(Frontpage 193)

Glenn Martens: Work Hard, Play Hard

  • WordsLiana Satenstein
  • PhotographyGianluca Normanno

In this FRONTPAGE interview, the visionary behind Diesel and Y/Project opens up on getting all of Milan to rave.

What’s wrong with a little editorial catcalling? Especially when it comes to the gorgeous Glenn Martens, who is getting his glam done as we speak via Zoom. He just had an “intensive day,” or rather, a Christmas party for Diesel that went late the night before. “I’m a little hungover,” he says. I can’t tell. The makeup artist adds another dollop of blush to his cheeks. Martens sits elegantly in his roughed-up Diesel denim jacket, the perfect shade of light wash. 

“I hope you don’t mind that she’s putting my face back on,” he quips. “I have a shoot right after this.” 

Uh huh. Truth is, Martens doesn’t need any more face to be put on. Anyone in his presence would agree: The creative director of global denim brand Diesel and the construction-first Y/Project, who also had two megawatt stints at Jean Paul Gaultier Couture, is a total charmer and blessed with a mug that delivers. That sly little smile, permanently skewed into a mischievous smirk; a strong, noble chin. His prickly mustache that descends into a scruffy two-week o’clock shadow. Oomph. 

Martens is dashing in an old-school way, like a rugged soldier in a Renaissance painting. Or maybe like a severe Joseph Fiennes in Shakespeare in Love?

But Martens’ handsome visage is only part of his cinematic charm. He’s got a princely vibe cut by a freak side that shows when he gesticulates wildly with his hands. All of this adds up to what draws me in as he goes on about his childhood in Bruges, Belgium. Like the first time he was captivated by fashion with a capital F, looking through his mother’s gossip magazine: “I remember that I saw just a Thierry Mugler dress, and it’s Karen Mulder wearing a full look,” he says. “And she looks like a scarab.” 

A little more blush. 

Symbolic of Martens as a whole is the designer before me, simultaneously delivering delicious sound bites and getting his makeup done. There are some guys who look you in the eyes when they date you; they make you feel like you’re the only girl in the world, even though they are probably out bedding other women. That’s what Martens is like with each of his projects, whether for mega-brand Diesel or conceptual Y/Project or the storied Jean Paul Gaultier. He juggles 1,000 things at once, but each project is executed with precision and boundless passion. Just last month, he held the most epic runway show for Diesel or, rather, brought the most action to Milan that it’s seen in years: a 7,000-person rave that had the city vibrating, the youth excited, and the brand happy. 

Perhaps Martens’ razor-sharp focus can be chalked up to the Diesel tagline itself, “Successful Living.” The phrase has been tacked onto the youth-catering Diesel label since its inception by Renzo Rosso in 1978. In this late capitalism-pumped society, “Successful Living” feels like monetary verbiage; like being able to make your rent but also order Sweetgreen — and, of course, in really good distressed Diesel jeans. But for Martens, who became the creative director in October of 2020, that phrase is more spiritual. “In my opinion, it’s about having fun and having a no-bullshit mentality. I feel also quite young, even though I’m 40, I think I kind of still fit in there. It’s about having all this — risking and doing things.”

“Successful Living” and the risk that comes with it paid off for Martens at the aforementioned Diesel show-rave that went on for eight hours and included a DJ lineup from the global radio broadcasting platform NTS. Seven thousand people gyrating, ebbing, flowing… raving. After the show, for five days, Martens aired films like Spirited Away and Mulholland Drive

In my opinion, it’s about having fun and having a no-bullshit mentality.

Glenn Martens

Didn’t all of that hormone-pumped chaos make Martens nervous? “I have to admit, I was like, it’s crazy because even though there was so much free alcohol, I expected it to become a really trashy fest,” says Martens. “I would’ve imagined myself, at 21, going to the runway with gin and tonic; I’d be trashed two hours later. But people really came for the show.” And bureaucracy be damned: Martens and his team coordinated with the city of Milan to keep the bus schedule going, ensuring that people could get home safely late at night. “It's always different challenges, that’s how we keep them young,” says Martens. “It’s nice to shake up the city a bit.”

Martens is a for-the-people man. A public relations rep told me that at the rave, Martens was “talking to all of the kids,” everyone and anyone. Mind you, 1,000 of those 7,000 tickets to Diesel were reserved for fashion students in Milan. Stylist Chris Horan, who has put Hari Nef in Y/Project and Charli XCX in Diesel, notes, “I just email him direct and he’s so quick.” Most recently, Horan put his client Shania Twain in a custom wax-coated red denim jumpsuit and jacket with chaps that were deliciously bedazzled to accept the Music Icon Award at the 2022 People’s Choice Awards. “[Martens] doesn’t have the scary fashion demeanor that I feel like some of the creative directors have,” Horan adds. 

