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.
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.”