This industry is not known for being the best. According to popular belief, the road to success is paved with pain, jealousy, competition, and, at last, loneliness. People like Glenn Martens are living proof that popular belief is unsurprisingly wrong, and that success can be achieved by working hard, being curious, and enjoying what life has to offer. I haven’t heard or read anyone saying anything negative about him; on the contrary, it seems like he is one of those few personalities that everyone collectively just likes and furthermore respects and admires. Working almost non-stop for more than a decade, being responsible for some of the most iconic looks and pieces of the last years without mentioning the omnipresent level Diesel has reached ever since his arrival, and seemingly turning to gold every brand he associates with, all of this while keeping a smile on his face and saying yes to [almost] everything. One could say he mastered the art of successful living.
Interview tak­en from METAL Magazine issue 48. Adapted for the online version. Order your copy here.
To say he’s probably one of the busiest humans in the industry is definitely not an understatement, and having the chance to talk to him in the midst of his chaotic agenda is an opportunity impossible to miss, even if it meant suffering through two flights and more than six hours in the air, delays, almost missing the plane, all just to make it to my workspace [from Tbilisi fashion week] for the agreed time. You reading this interview means I made it; I got really lucky with time. Our talk with who is possibly one of the biggest fashion icons, now massively known as Diesel’s creative director, started, and we found Glenn seemingly relaxed smoking a cigarette in a backyard at first glance but who was actually just taking a small break from an apparently very asphyxiating photoshoot of the campaign for the brand’s new fragrance.
I’m not overexaggerating when I say he’s one of the biggest fashion icons of this generation; I’m quite sure Glenn Martens is a name that resonates in every fashion school classroom all around the world and at every fashion people brunch table where the main discussion topic is what’s hot right now. Being part of this new group of modern idols who have taken the throne from the old legends when it comes to fans, followers and influence, Glenn is a figure that understands what fashion wants and needs. Whether it’s at Y/Project, where he’s been channelling the remarkable technical knowledge he possesses and is continuously seeking, without too much preoccupation with pleasing the industry or creating collaborations like the haute couture collection he produced under Jean Paul Gaultier’s name, he’s been lighting up a flame of hope for fashion creators and enthusiasts for years.
This flame became a fire when he accepted the challenge of becoming the head of Diesel, a brand with a long and important heritage that was waiting for its personal saviour who would put it on the front lines of the race. What has happened with Diesel ever since Glenn Martin’s arrival has material to be a huge case study, in a academic way, evaluating the social and economic implications of it, the impact it has had on the industry and the consumer, and how it’s a perfect textbook case of rebranding success. I’m of course not doing this study; but what I can confidently say without much research or data backing me up – just logging on to Instagram a couple of times is enough evidence – is the undoubted [as kids say nowadays, me also being said kids] chokehold Diesel has on every single person with an internet presence and a slight taste in fashion.
This is one of those not-so-common cases of the right things going viral. The belt-like mini skirts, the oval D logo tops, and the 1DR bag can be seen at least five times a day on your average scrolling time, but it never gets boring or tiring. Glenn found the way to create the perfect balance between highly likeable, wearable, and exciting garments and good design. Celebrating and without striving far away from the brand’s core aesthetic, where sensuality and sexuality can be lived in a free, fun and personal way while still making use of the signature fabric, denim, on the majority of the looks, the brand is living up to its slogan more than ever.
“For successful living” was a source of inspiration and confidence for a young Glenn when he passed in front of Diesel’s store back in his hometown of Bruges, and what he is currently doing with the brand is making sure these three words can still be as important as they were to him for the little and young Glenn that are currently in the making.
Glenn, it’s a pleasure talking to you. What were you up to before this call?
I’m actually shooting our new perfume campaign in London!
Oh, really?
Inside a massive hangar, without any light or air, so I’m very happy you took me out of there; I’m going to have a cigarette finally.
Please, enjoy. I’m also very happy to do this interview; I actually prepared it a while ago, and while I was doing it, you were in Thailand, so I wanted to start this interview by asking you how the trip went. How are those chilling days after all the fashion months chaos you go through?
Ah, yeah, I have a feeling my fashion month is really my fashion year, and I have small little breaks like Thailand, which are very needed to get a bit out of the rollercoaster. I try to always go on a holiday in February or March for at least one week, because having two brands, like Diesel and Y/Project, means a lot of connections and a lot of people, and it’s a seven-day job, to be honest, and I think my mental space needs a bit of a break. Thailand was fantastic. Have you been to Thailand?
No, I’ve never been, but I really want to! I saw your pictures, and they looked so dreamy that I thought, “Wow, I really need to go.”
