Martyn Bal has shown me up. Looking at the images on his website the morning before I speak to him, I notice that he has his new collection modelled by a man and a woman. Are the clothes meant to be unisex? "No," laughs the 34-year-old menswear designer, "That is actually a guy." Sure enough, taking a second look, I can confirm the creature in question is a red-blooded male - albeit one with baby blonde Marilyn Monroe hair and Cupid bow lips.
A stunt to flummox time-poor journalists this may be, but the casting of such an androgynous model also says a lot about Bal's aesthetic - one honed over a decade of working at the biggest houses in menswear, devel- oping his own self-titled line and now (as of June's shows) becoming Design Director at Versace menswear, where the label's legendary house style meets his own distinct approach.
If Bal himself, dressed today in a tight black vest and skinny jeans topped off with a mop of foppish blonde hair, embodies a kind of androgynous men's style, then so do his own-name designs. He launched his brand three years ago and his autumn/winter '10 collection, partly inspired by Teddy Boy shapes, features classic frock coats with quilted leather detailing - perfect for beating up any soft Mods you might find - but also shirts with extended collars and tailored fits that might appeal to those with a more sensitive side. Bal describes his menswear as "constructed, energetic and poetic" all at once. Inspired by music - "I couldn't design in silence" - he says he is "trying to understand what rock 'n' roll means today."
Bal learned about that quest from the best. Graduating from an MA at the RCA in 2000, Dutch-born Bal came home to his London flat one night to find a fax from Christian Dior - one of only two houses to which he had sent his portfolio. He went to Paris for an interview and was hired as design assistant to Hedi Slimane. Staying for three years, he saw the brand transform into the last word in menswear cool, with razor-sharp tailoring, rock stars, youth culture and a skinny-boy aesthetic all thread to its loom. The collaboration worked, Bal says, because he and Slimane come from the same place. "He took me into his world but his world is my world." And, inevitably, the two designers are often likened to each other. "The comparison annoys me," says Bal, "but I have learnt to live with it. Trying to be someone else is pointless."
Indeed, he is a determined person- ality on his own path. He believes in his brand beyond any criticism or perceptions of what a young designer should be doing. "It's been a fight," Bal admits, referring to starting his brand (whose coats, for example, sell for around £1,200) in a recession. "People think my pieces are expensive for a new brand, but I visualise images like a big fashion house. I have always said I would never do my own collec- tion if it wasn't the same as how a big house would do it."
And the world of super-brands is a world he knows all about. Having worked for Burberry Prorsum and Verri Uomo since leaving Dior, Bal is now in charge of menswear at Versace, a role he performs in addition to holding down his own label. He works closely with Donatella - who he praises for her ability to "create teams of people and get young energy into the brand" - and clearly enjoys juggling two very distinct visions of men today. You might even say he is freakishly organ- ised: when we spoke in October, he had already almost completed the autumn/winter '11 Martyn Bal collec- tion, which will not be shown until January. And we can't wait to see what he does for his second Versace collec- tion either. "It's an evolution of what has come so far," says Bal. "I have to find ways to reinvent the concept all the time." Whereas all we have to do is sit back and admire his work.