Glenn Martens in the Diesel studio in Milan, Italy, Feb. 18, 2022. The onetime rock ’n’ roll jeans brand is now designed by Martens.
Image: Alessandro Grassani/The New York Times
It was the first big show of Milan Fashion Week: 1 p.m. on Day 1.
Every chair in the cavernous warehouse space, which was arrayed with giant inflatable denim-bedecked bombshells and grease monkeys, was full. Some attendees seemed to have come straight from the airport. Tim Blanks, the critic of Business of Fashion, was at the show for the “first time in years.” Ditto editor and curator Stefano Tonchi. Julia Fox, the celebrity magnet of the moment, was front row. Renzo Rosso, mogul, owner of Only the Brave, one of the few Italian conglomerates, was presiding, a giant smile on his face.
All there to see the new Diesel collection.
Wait … Diesel? The rock ’n’ roll jeans brand?
The following week came his first-ever couture collection as the guest designer for Jean Paul Gaultier, complete with ballgowns so voluminous they resembled frothing seas and mermaid dresses made from shredded strips of silk ribbon, like a never-ending corset.
Then, three weeks after that, came Diesel, with its 1,000 forms of denim: tufted, frayed, collaged, chromed, recycled, reinvented.
Watching the Diesel show “brought me to tears,” Rosso said afterward. “His treatment of denim is something we’ve never seen before.”
He is, Tonchi said, “not afraid of anything.”
But now that everyone is finally watching, what does he do next?
Too weird, too much
“We never preached that we’re going to make beautiful silhouettes,” Martens, 38, said a few weeks before the Diesel show. “A lot of what we do is for the sake of pushing limits, and a lot of people in the past were like, ‘Why?’” He was talking about Y/Project and Zooming in via video from his Y/Project office in Paris.
He was wearing his usual uniform: an old black sweater he had bought from an outlet in London, black denim jeans and a faded baseball cap. He had two chains around his neck, a hoop earring in his ear and two rings on his fingers, and he was half shaven.
Y/Project, he said, “existed for so many years to do this experimental design and quirky things and nobody cared. It was too weird, it was all too much. They were having a stroke after the third look.” Even the staff, he said, often had “a moment in a fitting when we’re looking at our design and thinking, ‘Are we seriously going to do this?’”
You get the sense that when that question is asked is exactly when Martens thinks he is on the right track.
A model in Diesel during a show in Milan, Italy, Feb. 23, 2022. The onetime rock ’n’ roll jeans brand is now designed by Glenn Martens. Image: Valerio Mezzanotti/The New York Times
“I was the cheapest,” Martens said.
“I was a very bad assistant,” Martens said. “I have no patience. I don’t want to listen to people. I always think I can do something better or different.”
The results are smart and don’t look like anything else, and they’re often funny — the kind of garments that cause double takes and send High Fashion Twitter into a tizzy. But Y/Project is also the sort of brand with an influence inside fashion (and on other designers) that far outweighs its external sales.
In 2020, for example, when Rihanna and Celine Dion had both appeared in the cutout pants, Y/Project still had revenue somewhere between the single and double digit millions. All of which might normally make him an unexpected candidate for a mass-appeal brand like Diesel, which led its parent company, OTB, to post more than $1 billion in sales in 2021.
A fashion Trojan Horse
Nevertheless, Rosso, who had met Martens when Y/Project won the Andam, the leading French fashion prize, in 2017 (Rosso was a jury member) and later worked with him on a Diesel capsule project, wasn’t the only big-brand mogul who saw potential in his rare combination of irreverent attitude and couture mind.
Martens said he was in discussion at different points to work with Donatella Versace at Versace (this was during her very public secret search for an heir, which ended inconclusively when the brand was sold to Capri Holdings, which owns Michael Kors) and Kenzo. He also said he didn’t agree to the Diesel job until Rosso expanded it to include the entire creative side: clothing, licensing, marketing and store design.
In Martens’ mind, Diesel serves a different purpose than Y/Project. “Diesel is much more social,” he said. “This is the only way I can talk to so many people.” Whether or not people buy the clothes, they are, he said, “following you and paying attention to you.” For him, the decision to sign on was personal.
His mother “thinks I’m mental,” he continued. “When she sees the Y/Project clothes, she’s like, ‘Who is going to wear this?’ My older brother, who’s a fireman, has no understanding of Y/Project. But my brother does buy Diesel.”
And he said, “it’s quite nice to make garments you think are good, that make people feel good and comfortable and like they are going to nail life.”
The definition of success
“I was very spartan — work, sleep, work, sleep,” he said. “Maybe a glass of red wine.” He calls himself “a specialist with leftovers.” He is currently single and has no pets, which makes it easier to devote so much time to his jobs. So does the fact that the rest of the world has finally woken up to what he can do.
But not too much. “At a certain point, if you start doing the whole thing of pre-collections and so on, you start to lose a bit your message,” he said. He turned around and went to close his door because, he said, his staff was laughing at him.
Still, he has high hopes that a new bag — the wire bag, which can be squished into all sorts of different shapes — will hit the accessory jackpot. “Everyone can get good raises and have apartments and a joyful life and go on holidays wherever they want,” he said. He has no interest in reviving his own brand and seeing his name over the door; Y/Project gives him all the freedom he needs, and Diesel all the reach. Though that couture experiment was kind of satisfying.
“A lot of people thought of me as a very quirky designer, and I was a little marginalized because of that,” Martens said. “Which is fine, I really didn’t care. But now, having these three platforms, I can prove to people I also understand what the market wants and where to push and not to push.”
He gave a sort of sly little smile. “I always felt I could do it,” he said.
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