Well, the islands are, of course, what they are; it’s like there’s nothing to do, and they’re good for just enjoying the motorcycle, the great food, and the beach. But Bangkok is the most lively, fun, and open-minded city; it’s really great, and I really enjoyed it. It’s a discovery for me too.
That’s what I wanted to ask you; you uploaded some pictures of yourself lying on the beach with a face mask, a cigarette, and a glass of wine, an apparently perfect moment of relaxation. Are you able to completely empty your head of job-related thoughts, or are you always on guard, even if you’re not actively trying to or even if you don’t realise you are?
Well, I mean, in this situation, because I take holidays myself, the company obviously is not taking holidays. Every hour, I have a little WhatsApp to reply to. But I’m managing much better than three years ago to not take it too personally. They know I’m on holiday, and they know I’m not going to reply straight away. I will reply during the daytime; maybe it’s really important, but I have to rest; I think it’s just healthy.
This edition of METAL Magazine is all about joy. The picture I just described in the previous question could actually be a perfectly accurate graphic representation of joy for many. Is it for you? Are you the happiest in these kinds of moments?
I have to admit I’m a very, very, very blessed person because I think I really manage to have fun in whatever I do. Being the co-director of brands like Diesel, of course, comes with a lot of responsibility that can be very heavy because every decision you make has triggered thousands of people, and this can give you some sleepless nights just because of this awareness. But on the other hand, my teams are amazing, and the brand is just fun. The great thing about a brand like Diesel, for example, is that it’s a brand with an edge; it’s fun and joy. It’s about a successful life; it’s about no bullshit; it’s about having fun; it’s about enjoying life to the fullest. And I think the brand values, are also reflecting the company values. So I’m really blessed, to be honest. It’s just a lot of work, of course, but for example, I’m in London shooting Diesel, but then we have a rave in Rome in two weeks. Everything is always connected to this moment of life, of really living life to the fullest. So when you’re at the head of this, you kind of embody it also. But it’s really fun. I am a person who is also very diverse in my way of living and being. The typology of joy for me is also very diverse. I can enjoy being a creative director on a brand and doing raves, but I also need to have my moments to go hiking. Yesterday was my day off, and I went to see Hampton Court, which is the castle of Henry VIII, because I love history. So I do have this kind of diverse way of enjoying my private life, and I think that’s something that’s very needed for me. If I do too much in one direction, I also get a bit blank.
Working on two [and even three at one point] brands at the same time and getting successful results from all of them is something not many can do. You’ve mentioned how each brand is such a different universe that you don’t find them overlapping, but I do wonder how you distribute yourself between them, not on a physical or location-wise aspect but more in a mental sense. Is there a wall in your brain that separates your Diesel side from your Y/Project side, or is there more of a bridge between them?
I think the starting point is to be able to deal with everything I do. You have to have my personality disorder. I don’t have a disorder; to be honest, I’m joking, but I’m a person who is very easily bored, so I need a lot of inputs. I’m very curious, so I think that’s what helps me a lot.
Being able to stay focused and not be exhausted by all the independent things that come to me has been my priority. I can be a bit overactive. But then, what I do is also quite structured, of course. I can’t be too chaotic either, and you cannot be chaotic in any situation I’m in. I really manage to separate my different companies. Meaning that, when I work at Y/Project, I only have Y/Project people there and only in Paris; when I work at Diesel, it’s only Diesel people in Italy or wherever, so the teams are very separate. This makes it much easier for me to say that the moment I step into a certain company, I become that company, and I’m not taking something from the other one. So that really helps me differentiate every single product I’m making. Trying to not have familiar faces in the different departments. And then for the rest, of course, I have a lot of help as well. I also have an amazing assistant, Paola, who takes care of all my agendas because this is something I can’t do any more. There’s no time for organisation. There’s not even time to go to the dentist. I haven’t been to the dentist in three years. And I really would like to go [laughs].
[Laughs] Yeah, sometimes we forget our priorities.
I’m like, when the fuck am I going to the dentist? I have no issues, but I just don’t know when to go to the dentist.
Teeth can wait when you have something more important to do, like managing two of the biggest brands in the world.
Going more in depth on the brand, the big red coat with torn Diesel-print tags and the sun-faded garments from Spring/Summer 2023; the devoré manipulations and the mixing with other fabrics such as leather and knit from Fall/Winter 2023 – the artisanal value you introduce each season is remarkable, and such crafted work usually means lots of time spent developing them. What is your process with these particular parts of the collections? Have you been working on them for a long time, and then you decide when to use them? Or do you develop them specifically for each collection?