Diesel SS24 runway show., Partygoers at NTS and Diesel’s rave in Rome., NTS x Diesel Tracks Tokyo party.
Courtesy of Diesel, Visioni Parallele, Courtesy of Diesel

Martens is a man obsessed with how the most seemingly minute details can alter someone’s behavior or physicality, and it trickles onto his runways. “I think one of the worst things that has happened to my creative life is when Paris cut down on eating outside. Paris used to always have meals on the terraces, and I would love to just spend my evening smoking cigarettes, watching people passing by on the streets,” says Martens. “Now I can’t because it’s too fucking cold.” Small things matter; sitting outside in Paris is for creativity as the lift of a heel is to the mien of its wearer. Martens gives an example of how his sneaker changes the way he stands, as opposed to how his leather Church’s straighten his posture: “It’s like how clothes can really change a perception of a human and how you are and what you do,” he says. “Your mentality can change and adapt towards what you’re wearing,” 

Even in the depths of Y/Project, the most outrageous pieces have a street-sensibility realness to them: a pair of leather pants that have licked-out notches on the side; a suit that is actually an elegantly tailored boiler suit; the candy-hued Melissa collaboration of jelly Cinderella pumps that every fashion girl in New York wriggled their feet into. “The essence of his work is really universal, and it’s really almost humble. It’s not esoteric or overly conceptual. It’s not so serious,” says Vogue Runway fashion writer José Criales-Unzueta. “I think you really see it with Diesel specifically. You can tell he’s just having a really good time.” Steff Yotka, head of digital content at SSENSE, agrees. “His trompe l’oeil technique is pretty much unparalleled on the runways right now — but also available to buy at a pretty excellent price point,” says Yotka. “Ditto all the jeans and fabric manipulations — smartly done and fun and easy to wear.” 

That’s the thing with Martens: He’s always had his good time, but he has the technical design brain to back it up. His name first became well-known in the late 2010s, as fashion became obsessed with Y2K and for-Instagram gimmicks. I met Martens around that time, which was just after he created the psychotically rippling UGG boots for fall 2018 — a shearling Jabba the Hutt that eventually ate up the thighs of Rihanna, as I think I put it another piece ago. The UGG was a moment for Martens that reflected his brain and his handle on the social trends — Y2K, comebacks — but fully warped the zeitgeist into his own. He promoted the sheepskin anaconda-like boots in a hallucinogenic campaign inspired by the Renaissance artists. The models-slash-Greek-gods kissed and embraced in their tiered UGGs in the foreground of paintings by Alexandre Cabanel and François Boucher. Talk about incredible, very smart Twitter fodder. 

[Martens] doesn’t have the scary fashion demeanor that I feel like some of the creative directors have,

Chris Horan, Stylist

Martens resonates with the fun of Diesel, but he’s also managed to revive his own version of that fun. After all, those ads in the early ’00s were really good; high-octane commentary on how the establishment was failing the world. It translated: Diesel made a mark in marketing as well as in our closets with hip-hugging, skin-tight jeans and itty-bitty cropped jackets fit for everything from university to the clubs. “Diesel was the shit in Belgium,” says Martens. The designer first remembers being transfixed by a Diesel campaign of two male sailors kissing in 1995, shot by David LaChapelle. He then used his Christmas money to buy one of their black T-shirts. “I think Diesel is the very first brand that I consciously bought,” says Martens, adding, “I was like, ‘You have to have Diesel because Diesel is connected to being cool and successful and wild.’” Then came the quality of the brand’s denim, which is what truly reeled Martens in. At 14, he saved up his dishwashing money while illegally working at a bar to buy a pair of denim jeans. “I bought beautiful blue denim [jeans] with a brown coating,” says Martens. “And then the more you were wearing the pants, the coating was disappearing and it came out. I looked forward to that.” 

Those opulent techniques are everywhere in Martens-branded Diesel designs: Cuissardes pants with knee pad seams that replicate armor. Denim that looks peeled and shredded, like it’s been saved from a fire — artfully! This strain of grandeur can be traced back to Martens’ upbringing in Bruges, a historical 12th-century city with looming Gothic cathedrals. He considers his father a “history freak” who would drag him to castles and laid the fantasy groundwork for his explosive imagination. “We were obviously being raised within the world of castles and legends and historic people, but he would really be a very good father in bringing those historic things to us. He would actually really manage to tell the story of the king or the queen or whatever situation happened there in a fairytale way. It’s really like storytelling. I got really obsessed, thanks to him.” 

At a young age, the designer began to draw royal historical figures from his imagination. “What really made Cleopatra or King Arthur is what they were wearing, their makeup, their accessories like the jewels, their swords,” says Martens. “That’s really where I was like, ‘Okay, you can become Caesar by wearing an olive branch on your head.’ And Caesar has an olive branch on his head. It’s really like the cliché of clothes making the man or the woman. I think that’s how fashion became something more prominent in my childhood without really being fashion, more like clothes.” 

