Behind the Collection: Martin Grant

With a minimum of hype, the sober designs of this native Australian offer RTW with couture class and craft. By Grandin Donovan
mgrantportrait_instoryDesigner Martin Grant is something of a quiet triumph. A Melbourne native, he learned to sew from his grandmother before first apprenticing with a young designer at 15. By 18 he had started his own label, and was a part of the cultural ferment of early-'80s Melbourne that produced the goverment-sponsored Fashion Design Council parades, and many of what have since become Australia's top designers. Worn out with by the fashion scene by 21, Grant closed shop and returned to school to study fine arts, eventually settling on sculpture, which allowed him to explore 3D form-making with a different material arsenal.
In 1990, Martin left Australia for London, ostensibly on holiday. He never came back, but instead hopped the Channel in '91 and settled in Paris. Working from a studio in an old Montmartre hospital, Martin gradually built up a new collection, launching Martin Grant Paris in 1996, the same year he opened a store in an old rue des Rosiers barbershop. By 1999 Martin had caught the eye of Vogue editor Andre Leon Talley as well as Lee Radziwell; following a couple of PR coups, he landed a contract with Barneys, which ultimately broke his work to a wider audience.
Today, Grant does four collections a year—two of his own, and two for the Barneys in-house label. The Martin Grant Paris collection continues to exhibit impeccable cuts in limited palettes and durable natural fibers. Classic without being conservative, cosmopolitan without being jaded, Grant's designs reach back to the midcentury heyday of couture to present an ideal of style beyond fashion, where both the designs, and the clothes themselves, are meant to last.
Refinery29 spoke with Martin in his Marais atelier earlier this winter, while he was still in the early stages of planning the soon-to-be-unveiled autumn/winter '07 line, and got an inside look at how he plots a collection, stitch by stitch.

Often you'll do one thing that just feels right. And then you can push an idea from a jacket into a dress, a coat, a skirt, so it has that thread. But it really is kind of scary sometimes—it's like walking in the dark.
—Martin Grant

Is it true that you rarely work from drawings or do a lot of upfront planning, but prefer to build your patterns around the dummy as you go? Tell us about the creative process…
It always starts with the fabrics, for me. I don't work with themes, for example. I work very instinctively. I start by checking out all the companies, to see what I'm attracted to that season. I start editing down the fabrics—which is what I'm doing now—until that gives me a story. Then I go out and spend a week going to museums, bookshops, etc. I pick out a few things, things that attract me whether it's a painting, a color, or a certain mood, and I'll just sort of surround myself with the fabrics, with these few elements, and then begin working on the dummy. How the fabric falls determines so much. It's not trying to make something fit, it's actually going with the fabric. I start by draping it on the dummy, then doing toiles in a basic calico, and then you draw on that, you cut it, you pin it, you get the volume that you want, and then you flatten it out, recut it in the fabric. But I've always usually determined the style with just the fabric itself on the dummy. Often you'll do one thing that just feels right. And then you can push an idea from a jacket into a dress, a coat, a skirt, so it has that thread. But it really is kind of scary sometimes—it's like walking in the dark.
You tend to work with very limited palettes, which seem to underline the restraint of your cuts. When do you pick your colors? Is that something you do when you select the materials?
It usually comes at the same time. Sometimes you'll see something like a purple wool fabric, and you wouldn't have thought of purple wool, but suddenly you think 'Oh, that's fantastic,' so I put that aside, and that becomes a key thing, and I'll start working the colors around that.
Where do you source your fabrics?
Italy and France. I've got a couple of favorite French houses. There's one that I use that is connected to a very old, very well-known House that closed down, so they have this incredible history, and they develop a lot of stuff especially for me. Because they're so close I can just ring them up and say, "Can we do this? Can we change this?' They're such scientists, so they get really excited. For me, that's fantastic.
Are there any materials you really prefer to work with?
I tend to work almost exclusively with natural fabrics. I love wool. One of my favorite fabrics is just the most basic wool caban, it's like what they make peacoats from.
Have you gone through the "out and about" stage for autumn/winter '07? Any touchstones to look for?
Again, it's like walking in the dark. But I went for the first time to the new Quai Branly museum, and that was interesting because primitive art is pretty far removed from what I'd be looking at normally, which is more European. I can feel that it's sparking something off. And India, where I spent the New Year…
What were some of the elements that influenced the spring/summer collection?
This painting I brought back from Australia. It's by an Australian artist, Jenny Watson, who had her studio opposite mine. The colors in the painting were all of the colors that I was using in 1984 in my collections. So I hung it above my table, and then quite subconsciously I was choosing all these things and I was like, 'Oh yeah, lime green!' Then I started looking at the painting and thinking it was quite a good inspiration, because she does these very childlike drawings, with this kind of naive aspect, and I read that as being something fresh and linear, like a sketch almost. The thing is I often feel embarassed talking about where the inspiration comes from because it then gets quite far removed from that, and people can't often see the connection between what I started with and what I end up with. But for me it makes sense.
Speaking of spring/summer, it seems a bit looser, more country-clubby, even outdoorsy, as opposed to your previous work, which had a more urban feel. What made you shift your approach?
I'd just been in Corsica at the beach and on a boat, and my head was still wishing I was in that environment. If you're on holidays, and it's high summer, you don't want to be in uptight tailored suits and that sort of thing, so it was a conscious attempt to get out of that. Everything was very concentrated around the neck, using these drawstrings, basically taking a piece of fabric and pulling it, which gives you a volume, a shape, a dress, a top. So, I worked on that idea of getting structure from nonstructure, without laboring over very finely cut things. It was really just getting that from one simple string.
Have you felt any need to reinvent yourself?
Last season was approached in a slightly different way, and it's interesting, because it had a really good response, but then a lot of people said, 'Oh, we love what you usually do.' But then there's that risk where if you keep doing what you usually do they say, "You're still doing the same thing…'. For me, it's just about finding something new and fresh that keeps me excited.

Often you'll do one thing that just feels right. And then you can push an idea from a jacket into a dress, a coat, a skirt, so it has that thread. But it really is kind of scary sometimes—it's like walking in the dark.
—Martin Grant

What sort of aesthetic or approach would you say unites the collections since your relaunch in '96, or even before?
It's always really about finding a certain volume, a certain silhouette. I do try to remain true to myself, if you like. I try not to look at anything else that's going on. I tend not to buy fashion magazines, I don't follow the shows—I look at them afterward, but I don't submerge myself in the fashion world, because I think it's important to have your own voice and just follow what you're best at, and what comes out of what you're doing. But it's always about what's the most flattering thing for women, I strive for a perfection in the clothing and the finishing of the clothing once it actually gets to a certain style. I suggest something, I provide what I can provide, and hope that it's going to work.
The other thing for me that's always important is that I like things to last. It is always the biggest compliment when a client comes to me and says ,'I still wear that coat I got from you ten years ago, and it still looks great.' For me, that's success in clothing. I twist and tuck and manipulate, but there's that classic structure there that always holds it together.
Martin Grant is available in New York City at Barneys New York, 660 Madison Avenue, or in Los Angeles at Ron Herman, 8100 Melrose Avenue. For more information, go to
Portrait by Vivien Allender, runway photos by Frédérique Dumoulin at JAVA.
With a minimum of hype, the sober designs of this native Australian offer RTW with couture class and craft.

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