The first great designer of 2022

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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 lined with giant denim-covered inflatable bombs and fat monkeys, was full. Some participants seemed to have come directly from the airport. Business of Fashion critic Tim Blanks 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 in the front row. Renzo Rosso, magnate, owner of Only the Brave, one of the few Italian conglomerates, presided, a giant smile on his face.

All there to see the new Diesel collection.

Wait…Diesel? The brand of rock’n’roll jeans?

Diesel, the former rock ‘n’ roll jeans brand now designed by Glenn Martens.

It was the third stop in a trifecta of Mr. Martens shows since the start of the year that together have catapulted him from niche conceptualist, beloved by industry insiders, fashion buffs and students from art schools, to the status of the first great creator of 2022.

On January 19, there was a joint men’s and women’s show for Y/Project, the cult French brand he took over in 2013, featuring fishnet tank tops, skirts and pants screen-printed with torsos and groins. seemingly randomly matched men and women, in a not-so-random commentary on the larger conversation around gender and identity.

The following week, her very first couture collection as Jean Paul Gaultier’s guest designer, with ball gowns so voluminous they looked like foaming seas and mermaid dresses made from strips of shredded silk ribbon, like an endless corset.

Then, three weeks later, Diesel, with its 1,000 forms of denim: tufted, frayed, glued, chromed, recycled, reinvented.

Mr. Martens isn’t the first designer to dabble in multiple brands simultaneously (currently Jonathan Anderson with JW Anderson and Loewe and Raf Simons with his own label and Prada are among those duplicating them), but he may be to be the first to embrace these seemingly disparate houses of equal fame.

Watching the Diesel show “brought me to tears,” Mr Rosso said afterwards. “His treatment of denim is something we’ve never seen before.”

He has, said Mr Tonchi, “afraid of nothing”.

When Mr. Martens is named president of the fashion jury for the 37th edition of the Hyères International Fashion and Photography Festival, the Cannes Festival of Fashion Awards, his metamorphosis from genius crackpot to industry Olympian seems complete. But now that everyone is finally watching, what does he do next?

“We never preached that we were going to make great silhouettes,” Mr. Martens, 38, said a few weeks before the Diesel show. “A lot of what we do is about pushing boundaries, and a lot of people in the past were like, ‘Why? Paris.

He was wearing his usual uniform: an old black jumper he had bought in a store in London, black jeans and a faded baseball cap. He had two chains around his neck, an earring in his ear and two rings on his fingers, and he was half shaven.

Y/Project, he said, “has been around for so many years doing this experimental design and quirky stuff and nobody cared. It was too weird, it was too much. They had a stroke after the third look. Even the staff, he said, often had “a try-on moment where we look at our design and think, ‘Are we seriously going to do this? “”

You get the sense that when this question is asked, it’s exactly when Mr. Martens thinks he’s on the right track.

Launched in 2010 by designer Yohan Serfaty, Y/Project was initially known for its dark and moody menswear. When Mr Serfaty died just three years after the brand was introduced, his business partner, Gilles Elalouf, asked the Chambre Syndicale, France’s fashion governing body, who she would recommend to take over.

“I was the cheapest,” Mr. Martens said.

He was also educated at the fashion academy in Antwerp, where after a difficult start – “I was always on the verge of failing”, he said – he graduated on the first of his class, landing a job with Mr. Gaultier before finally creating his own. label.

“I was a very bad assistant,” Mr Martens said. “I have no patience. I don’t want to listen to people. I always think I can do something better or different.

When Y/Project came into being, he closed his label, launched the women’s line, and ran it as a thought experiment. Each season begins with the design team sitting around a table tossing around ideas and sketches of how they can disrupt the way clothes are made. How they can play with multiple lapels on one garment to make it look like multiple different jackets in one; cut the jeans off at the top of the thigh, then tie them up to look like suspender belts or diapers; use yarn to turn hems and cuffs into endless fungible sculptures.

The results are smart and unlike anything else, and they’re often funny — the kind of clothes that cause double takes and send High Fashion Twitter into a dizzy state. But Y/Project is also the kind of brand whose influence within fashion (and on other designers) far exceeds its external sales.

