn-win­ter cat­walk shows in Fe­bru­ary and Septem­ber.

“What’s the point in do­ing a whole new col­lec­tion that’s only 20 per cent of the busi­ness and just about image and blah?” he ques­tions. “I’ve be­come more prag­matic about what I want to de­sign. In the past I en­joyed do­ing fun, silly things but now it doesn’t in­ter­est me as much. I don’t do throw­away fash­ion, I want things to last. The big­gest com­pli­ment is when some­body says they still love and wear a coat I de­signed 10 years ago,” he says. After 30 years of play­ing the fash­ion game, “it’s re­fresh­ing to change my way of work­ing. I want the time to de­velop things – it’s not just the de­sign­ers who are ex­hausted, it’s the fab­ric man­u­fac­tur­ers and buy­ers too.”

If his menswear was per­son­ally mo­ti­vated, his wom­enswear comes from a love of de­sign­ing for the vari­a­tions of the fe­male form. “I much pre­fer a body in one of my pieces than the coat hanger,” he says. In each col­lec­tion, a re­vi­sion and ex­ten­sion of the last, there are al­ways sig­na­ture pieces such as jaunty jump­suits and maxi shirt dresses, dra­matic palazzo pants and cute bomber jack­ets, el­e­gant capes and floor-sweep­ing opera coats. His aim is to “cre­ate cloth­ing that’s fem­i­nine and flat­ter­ing but with a strict­ness to it too.” For Grant, it’s never about adding more; rather, “it’s about tak­ing away and tak­ing away un­til it be­comes just that one very es­sen­tial thing. The per­fect line, the per­fect cut. That’s what I’m al­ways look­ing for.”

His friends are his in­spi­ra­tion. “I have so many fe­male friends with strong per­son­al­i­ties who yet are all so very dif­fer­ent. In a way, I look to all of them for ideas – I don’t try to squeeze them into one mould.” For Grant, suc­cess is when “you don’t im­me­di­ately know some­one’s wear­ing one of my de­signs. There are pieces which are maybe more em­bel­lished or more ex­treme, but they’re still very wear­able. I don’t do cloth­ing that’s just for press or In­sta­gram. I de­sign clothes peo­ple want to wear – I want them to feel com­fort­able, not to look silly.”

Ex­quis­ite at­ten­tion to de­tail is also key. Drawn to fab­rics with a cer­tain amount of body and struc­ture to them, Grant works them to sculpt and move with the body at the same time. French and Ital­ian draped silks, sen­su­ous wools and fresh, flow­ing cot­tons are his fab­rics of choice; navy rather than black pro­vides the back­drop against which he plays off neu­trals such as white and grey. Noth­ing is over­looked: cov­ered but­tons, im­mac­u­late seams, in­ter­est­ing sleeves, big pock­ets, a sub­tle ruf­fle. The in­side of his pieces is as im­por­tant as the out­side. “My her­itage is cou­ture – it gives fi­nesse to what I do,” he says. In a stead­fastly in­de­pen­dent ca­reer in one of the world’s tough­est in­dus­tries, span­ning three decades, two con­ti­nents and Fly­ing Kan­ga­roos, Grant’s punc­til­ious per­fec­tion has paid off. “It’s ex­haust­ing but sat­is­fy­ing to be in­volved in ev­ery stage – if you’re go­ing to do some­thing, you have to try to do it well. It’s im­por­tant. Oth­er­wise, why do it?”

“I don’t do cloth­ing that’s just for press or In­sta­gram. I de­sign clothes peo­ple want to wear.”

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