“He rhymed my name with Sardine,” Martine Rose says, dialling in from her home in north London. “I didn’t even realise until Grace Wales Bonner texted me. I was like ‘Did he?!’ And so I went online and read the lyrics to double check. In his defence, I don’t think Martine is the easiest of names to fit into a rap verse.” That Kendrick Lamar should compare one of the most important, culture-shifting designers of the past decade to tinned fish is an absurd twist of fate that perhaps only Rose would be capable of finding the humour in. I imagine the ragtag cast of characters she reproduces on the catwalk (who are not – but do look like – ICT technicians and geriatric swingers and disgruntled TFL workers) might like a steaming lunch of olfactory Omega-3s from time to time. “Mmm, it makes sense, doesn’t it?” she adds.
Rose has just returned from a weekend at the Camp Flog Gnaw festival in Los Angeles, where she was name-checked in real-time as cousins Kendrick Lamar and Baby Keem performed as “The Hillbillies”. The designer had dressed both of the musicians in custom looks and she had outfitted large swathes of their fans in limited-edition band T-shirts, too: some of which bore her “Martine Sardine” pseudonym. “Well,” she explains. “We wanted to bring a sense of humour and lightness to it all, almost as if the pieces had been printed in old rave graphics. I think these kinds of festivals are probably the closest thing most people have to an old-fashioned rave and so we really wanted the collection to feel rooted in the experience. Everyone had purchased those pieces in order to feel a connection to their music scene.”
There are seven pieces in total, among them skew-whiff football shirts, some rave pamphlets (that are, on closer inspection, scarves) and a tongue-in-cheek T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Best Dressed”. That phrase might have been lifted from one of the verses in “The Hillbillies”, but it also calls to mind one of Rose’s most popular products: a fake Carlsberg T-shirt, which reads “Probably The Best Designer In The World.” The irreverence and the braggadocio, much like everything Rose produces, comes from a place of real warmth. “The pieces had to be rooted in the lyrics and there’s even a print that features Kendrick’s own handwriting taken from when he was jotting the initial bars down in a notebook. I don’t know if you’d categorise this as merch or fashion, but I don’t think it even matters.”
Like Rihanna and Drake, Rose’s relationship with Kendrick Lamar developed organically, albeit with a touch of kismet. “The first time I worked with Kendrick was on his last tour in the UK,” she says. “I was lucky enough to meet him backstage and I remember feeling like there was such an authentic connection there. I think we understand each other on a creative level.” This (perhaps unexpected) collaboration has seen the most celebrated rapper in the world dress in “Barnsley” caps and attend awards ceremonies in the kind of outsized, awkward windbreakers usually reserved for bird watchers. “His work is rooted in people’s experience and that’s the way I approach collections, too. It’s fragments of things that feel real. And so we jumped at the chance to design merchandise. Like ‘Erm, Yes!’.”
I wonder how these megawatt endorsements might shift the meaning of Rose’s work. What happens when the signs and symbols of British subculture enter the American mainstream? And what happens when our pop cultural heavyweights begin to dress like some of London’s most eccentric oddballs? “That’s something I’m endlessly interested in,” Rose says. “I guess I just hope the work transcends those borders. Because to a certain degree, it’s really about the human experience. It’s like music: we might not have lived through what the songwriter is talking about, but you can still relate.” Rose might not be from Compton, but she still can understand Kendrick playing with the term “Hillbillies”. She too has spent a career seeking out and then treasuring “the underdogs, the squashed and the marginalised”.
It feels relevant, too, that this collaboration should surface in the midst of a much broader conversation about the career opportunities afforded to women designers. It is a thumb in the eye to anyone who might think these people lack the creative and commercial chutzpah to lead conglomerate brands, but it also presents an alternative: that perhaps they don’t even need to. “The juggernauts always take longer to catch up,” Rose says. “Do you know what I mean? But I don’t get too caught up in all of that. There are so many alternatives doing really interesting things – and I’m not necessarily putting myself in that bracket here – but there really are. So, who cares? It makes them look more out of step.” Martine Rose doesn’t need a creative directorship to create real impact. A T-shirt will do just fine.
A limited run of the Martine Rose x The Hillbillies merchandise will be available to purchase here from November 15.