It’s very Diesel, though. Because the thing is, I think what a creative director should do when he comes to a company is understand the founding values of the brand and the reason why the brand became big. Of course, at Diesel, it was very clear that there are many reasons the brand is big and has recently turned forty-five years old; one of the main ones is that it is obviously an active brand. So the garments are real, simple garments, but they are the kings of treatment, and that’s something that was given to me when I arrived. The first distressed, industrialised denim is Diesel denim. There’s a big story about that. I think in the 70s or 80s, Renzo Rosso, the founder, developed the first distressed and broken denim, produced it, and put it out on the market, and everyone was screaming and saying, “Your denims are broken!” and he was like, no, I bought them like this. And of course, now we think of the brand as broken denim.
He was ahead of his time.
Exactly, It’s core to Diesel to do all these kinds of manipulations now. And that is, of course, what I do best. What I really love to do as a designer is engage in that and then try to find my creative way of exploring it. So, whenever we do runways, we have a big part of the runway that is ready-to-wear. But we also decided to do runway shows during fashion week because we think that even though we’re not a luxury brand, we can be very creative. Just because it’s not a luxury doesn’t mean you can’t do creative things. So, we have this whole artisanal department, which is in charge of, for example, this red coat that we’re talking about. And they’re always based on fabric manipulation, but all of them are based on upcycling. My team is not allowed to make any new fabric, and I think that’s kind of a fun fact. So, you work with low-quality everyday materials but creatively reinterpret them to make something very exclusive out of them. And I believe it is something we strive for.
As you mention, you’ve been basically translating the already-existent and well-defined philosophy of the brand using your language and adapting it to the present, which of course includes the inescapable media’s viral moment-seeking factor. You’re very intelligent in handling this aspect, and the shows always end up being conversation topics, even outside the fashion circle. Does it ever bother you that a giant mountain of condoms might gather more attention from the general public than the impressive application of the devoré technique on denim, for example?
Yeah, I think you make a very good point there. The thing is that, for me as a designer, I don’t need the sets to hide the lack of creativity, that’s for sure [laughs]. But in my work, for example, at Y, there are no sets at all because the clothes are extremely complicated and the looks are very, very integral and work through and are very challenging. So I don’t do sets at all because there’s no point; why would we need the sets? At Diesel, I don’t need a set either because the clothes that you see in every collection, even if they’re more simple to understand than Y/Project because it has some easier-access silhouettes, are very integral and very, very well-thought-out and they’re also quite different from the industry. But why do we do sets? The difference is that, since my arrival, we have claimed that we are an alternative to the fashion industry. Obviously, as I said earlier, once you do Fashion Week Milan, you do have to pay according to certain codes, don’t you?
Oh, for sure you do.
You have to, of course. So, I decided to actually do sets, which are much more engaging for a lifestyle brand and the democracy of the people. So that’s why, for example, on the last runway, there were like billions of condoms, but all those condoms were given out to stores worldwide, so everybody could go and get free condoms. The season before, we opened up to all the people that wanted to come – five thousand people. And then we also gave them the show of being present to witness the biggest blow-up doll in the Guinness World Records. So it’s more like giving something back. I think what I don’t want to do with you is build up a set right now that is just there to elevate the brand. I want to do a set where I can give back to the people who are coming because, after all, we are a democratic brand. The runway is there, but the pre-collection is coming out next week. The price point is the opposite of any kind of other pre-collection that you find in the industry; it’s your fair price, which is of course still expensive, but it’s not something compared to luxury brands. So, I think that’s really why we have to always be aware that this is playing on different levels of society and fashion.
The two main staples of Diesel are the democratic value you mention and those three words that represent the brand’s motto, which raise a very interesting question: since life has changed so much since this slogan was created, what can be considered a successful life in this generation?
For me, it’s kind of feeling happy in every single situation, respecting the situation, and being curious about the situation. I think we all have the privilege in 2023 of travelling for not even that much money, thanks to low-cost airlines and trains. We can engage at different levels of society; we can really be global. And I think that’s something that didn’t happen with our parents; they were much more stuck in a certain bubble. And I think for me to be successful, you have to really become a global person, respect others, and engage with others. And love people who are different than you, enjoying every single situation without being scared. For example, camping is great, fancy hotels are great, raving is great, and opera is great. I don’t know. I think that’s for me; successful living is to feel very comfortable and part of the world and everything, with respect, of course.
And you think you live like that, right?
I’m trying to live like that. But I think I’m quite successful. Yeah [laughs].
I was wondering if success is inherently linked to happiness. Does it make sense to be one without being the other?
I think happiness is the main goal of success. I think happiness is the only thing that leads to happiness [laughs]. But that’s very... I don’t know. Maybe I’m a bit idealistic.