In 2020, for example, when both Rihanna and Celine Dion appeared in the cut-out pants, Y/Project still had earnings somewhere in the single- and double-digit millions. All of which might normally make him an unexpected candidate for a successful brand like Diesel, which led its parent company, OTB, to release over $1 billion in sales in 2021.

Nevertheless, Mr. Rosso, who had met Mr. Martens when Y/Project won Andam, France’s top fashion award, in 2017 (Mr. Rosso was a member of the jury) and later worked with him on a Diesel capsule, wasn’t the only big-brand mogul who saw potential in her rare combination of irreverent attitude and couture spirit.

Mr Martens said he was in talks at various times to work with Donatella Versace at Versace (this was during his very public secret search for an heir, which ended with no results when the brand was sold to Capri Holdings, which owns Michael Kors) and Kenzo. He also said he didn’t agree with Diesel’s work until Mr. Rosso expanded it to include the whole creative side: clothing, licensing, marketing and store design.

In Mr. Martens’ mind, Diesel serves a different purpose than Y/Project. “Diesel is much more social,” he said. “It’s the only way for me to talk to so many people.” Whether or not people buy the clothes, they follow you, he says, and pay attention to you. For him, the decision to sign was personal.

“My mother, who is a nurse, doesn’t get Y/Project at all,” Martens said. She raised him and his older brother as a single parent in Bruges, Belgium, working weekends as a cleaner. His parents, who helped care for the boys, were both from military families and were, he said, “very strict”. Her dad wasn’t much in the picture, though. his His father was a sculptor who worked with mirrors and made stained glass, which is where Mr Martens thinks he may have had an interest in design.

His mother “thinks I’m crazy,” he continued. “When she sees Y/Project clothes, she’s like, ‘Who’s going to wear that?’ My older brother, who is a firefighter, doesn’t understand Y/Project, but my brother buys Diesel.

Additionally, Mr Martens said he remembered Diesel adverts from his childhood, particularly the campaign involving two men kissing. “It was maybe the very first time I saw something like this,” he said. “It helps people – definitely helped me.”

He sees the brand as a kind of fashion Trojan horse that can sow sustainability: environmental and social. (He has focused on responsible fashion since helping his former teacher Bruno Pieters launch Honest By in 2012, a brand known for publishing all sourcing information and price markups for every garment.) He created the Diesel Library, which includes only evergreen styles made with eco-friendly materials and treatments with QR codes on the label to explain sourcing, as well as a program for using leftover scraps factories as showcase installations. The waste is also recycled into new denim, known as “rehabilitation denim”.

And he said, “It’s kind of nice to make clothes that you think are good, that make people feel good and comfortable, and that make people feel like they’re going to be successful in life.”

Mr. Martens normally spends two days a week in Paris at Y/Project and three at Diesel in Italy. He said he didn’t find it difficult to balance the two, although when Gaultier’s guest concert was added to the schedule, things got a bit hectic. For the first two months of the year, he only had one weekend off. He has gone camping, which he does to relax rather than going to concerts or art exhibitions – although he also enjoys exploring historic palaces.

“I was very spartan – work, sleep, work, sleep,” he said. “Maybe a glass of red wine.” He calls himself a “leftover specialist”. He is currently single and has no pets, allowing him to devote more time to his work. So is the fact that the rest of the world has finally realized what it can do.

Y/Project’s sales have increased exponentially during the pandemic. “It’s finally our time,” he said. “Now people understand, so we can finally grow.”

But not too much. “At a certain point, if you start doing the whole pre-collections thing and so on, you start losing your message a bit,” he said. He turned around and went to close his door because, he said, his staff were laughing at him.

Still, he has high hopes that a new bag – the metallic bag, which can be crushed into all sorts of different shapes – will win the accessory jackpot. “Anybody can get good raises and have apartments and a happy life and go on vacation wherever they want,” he said. He has no interest in reviving his own brand and seeing his name above the door; Y/Project gives him all the freedom he needs, and Diesel all the scope. Although this sewing experience was quite satisfying.

“A lot of people thought of me as a very eccentric designer, and I was kind of marginalized because of that,” Martens said. “Which is good, I really didn’t care. But now, with these three platforms, I can prove to people that I also understand what the market wants and where to push and where not to push.

He kind of smirked. “I always felt like I could do it,” he said.

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