Glenn Martens on His New Role at Diesel: “We Have Something to Do That is About More Than Just Making Pretty T-shirts”

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When Glenn Martens was born 38 years ago in Bruges, Belgium, Diesel was already five years into its journey to becoming the most irreverent label in global fashion. In 2020 the two came together when Diesel’s founder Renzo Rosso appointed Martens as the first creative director to lead the brand in its history. At Y/Project in Paris, Martens has shown both the vision and creative leadership necessary to take an already existing enterprise and reinvent it both comprehensively and respectfully: the elegant disorder of his excellent experiments in beautiful asymmetry are among the most distinctive design signatures of today. Diesel, however, is a much bigger beast, with over 500 stores across the world and a turnover north of a billion, whatever currency you care to count in. On June 21 at Milan Fashion Week Diesel will present its first fashion show under his captainship, so in the run-up to that we caught up with Martens in order to glean his thoughts on the path ahead of him.

Ciao Glenn, how are you and what are you doing today?

Well, actually, we’re shooting my first pre-collection so you’re catching me between looks. We’re not going to publicize it really, although I will choose one or two of the looks today for you to go out with this interview. And it’s also my birthday, so…

Thank you, and happy birthday! How will you celebrate?

Well, yesterday we finished a little earlier and I sat on the terrace, in the sun. My stylist here at Diesel is one of my best friends and she was at Y/Project with me for seven years. And I am very blessed here in general to have lovely people around me. To be able to sit on a terrace, with friends and wine, feels very special right now. So I hope we will have another terrace moment later. Italy is so pretty, and those simple, fundamental things in life feel very important here.

You’re used to living in France, where the cultural tradition—whether it’s in food, fashion, or beyond—is often more about expressing complication rather than mastering simplicity…

France is about making us believe in a dream—and it’s very true that the straightforwardness of Italy is really enjoyable!

Diesel pre-spring by Glenn Martens. Photo: Courtesy of Diesel

Photo: Courtesy of Diesel

Another pre-spring look. Photo: Courtesy of Diesel

Photo: Courtesy of Diesel

So, to be straightforward, what have you learned about Diesel so far and where are you planning to take it?

Well, I was appointed by Renzo in October last year. And obviously Diesel is a global brand, a train that’s going 300 kilometers an hour. And to be very honest, I have never been at such a massive company. There are so many categories and stories to tell. So first you have to understand the structure of the company and establish where you want to go with it. So the question is what is the message of the brand? And I think things today are very different than they were 20, 10, or even 2 years ago. So you figure out your message and direction, and then work to make sure everybody in the brand understands and speaks the same language. And at Diesel everybody means a lot of people! So that was intense. But now I have the feeling we all understand each other.

I guess your processes at Y/Project and Diesel are adjacent, but on a very different scale and with very different purposes. You’ve created a distinct message there, but here at Diesel what is that message you have been shaping going to be?

We are strict about staying true to the essence of the brand at Y/Project, and that is to be very innovative in our creative vision. And that’s something I’ve learned there to apply here at Diesel, to make sure that even in such a massive company with so many markets and categories you maintain your coherency… The biggest challenge ahead of me here is being aware of the responsibility that you are speaking to people across the world, regardless of their background, sexuality, religion, or whatever.

Diesel is a sexy, joyful, active, and quite radical brand. “Only The Brave” and “For Successful Living” are very ironic statements, and also very ideological and true—this is the core of Diesel and why it has become as big as it is. So this is the undertone to everything—it’s very youthful and celebrative. What I love also about Diesel is that it is simultaneously very eclectic: sharing the core values of being youthful, brave, and active. The fan base is very eclectic and diverse, so we are speaking to multitudes.

What can we expect to see when you show in Milan in June?