No, if a designer is not idealistic, then who? For Spring/Summer 2023, this slogan took a turn from successful living to sucsexful living, highlighting the free and liberating spirit the brand has always advocated for. I wanted to know your approach to sensuality and also sexuality for the brand. How do you want to express these two concepts through your creations and your garments?
Sucsexful living was definitely linked to Durex, of course, and the collaboration with Durex. But I do think that being sex-positive is a very good reflection of successful living. Because, of course, being sex positive – I mean, not for everybody, but I think for a majority of people, it means enjoying and having fun and, yeah, having a great, great time and being happy. So somewhere there are links to the actual brand, which is about being happy and having fun. That is why, for example, we have ads for every single runway and invitations that are linked to something a bit more kinky, like sex toys as an invitation or edible underwear. I just think it’s quite a globally accepted mentality that sex is fun, and okay, it should be fun.
Yeah, you’re normalising it in some way. So I’m going a bit back to your childhood, to your first years. You’ve mentioned how Diesel and its advertisements had a strong impact on your way of perceiving life when you were younger in Bruges, your hometown. It was a window into a world you were not familiar with that somehow felt like an answer to many doubts you had. How would young Glenn feel if he saw your work on the brand today?
I’m really reflecting on it. Diesel is a brand that has existed for more than forty years. I think what happened is that it was going through a classic midlife crisis, meaning that I don’t think everybody working at Diesel was aware of the gold mine they were sitting on and of all the beauty that they had at hand. They were trying to reinvent it and do something else with it. And I think sometimes that’s not really the answer. Sometimes the answer is really just to celebrate what your fundamental values are and who you are. And that’s the basic job that I’ve done at Diesel. I think I celebrated all these great things that I fell in love with in the 1990s and 2000s. Of course, I celebrated it with a reflection on 2022, 23, and 24. It’s, of course, a different era. But I went back to those values of fun, straightforwardness, and enjoying life. And I think that’s why, for example, the younger generation of today is really loving Diesel, because I think even though they weren’t even born when Diesel was made or had any idea about the brand, they really enjoy it because it is super honest and straightforward. And I think it’s a very eclectic brand, too. It’s really engaging with all the diversity, the fun, and all the different individuals. It’s basically, I think, what people needed, so I’m very happy. It’s also maybe what I needed; I also like to have a brand like this. So, that’s what I’ve been doing. I think that’s why it works really well.
Yeah, you’re very connected with the youth, and you’ve mentioned it a lot, I find it very cool how, in your Spring/Summer 2023 Diesel show, you reserved sixteen hundred seats for fashion students. How important is it for brands to give young creators the opportunity to have access to events like this where they can be in contact with the fashion world outside the classroom?
I think every single brand should do what is core to their brand values, of course. So they do whatever they want to do. But I do think that in 2023, we have to be aware that with the rise of social media and everything happening on Twitch and Instagram, your message is being spread around so much faster and bigger than in the past and, of course, much more globally. Which means that it’s congruent with responsibility. A lot of people are watching and following you, and you cannot be just a brand thinking about aesthetics anymore. You now have a social impact. And I think it’s important because I have markets all over the world; some of them have a political system that is not at all as free-spirited as Spain, France, or whatever, and I know that my images and my messages are getting followed there. So, I need to be very consistent and bring a message of respect, peace, and awareness continuously. Potentially, it will speed up the process of global ethics based on respect and involvement. And it will encourage you to live your life the way you want to live it, as long as you don’t hurt anybody. So, I think that’s what brands – definitely big brands –should be aware of. It cannot be created just for the sake of your personal ego and personal aesthetics. It has a massive impact, and that’s also one reason why I joined this industry, because on top of that, it has this massive reach. But not only to privileged people from the luxury industry, which is only talking about luxury. We are really talking to every single person who has the essence of fun, reality, and life. And I think that’s really why I joined Diesel. Because I can talk to so many people. And I can make so many people feel.
I’ve read in many interviews that you are very positive and that you are a yes person; let me ask you, what do you say no to?
Very good question. What do I say no to? Yesterday, I said no to wine because I had been drinking the whole weekend. I need to have a day without drinking [laughs]. I’m quite excited to experiment with anything. As long as it’s within the borders of control and respect. What do I say no to? Not so many things. Unless it sounds very boring.
And what do you always say yes to?
With the exception of yesterday, normally I always say yes to having a drink [laughs], having a drink, and having dinner. But yesterday, I was in London with some friends of mine. So, I was with the same bunch of friends; we were out for two days. So yesterday we were doing touristy things. Cultural tourist things – that was the answer for yesterday. But, I say yes to everything.