When Martine Rose was designing her logo T‑shirt in 2014, there was a problem she didn’t foresee: namely, it would be hard for Martine Rose to wear a Martine Rose T‑shirt. “What really put me off, the nail in the coffin, was going to all of these coffee shops where they ask for your name,” she says, breaking out into a grin. “Honestly, every time I wore the bloody T‑shirt I had to say my name for some reason.”
Of course, people who aren’t called Martine Rose can wear the T‑shirt untroubled, and many do: it’s a bestseller for the London brand. While Martine Rose the label sells everything from shirts to suits, made for men but also worn by women, the T‑shirt remains central to its identity. “[The T‑shirt is] completely democratic, you can really pull people in,” says Rose, as two design assistants pin some images to a moodboard that is leaning up against the studio wall behind her desk. “You can create this sort of weird and wonderful collection and somehow anchor the story in the T‑shirts.”
Rose, who was born into a Jamaican-British family in south London in 1980, began her menswear label in 2007. It has a unique point of view that takes in youth culture and the current zeitgeist, but also re-evaluates the mundane in an offbeat – often appreciative – way. Her clothes have been inspired by bus conductors and bike messengers, and her shows have been hosted in venues including a Tottenham market and her daughter’s school. Rose regularly draws upon her adolescence and life journey – in particular, her family and friends growing up in the late 80s and early 90s. This is relevant for her love of T‑shirts. “Apart from my children, if my house was on fire I would grab my acid smiley T‑shirt that I have had since I was nine,” she says. “My cousin was really into raves so in 1989, he gave me this BOY London T‑shirt … it takes me back to all of these really important moments around that time, watching my cousin go out and be a part of this thing, and knowing that there was this other world that I couldn’t access yet but couldn’t wait – I literally couldn’t wait.”
Arguably, formative experiences like this shaped the kind of designer that Rose grew up to be. She says, “If anyone had one of my T‑shirts in 30 years, it [would be] like the biggest honour”, so she knows the power of these humble items. She has also used T‑shirts to make statements – such as in 2019, when a Brexit message was part of a collection, and Rose made a T‑shirt featuring a clown dressed as a politician. “We were just bombarded with these jokers all day every day talking shit about Brexit,” she remembers. “I mean it was everywhere; it was impossible to not comment on it.”
As well as including T‑shirts in her collections, Rose – as the smiley anecdote testifies – wears T‑shirts herself, and does so almost every day. She said she has a collection of hundreds, including vintage, Hanes white classics, and ones by skate brands including Aries and Supreme. Today, she is wearing a vintage white T‑shirt featuring a map of Africa coloured red, gold and green, and the slogan “Free South Africa”. “Clothes are interesting because they are the most intimate thing in that we wear them closest to our skin,” she says. “When you see someone wearing a powerful T‑shirt or a T‑shirt that says something, you understand that the person wearing it really believes in that message.” For Rose, a T‑shirt can express anything from anti-racism to a devotion to rave or the dislike of Brexit. But wearing your own name? That might be a step too far.