Martyn Bal is the London-based, Dutch menswear designer who makes clothes for “an audacious gentleman, a hopeless romantic with a dirty mind”
With experience at Dior, Versace and Burberry, Martyn Bal has finally put his own name on a label, producing collections tinged with the duality of slick precision and bold attitude. “I believe the clothes should hold up a mirror to a man’s inner strength, the core of which is versatility,” he says. Contradiction is important, but then it would be - this well-turned out, mild-mannered designer played in punk bands as a teen before becoming a romantic and dressing “like a complete freak”. His fit model is close mate Phil Bush of Cazals, and it couldn’t make more sense. A lesson in modernism, Bal - and his collections - are the summation of the modern man.
Dazed Digital: Following your two preview collections, A/W 09 is your first collection that’s available commercially. And I think the collection is actually your strongest, there’s not a weak link in it. How does it feel to get to this stage? You’ve had an illustrious career so far already, within big houses...
Martyn Bal: It’s nice for me to see that things come together. I really needed the first two collections to get to this point. When I decided to venture out on my own I spent more then five months on research only, making sure I had enough reference for others to understand what I had in mind. Sneaking into various libraries in London, Paris and New York, I ended up with this enormous body of research material to work with. Then when you start working with them, you actually realize that it takes so much more time and experimentation before you get to ‘just that’ what you have in mind, and what you want to portray. It really already starts with communicating your design to the factories. We are working with some of the best Italian producers in the industry. Having worked with them before under different circumstances does not always help, and they would often interpret my new designs in the same way as the designs I would handoff before. Since working on your own doesn’t offer you the luxury of unlimited budget and therefore hardly any space for experimentation, means it’s got to be right almost at once. Hence I didn’t really want to sell or publicly communicate anything until I felt totally comfortable with the product, the quality and the images produced. At this point I feel I have reached a fine equilibrium in my work. I am picturing my influences, but what I am really doing is discovering myself. We are living in a competitive time and there is no room for blurred vision, or at least there shouldn’t be. 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. A/W 09 gives me a good platform to work from.
DD: Can you talk us through the A/W 09 collection? I think your approach is really strong - whilst it sits together as a collection, ultimately you’re proposing a real wardrobe of great pieces. The coats and outerwear are special in particular...
Martyn Bal: I intend to have a graphic and constructivists approach to my design, but always want to inject enough energy through movement and fluidity to give it the softness and emotion it needs for it to become pure, poetic and believable. The idea of the wardrobe has been there from the beginning, even from before I started. It does not only allow me to portray my vision in the most accurate way, it also reflects a mentality to think ahead and long-term. With A/W 09 I wanted to put the emphasis on proportion, volume and roundness. In the same way the constructivists created a certain mathematical complexity for the eye though their art, I redefined classic elements without being controversial; using sturdy luxurious fabrics with a soft hand. The result is oversized outerwear and raglan sleeves on some of the coats to create that feeling of constructed roundness.
DD: Can we talk about influences more? I see mod cuts and codes recurring throughout your work. Has the mod philosophy effected you? I love the romanticism of spending all your money on an amazing suit or jacket - which’d have to be done on hire purchase, paying in installments. Wearing something so precious it becomes a part of you...
Martyn Bal: Totally, I can easily consider myself a mod i.e. modernist, in the sense of style consciousness. I aim for the collections to be cool, neat and sharp by embracing "all things sexy and streamlined". Apart from this, music, contemporary art and dualities play a major role in my work. For the A/W 09 collection I did a shirt print based on an old Russian Futurist painting, worked with Phil Bush, lead singer of Cazals, on collection fittings and created with photographer Richard Stow a series of images based on duality, movement and harmony.
DD: And you’re doing shoes too, from the offset. This is something unusual for a young, independent designer...
Martyn Bal: The response I get on the shoes is overwhelming, and yes doing shoes at this stage is unusual. Initially I did not even consider shoes, it was one of those things you have in mind and hope one day you will be able to do one or two pair. As I said before, I really wanted to do a complete wardrobe but doing shoes was something more of a wicked thought. However, somehow I got introduced to this person who happened to be the owner of a shoe factory specialized in handmade Goodyear Welted and Blake Stitch shoes. It really all started from there, I introduced the project and before I knew there was a full range of handmade shoes. Today it remains to be seen how we can continue developing shoes in the same way, since it is extremely difficult to introduce a new shoe brand into the market. Sadly this market is name driven, and therefore it is quite impossible to enter it. No matter how cool your shoes are, if your name is not out there big-time the buyers simply have no interest.
DD: How do you feel about seeing your clothes mixed with other brands?
Martyn Bal: I feel it’s essential to mix different brands, it shows personality; the idea of me, or someone else sporting a total Martyn Bal look on a daily base would totally freak me out. In general I don’t think ideal or fantasy should become reality - it’s something to aspire to, pick from and make it your own.
DD: You grow up in Holland. What were you like as a child?
Martyn Bal: I grew up in Holland just outside Rotterdam, but had left the country by the time I was eighteen. As a child I already expressed signs of creativity at an early stage through different medium, and since my family recognized this it has always been stimulated. My grandma was a seamstress, and I used to watch her creating these amazing dresses by hand. Later on she would also help me creating my own designs. But it is music that played an important role throughout my childhood. At the age of eight my dad bought me my first guitar and by the time I was 15 I played in different garage- and punk-bands. Throughout my teenage years and in the aftermath of punk, I was a true new romantic, an experiment of my own, admittedly dressed like a complete freak. This is probably when I started to develop a serious interest in fashion. Today music is still predominant in my everyday life, I can’t image one day without it, I use it as a springboard for my design.
DD: And you’re based in London now? How important is the city to you? I think whilst you have a certain handwriting it is very much understood internationally...
Martyn Bal: Yes I am in London now. I used to have places in Paris, London and Milan, but London has become more and more important to me over the years and I consider it my home. It’s a great place for creativity and experiment. Compared to Paris, London is also so much more entrepreneurial and makes it therefore a great place to start a business. People here support each other, understand the difficulties of starting a new project and are always interested to contribute or be part of something new and exciting to make it a success. Travelling is and has always been part of my life, and I enjoy not being in one place all the time. Since I produce my designs in Italy I spent a lot of my time there, but research brings me to many other places in the world.
DD: What do you like to do in your downtime?
Martyn Bal: Spend time with my son Alvar Leon, who is four months old, and see my musical friends perform on stage. I generally just love to hangout, and staying on the corporeal matters, I am a good cook.
DD: And what is it you’ve cooked up for the S/S 2010 collection?
Martyn Bal: Fluidity, a play on proportion, light fabrics, soft yet constructed outerwear and tailoring. It’s about showing the cut, proportions, the materials in a pure way.