Cover Diesel's creative director Glenn Martens

Cult designer Glenn Martens is giving the denim label Diesel a high-fashion veneer while keeping its social fabric intact

Wearing a faded plaid shirt over a black tee and a single earring, Glenn Martens shifts uneasily in his chair while speaking from the office headquarters of Diesel in Breganze, Italy. Sipping an espresso from a tiny paper cup between breaths, the newly minted creative director of the designer denim label seems either stressed or excited, or simply over-caffeinated. “I have to admit I’m a very hyperactive person,” he says. “I’m very curious and like to put myself in different situations all the time.”

Diesel, founded in 1978 by Renzo Rosso, whose portfolio of fashion brands includes Maison Margiela, Marni, Amiri and Viktor & Rolf, reached global popularity during the Nineties, but its appeal has since waned considerably, with the label’s US division even filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2019. In the hopes of reigniting its momentum, Rosso began a series of collaborations in 2018 called the Red Tag Project, including one with Martens, who was known for creating elaborate, provocative denim designs at the cult French label Y/Project. The reaction to his work led to his appointment as Diesel’s creative director last October, three years after artistic director Nicola Formichetti left the helm.

At the time of our interview, it is two weeks from unveiling his debut co-ed collection in Milan, and Martens is not used to seeing his designs being completed so close to showtime. Diesel’s production process is a huge departure, he says, from that of Y/Project, which he has helmed since the 2013 death of its founder, Yohan Serfaty, and where several prototypes are produced and tweaked by a team of 25 before the items are released.

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“At Diesel I feel more like a conductor; everything is more theoretical,” he says. “There are 900 people here at headquarters, the supply chain is so much bigger and it’s impossible to know who’s doing what at all times, so it’s a completely new way of working for me. So right now you see I’m very calm, and I’m smiling, but tomorrow maybe I’ll be shouting. No interviews tomorrow! I’m just kidding.”

His 80-piece collection was ultimately revealed through a short film that featured a female protagonist in a flaming, Diesel-red wig and transported its audience through a thumping club, an elongated elevator that turned into a runway, and even a Mars-like terrain dotted by models wrapped in Martens’ rich denim looks. Key pieces included lush, ruffle-stitched coats, marble-bleached trousers, and Noughties-style trucker jackets lined with diamond-patterned rhinestones. And then of course there are the unmistakable touches of Martens’ slouchy tailoring from Y/Project, from belts deliberately hanging off the hips to trouser-boots made of coated denim.

When Martens was announced as Diesel’s creative director, the world was in the throes of the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement, which the 38-year-old designer considered while deciding his approach to a new global platform. “In the Nineties, I remember Diesel campaigns tackling taboos, talking about gay rights and supporting minorities, and I feel strongly that as creative director of this global brand, I have to carry on this responsibility because I’m talking to so many different people from so many different backgrounds and stories,” he says. His first ad campaign is called “When Together” and addresses the painful longing for intimacy during confinement through a sensuous montage of eight real-life couples.

Sustainability is also a main focus for Martens, who included a dozen looks that make up what he calls a Denim Library, a line of essential silhouettes made from “clean” denim that will make up 40 per cent of every collection. “I love that denim is democratic and universal, but it is also inherently sustainable in that it’s a fabric that gets more beautiful as you wear it,” he says. “We all have that heartbreaking moment when the five-pocket jean you’ve been wearing for ten years suddenly rips too much and you feel naked and you can’t wear it anymore.”

Brought up in Bruges in the Nineties, Martens’ youth was steeped in Martin Margiela’s avant-garde school of design, even more so while he studied at the prestigious Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp. After graduation, he followed in Margiela’s footsteps when he was promptly snapped up by Jean Paul Gaultier to become a junior designer for menswear. “It’s funny, actually; sometimes in my life, things seem to come full circle,” he says. “The first perfume I ever received was by Jean Paul Gaultier, and then the first job I ever had was at Jean Paul Gaultier. And the first denim trousers I bought were from Diesel and now my first global creative director job is at Diesel.”

Martens remembers being 15 years old, saving up to purchase his first pair of five-pocket Diesel denim by working at a bar, even though he was underage. “They were dark blue with the wax logo, of course, and when the wax faded there was brown seeping out from under it—it was kind of tacky, actually, but it was sexy tacky,” he says.

Since joining the company, Martens says he’s been revisiting its slogan, “For Successful Living”, as a way of centering his ideas. “It’s slightly ironic in that the phrase is so serious, and success is different for everyone, but ultimately it’s about living actively, intensively and enjoying life as much as you can,” he says. “That’s what I related to when I was 15, and at 38 it still applies to me now.”

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