Why This Fashion Designer Holds On to a Gap Shirt and a Necklace With a Chipped Tooth

This hen’s name is Nina (above, center). I was visiting a friend this past November in the Canary Islands — a place made for hiking and forgetting about fashion — and the hen befriended me. Wherever I went, she came to sit on my lap. My mother passed away in September; another reason I needed to urgently disconnect. Years ago, she put together a cute baby album (above, right). My parents, who divorced when I was very young, used to call me Apple — I was strawberry blond and had massive red cheeks. My older brother, Philippe, and I were raised in Belgium partly by my conservative, but always supportive, maternal grandparents. For Y/Project’s spring 2017 campaign (above, left) [Martens, 40, has been the French brand’s creative director since 2013], we decided to shoot in Bruges with only my family and childhood friends as models. I never expected my grandfather André Arnalsteen — someone who volunteered to fight in World War II when he was 18 — to say, “Of course, with pleasure.” My grandfather on my dad’s side, Michel Martens, was a mirror artist. He died a long time ago, but I have this piece by him (below, right) in my Paris apartment. In the ’90s, my grandparents took me to a retrospective of [the 15th-century Flemish painter] Hans Memling (below, center right). I remember being completely blown away by the colors on the canvas; the detail you find in every single square centimeter is ridiculous. You can see the hairs of the velvets.

The charms on this necklace (above, left) all have little anecdotes. The heart came from my best friend, Annabel. At her birthday party one year, we were dancing at 4 a.m. In my drunkenness, I dropped her on the corner of the kitchen table — she chipped off half of her front tooth. Luckily, I was dating a dentist at the time. For my 40th birthday last April, she gave me a golden heart locket with the top of the tooth glued inside. About five years ago, I read [the novelist Reinaldo Arenas’s 1992 autobiography] “Before Night Falls” (above, center left) and became obsessed. He grew up in rural Cuba in the ’40s and ’50s, and eventually made it to New York. He died during the AIDS epidemic. Before that, he’d led multiple rich lives full of passion and love.

I hate snakes (above, center), but I’m fascinated by their beauty. This one [from Y/Project’s spring 2024 collection] was 3-D printed, then we painted it. Y/Project is all about sneaky construction; nobody really knows how a garment stays up, and the movement of the snake suggests that. [The Italian denim label] Diesel [where Martens has been the creative director since 2020] is the opposite because it’s an active-lifestyle brand; the creativity is based more on the manipulation of fabrics. This spring 2024 Diesel look (above, left) is made from cotton jersey bonded to polyester tulle. When you apply a treatment to it, the natural fibers dissolve — the black part burns off — but the synthetic fiber remains. It’s about having fun and not being too precious. I bought this shirt (above, right) from a Gap in Atlanta when I was 16. I have relatives who live there. It was amazing for a little Belgian boy to suddenly be in American shopping malls with a cheerleader cousin named Brittany. I’ve worn it every summer since.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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