The glorious Martens effect is in full swing at the SoHo Diesel store on the weekday night I visit. The sales kids are really cute dressed up in their tattered Diesel jeans inching off their hips. A hoard of Europeans are trying on light-wash, slim-fitting jeans. A sprinter van parks outside and a rapper steps out and struts in with his posse. Everyone is here for the denim. The denim is shredded, layered, painted, scratched, and peeled. Or it is basic in classic washes. “It’s the lowest common denominator of a wardrobe, and those are the things that he makes special. Those are the things that he transforms with his cerebral approach or his more artistic or intellectual approach, which I think comes from pattern-making and from his obsession with material,” says Criales-Unzueta about Martens’ take on denim. “I think for me, that’s what makes him stand out, because the root, the base of all of his work is super humble and it’s super democratic. It doesn’t feel unapproachable.” 

A leather jacket with its three-dimensional Diesel logo on the chest catches my eye. I’d wear it with a little bit of cheek showing beneath a baby miniskirt, but I know the tall German dad at the checkout will wear it in earnest. Diesel, now Martensified, from me to the Euro dad to the swaggy rapper, feels alive in all of its universes

The fashion kids who can see Martens’ lavish hand in the brand are excited. Angelina Pietrafesa, 22, who is getting her master’s degree in international marketing, in London, has been a longtime Martens fan since he was at Y/Project. She sends me an Instagram of herself twirling in a Y/Project long denim skirt with cut-outs and then another post of herself posing on a sun-drenched balcony in an electric blue mohair dress with a tie-dye slip from Diesel. “I saw [Martens] moved on to Diesel and I never really considered that brand, just associated [it] with denim and Y2K aesthetic,” says Pietrafesa. “But he incorporated his innovative designs that he does at Y/Project into the basics at Diesel to make them more current, and he totally revived the brand.” 

Martens notes in every interview that Y/Project is where the construction shines and Diesel is about the material, but there is an incredible vice-versa energy that vibrates in both brands. He elevates the banal — UGGs, denim! — into something so fabulously regal and adds down-to-earthness to the most wildly constructed pieces. To really show the 360 degrees of process, Martens is opening his next show for Diesel to everyone, everywhere. Even the creation of the clothes will have been filmed in a voyeuristic Big Brother way before the show has started — typically a no-no for big media fashion publications that are soldered to the idea of exclusivity and being first. “We don’t really care if they can see the clothes. We don’t give a shit,” says Martens. “I think it is fun because who sees the backstage of a show or the preparation of a luxury brand?” The effect will be carried off on gargantuan screens constructed at a venue, and in collaboration with Zoom, Martens and team will be able to see and be seen by people all over the world as they virtually watch the show. It’s inclusion-first: The attendees can watch the viewers, and the viewers can see the show. “Somebody in China is watching the film… and he’s in the backdrop,” says Martens. “So all the cameras are going to be on and you’re going to be hearing people saying, ‘This looks like shit.’” 

It’s seductive, the way Martens draws people into his world and then offers them a mood, a vibe, and ultimately a lifestyle. There’s sexy messaging for serious topics. He notes that in the last Diesel show they passed out condoms in response to the rising rates of HIV in Italy. “I think that being a fun, cool, sexy brand, talking about condoms is kind of my responsibility,” he says. He also explains this quite elegantly with his DIESELVES, which takes Diesel’s unsold stock and gives it to a brand, who creates new pieces with the materials. The latest collaboration was with their competitor Lee, and everything goes to the United Nations Refugee Agency. “You cannot only force people into buying organic cotton,” says Martens. “We all have responsibilities to slowly change the global mindsets of the world because, of course, otherwise we’re going to just burn it.” And thankfully the designs are also good: Jeans, sliced in light washes and dark washes, that are so tight you have to peel them off. And a nice kicky little flare. Martens isn’t trying to beat anyone over the head with buying into goodness; he’s creating a product that speaks for itself with a slick message. 

So, how does he get it all done? The 1,000 things at once? “Cigarettes mainly, to be honest,” he says, “and a little workout.” 

More blush. 

It’s time for Martens’ close-up. 

We Recommend
  • Mules! Yep, Just More Mules
    • Style
  • Doctor's Orders: Sandals to Slide Back Into the 90s With
    • Style
    • sponsored
  • Animal Print Is A Neutral
    • Style
  • For Summer, Clarks Is Returning to Its Rave Days
    • Sneakers
  • Listen Up: Central Saint Martins' Class of 2024 Has Lots To Say
    • Style
  • Dr. Martens Gets The Rick Owens Treatment (Again)
    • Footwear
What To Read Next
  • Where Did All the Fun Beauty Packaging Go?
    • Beauty
  • Saucony's Mesh-Heavy Dad Shoe Is Aging Gloriously
    • Sneakers
  • Are Portable Speakers the New Luxury Bags?
    • Style
  • These ASICS Aren’t Just Weatherproof, They're Made for Monsoons
    • Sneakers
  • Workwear Skate Shoes: Carhartt & Converse Combine Perfectly
    • Sneakers
  • Wait, There's Still Another YEEZY Restock?
    • Sneakers