Versace’s Design Director Martyn Bal talks to Graeme Moran about music, menswear and masculinity, revealing some of the profound concepts behind his monochromatic creations.
You may not have heard of fashion designer Martyn Bal, but it is safe to say you will have probably seen his creations. As an introverted character, the young man has always remained just outside the fashion industry limelight. Things are about to change however, and it is only a matter of time before his is the name on everyone’s lips, as well as their clothing labels.
For a young man, Bal’s short career rivals that of many fashion designers’ lifetime work. Within ten years he has designed for some of fashion’s most prestigious brands, under the guidance of the industry’s biggest names. On top of this he has successfully established his own independent menswear label, no mean feat for a relative unknown.
Born in a small town outside of Rotterdam, Holland, Bal claims to have always been interested in fashion and legend has it that even as a child he argued with his mother for not matching the colours of his outfit perfectly. Then as a teenager, between playing in punk bands and attending school, the talented youngster became the apprentice of prominent Belgian designer Dirk Bikkembergs, getting his first taste of fashion at one of Europe’s biggest brands.
In 1998, aged 18, Bal moved to London and started a Masters degree in Menswear Design at the esteemed Royal College of Art. As a student he excelled and won several awards, including the top prize for best menswear graduate collection.
As soon as he left the RCA Bal was approached by representatives from Parisian fashion house Christian Dior. He quickly became assistant to the label’s head designer, Hedi Slimane, under whose leadership Dior Homme was reinvented. With Slimane at the helm this period produced some of the most celebrated menswear collections ever produced, with their iconic skinny aesthetic that literally reshaped and redefined men’s fashion.
Remaining out of the spotlight, Bal soon left Dior and took a promotion, becoming Creative Director of Italian label Verri Uomo. He then moved on to become Design Consultant for mega-brand Versace and then on to the British label Burberry. This whirlwind of experience and speedy rise through the fashion ranks is certainly impressive, no doubt helping to make Bal the exceptional designer his is today. “I have always felt honoured by all these opportunities,” he says humbly. “My time at high-profile fashion houses has been very exciting and rewarding. Whether it was about image, attention to detail or corporate matters, every single experience has been important to me and helped me to discover my influences, and to discover myself as a designer.”
This hard work and soul-searching eventually culminated in the creation of Bal’s own eponymous label. The difficult move from huge international brand to setting up your own independent line would be a daunting task for anybody and tested Bal’s talent and dedication to the extreme. “It was a big change and challenge but having your own collection offers you the opportunity to have complete control over what you want to do,” he says. “The latter is something you rarely find working at any fashion house.” It was this newfound freedom that allowed Bal’s skills to flourish and is helping to make his solo project such a highly praised success within the fashion world.
With a touch of understated luxury and an obvious attention to detail, his sharp designs are among the best in the current menswear market. By playing with fit, cut and proportion, he makes clothes that are edgy and unique, but always remain utterly wearable. What shines through is a bold and individual style that belongs solely to Bal, a strong brand identity that is not usually found in a designer of his age.
This identity is what he calls the “Martyn Bal man”, the hypothetical muse the designer is always dressing. “I am not necessarily aiming to define the modern man,” he says. “What is important to me is to define a certain character or personality, which is aligned with my ideas about men’s fashion.” He adds: “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.”
This deeply considered thought process and an attention to every minute detail is something that is evident throughout all of Bal’s work. For instance, one of the most distinguishing features of the Martyn Bal clothing line is that it remains almost exclusively monochromatic, with black dominating many pieces. Bal believes that this visually striking feature highlights several aspects of his clothes: “My work is very graphic and constructed, and I feel using lots of colour could compromise this,” he explains. “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.” Rather than simply an aesthetic decision, Bal’s reasoning goes much deeper, adding: “I see black as a restful emptiness from which anything could emerge of disappear, while it also provides a sense of potential and possibilities.”
As this shows, one of the things that makes Bal’s work so interesting and individual is that he draws inspiration from a wide variety of sources and channels them directly into the shape, cut and colour of his pieces in a way that creates something truly interesting and unique. From modern art, gender theories and “aesthetics such as Modernism, Futurism and Constructivism”, Bal claims to be inspired and influenced by a diverse range of topics. As he explains: “Futurism was about a new sensitiveness; courage, audacity and revolt. Constructivism 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 that I design all my collections.”
It was literature that influenced the limited edition t-shirt collection Bal released as part of his eponymous line this season, entitled ‘Burning Bright’. Inspired by William Blake’s poem ‘Tiger, Tiger’ and featuring the romantic symbol of the open hand, the capsule range features t-shirts engulfed in fiery eruptions and violent flames in a vibrant colour palette that is a new direction for the label.
Music, too, plays a large part in his creative process and Bal says he uses the “rhythm of music as a springboard” for his work. Of the relationship between fashion and music, he says: “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 colour, sound and form of something.” Maybe this is why so many rock stars enjoy wearing his clothes, with musician Erik Hassle even modelling for the Bal brand.
As well as designing his own line, 2010 saw Bal take the prestigious role of Design Director at the great Italian label Versace, where he oversees the brand’s menswear department. He showed his first, critically acclaimed spring/summer collection last year and his eighties rockabilly show, inspired by Bruce Weber photographs from the 1980s, brought the designer yet more fashion world praise.
With his own brand developing into a major menswear label and his work at Versace impressing each season, it seems things are still on the rise for this young man. But what does the future hold? “It all depends on the opportunity,” says Bal, ever mysterious. “For the moment I am really happy and excited about this project and my role as Design Director at Versace.” Ever philosophical, he adds: “It’s an exciting and challenging journey, where 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 of details.” If he continues to follow his own profound advice, it seems that the sky is the limit for this talented designer.
words Graeme Moran