It will be very expressive. You know who I am and I am not doing basic things on the runway. Obviously, again, it’s a different language. At Y/Project it’s about structure, while at Diesel it’s about materials, colors, and emotions—more on the surface. And we have been very experimental, which is great. But the most important thing you will see relates to Diesel as a global denim brand. We all know that denim can be quite a polluting fabric. And it is also a social fabric. And Diesel is both a denim brand and a lifestyle brand… Diesel has in its campaigns always highlighted global issues, which is one of the reasons I fell in love with it in the first place. I remember living in small-town, conservative Bruges and seeing two gay men kissing in a Diesel campaign. What Renzo did, and the responsibilities he took, back in the 1990s should never be forgotten. Now, if you update that to 2021, obviously the biggest issues are social sustainability and then ecological sustainability. So these have been my two biggest focuses. And of course it sounds very cliché, but it’s true.

There’s no use in expressing an “authentic” message if the product itself is not an “authentic” articulation of those values…

Of course. And we have been working like crazy and readjusted the entire supply chain. I have implemented a capsule called Denim Library that consists of every single fundamental garment that we imagine to be good in denim, everything, and it is fully sustainable. Completely. All the washes are certified, all the raw cotton is certified, all the production chain is certified. On the scale of a brand the size of Diesel, I believe this is definitely the cleanest denim you can find. And this will be 40% of our denim offer. There will be a Denim Library in every store and these items will never go out of stock and never go into sales.

You mentioned earlier that Diesel’s audience is eclectic…

Yes, with Diesel you talk about many different worlds. You talk about society and you help people to feel empowered, happy, and comfortable in their everyday lives. And they are very much everyday. My mother was divorced when I was a baby, so she had two kids to raise on her own. She worked as a nurse, and she also worked as a cleaning lady on weekends. So she didn’t have the time or opportunity to think about recycling or sustainability. And my mother is and was then a client of Diesel, because the denim is very democratic. So there are many people who don’t have the luxury of time to think about sustainability because they are obliged to live and work intensely, and when they go to Diesel it’s because the denim is great and sexy and looks good and makes you happy. And of course we will give them this. But also I will be part of a group of many people here at Diesel who will make sure of and insist on certain messages and actions… and if we can share that message with people who would not otherwise have the opportunity to receive them then that is good. Because this is a democratic brand, not a luxury fashion brand, so we speak to many people.

Fall 2021 Y/Project. Photo: Giovanni Giannoni / GoRunway.com

Photo: Giovanni Giannoni / GoRunway.com

Fall 2021 Y/Project. Photo: Giovanni Giannoni / GoRunway.com

Photo: Giovanni Giannoni / GoRunway.com

What is your target in terms of altering the processes to ensure ecological responsibility?

We do it step by step. This is a massive company, and we won’t change in one day. And we are responsible also for thousands of families who rely on Diesel for the salaries that pay their bills: we want them to flourish, be happy, and have a great life. The amazing thing here, and that has really been a pleasant surprise, is that within the company they all want to go for it. The joy of this company is that everybody wants it, everybody understands it, and everybody feels like this is the time to do it.

How do you see Diesel looking different in a few years from now?

I see a more grounded and aware Diesel, definitely. A Diesel that has taken its trip to India, and gone on some mushroom trips, and come back more enlightened. This is off the record, but if as a creative designer I wanted purely to feed my ego, I would not be at Diesel. I would be doing another research, at a fashion label where it is all about ego and me and beautiful things and that’s it. But as the designer at Diesel it’s not all about the aesthetic—and anyway I have Y/Project where I can go completely crazy and be experimental. Of course, at Diesel too you have to make beautiful products, and I am an aesthetic snob so I will make beautiful products on the runway. But this is not the reason why I’m here, and if it was I would maybe be somewhere else, and that would probably be much easier.

But here the job is also about social and environmental practice and messaging, and I think it is only at Diesel that I can do this. Because it is embedded in Diesel’s practice to break balls, to do things which are different, and to push harder. The aesthetic at Diesel grows from its values, which are having fun, activism, and being radical. So I am not only here for fashion. Because Diesel is a social brand. And this is why I was so excited to come because I knew that we have something to do here that is about more than just making pretty fucking T-shirts! Of course we will do that too, but here the job is about much more—and that is what is so interesting to me.

Glenn, why was any of that off the record?

Oh okay then, go for it!

This article appears in the June issue of L'Uomo Vogue. Luke Leitch is the magazine’s editor-at-large.