Milan-It was 1978 when 23-year-old Renzo Rosso started his adventure in the world of jeans with his business partner Adriano Goldschmied - an Italian fashion designer who focused on denim. It was the decade of the oil and energy crises and diesel fuel was the alternative to gasoline.
Rosso loved the idea of being different - so changed the name of the company, from Moltex to Diesel. Seven years later in 1985, he acquired complete control of the company and since then it has seen unstoppable growth. In 2002 the first acquisition of Staff International (specialized in ready-to-wear production and distribution of Dsquared2, Just Cavalli) the iconoclastic slogan of the early days „Only The Brave“, OTB, became the international fashion group parent company of Maison Margiela, Marni, Viktor & Rolf and Jil Sander.
The 90s and 2000s saw the peak of Diesel's success. It was a different world with no internet and social media, fast fashion wasn't so popular and Diesel became synonymous with denim thanks to its fashionable twist. It quickly rose to reach the peaks of iconic American jeans labels, thanks to its irreverent and bold advertising campaigns. In the mid-2000s, the world started to change, the Internet and globalisation arrived, the needs (and taste) of consumers became muted. Diesel struggled and fell into obscurity; the company had missed the boat on digitisation.
But Renzo Rosso is not a quitter and in the middle of the pandemic, in October 2020, appointed Belgian designer Glenn Martens as its creative director. His sharp and underground vision could provide the perfect evolution for the brand today: He became famous with his brand Y/Project, founded by Yohan Serfaty in 2011 and led by him since 2013. The brand managed to be sexy without being vulgar, and its rough aesthetic and architectural constructions turned him into a new fashion star. We met in Milan in the OTB headquarters, where he has moved the style offices from their historic location of Breganze in the Venetia region, to discuss his new approach.
Diesel became popular in Germany around the 90s and 2000s. What do you want to bring back from that time and what are your memories of that era?
GLENN MARTENS: It was a worldwide thing, in Germany but also in Europe - those were the Diesel days, especially in Belgium, where I’m from. They were my teenage years and this was the very first brand I consciously wanted to own something from. That's why I was dishwashing in a bar to make some pocket money to buy the brown waxed denim from Diesel. I think it was one of the first things I ever bought. It was definitely the brand of the moment, wasn’t it?
I bought the „Only the Brave“ t-shirt and I still have it. What would you inject into today’s vision of the brand?
GLENN MARTENS: It might sound strange but I didn’t inject that much. Diesel has existed for 40 years and, like many brands, at a certain point, they forget the goldmine they are sitting on. Being an outsider, I was able to see all its beauty and fundamental values. What I did is to recall the Diesel world of the past, from utility wear to the pop MTV times, and to think how it should be now. The archive of the brand is incredible, it’s like a museum because every single item produced has been kept. A few from the past campaigns are a bit sexist today though. Then I'll take care of the fundamental values based on having fun and owning your life to the fullest: the claim „For Successful Living“ is very straightforward.
In the 90s Diesel already had quite a big impact on advertisement because they were always talking about certain taboos, minorities, or social issues and using them in a very fun and controversial way with their advertising campaigns which, in the end, helped a lot of people to normalise and understand things in a better way. This is something I tried to bring back because this way of communicating is in the DNA of the brand and a global label has the responsibility to speed up the process of awareness worldwide. That’s one of the big focuses and of course, it’s all about the celebration of identity, fun and jokes, irony, sexiness, and not taking yourself too seriously. It’s all there. Last but not least, social and sustainability and environmental causes are main topics as well.
So you decided to make Diesel cool again ...
GLENN MARTENS: I think it’s cool, no? I’m very blessed. I have only been here for a year and a half, my products have actually only been in stores since December and it's been a massive success, I didn’t expect it to blow up so fast. I think it’s because of its founding values that the brand is so relevant. People want to have fun, want to enjoy life, and own it. They want to be cheeky and we reflect this feeling.
What happened to the controversial logo with the Mohican head?
GLENN MARTENS: The very first thing I did when I arrived was to cancel it. It was basically after one week. To be honest, it’s not a Mohican but a punk. Renzo Rosso wanted to be the outsider, the alternative to luxury, and the punk culture from London very much reflected this idea. But then it was wrongly linked to the Mohicans. I could have done two things: reclaimed the original punk reference or cut it. I didn’t want to start this battle as the quick society we are living in could have taken it wrong. Of course, I wanted to keep it because it’s a strong logo, but we have so many other beautiful stories to tell.
Do you plan to work with celebrities?
GLENN MARTENS: A little bit. I’ve personally never done it with my more alternative underground brand Y/Project. But Diesel is different and so are the type of people who follow it, which is great. This lets us use different ways of communication. Celebrities and talents have something to do and say, we love to engage with them. For example, we worked with Toni Braxton: she was such an amazing legend and conquered the R&B world all by herself as a black woman 20-30 years ago.
How would you like to position Diesel in the market?
GLENN MARTENS: Well, it’s supposed to be an alternative to luxury, but we still want to keep a broad appeal thanks to our collection. In the show, we had a capsule of around 10 artisanal pieces, all made of upcycled materials and made in Italy. Of course, these are very expensive and close to luxury, but we also have many other products. It's a wide range and retailers buy according to their shops.
You were talking about past communication which used to be very daring and you said you’d like to bring this vibe back. How?
GLENN MARTENS: Obviously it’s a very different situation from the 90s, for the sole reason that we now have social media and even if we are not talking to every single person, we can reach a global audience. This makes everything much more powerful, yet also sensitive. For example, we launched the capsule for Pride Month with very simple and intimate pictures of the LGBTQIA+ community in Berlin. Posting and communicating that on our platforms was like screaming out loud as it reached countries where being queer is not legal. The same happened with Ella Snyder, the first new face of Diesel and a transgender woman, when the campaign hit countries where being transgender is not allowed.
Talking about Berlin, what’s your relationship with Berlin?
GLENN MARTENS: I love Berlin. I hadn't come back in five years because of Covid-19, I was just there for the weekend to see my friends. I felt I was becoming a grown-up person because I went there with the idea of just seeing them and having nice dinners, but I ended up at Berghain for 15 hours. I didn’t even think of going, but then… Dancing for such a long time is really therapeutic, you calm down and it was quite inspirational. I also like the free vibe of the city; freedom is really instilled in it. No judgments, you can be who you want to be as long as you respect others. It’s very specific and it’s something you don't see everywhere.
What are your next plans?
GLENN MARTENS: There is still a lot to do. We are starting now to think about store design, for example. Then we'll have a fashion show in Tokyo: it may sound unusual but in Japan, denim is something that adults are more passionate about than kids. We need to reverse the trend. Last but not least, we are planning the September show (for Milan Fashion Week, Editor's note), which I cannot say anything about except that it will be very impactful.