On a cold, snowy March day in Paris, the designer Glenn Martens announces that he’s thinking about going on vacation. He can’t decide, he says, whether to book a relaxing sojourn to the Galapagos Islands, Iceland or Scotland. But one thing’s for sure: after a whirlwind fashion month tour showcasing over-the-top gowns for Jean Paul Gaultier couture (the second designer, after Chitose Abe, to create a collection for the house since Gaultier retired), witty micro-minis for Diesel, and a new take on naked dresses for Y/Project—all in the span of four weeks, mind you—it’s safe to say he deserves a break. “Three shows in one month was a rollercoaster,” Martens tells me. “In those moments, you decide not to reflect on it because the moment you think too much, you just shit your pants.”
But 2022 marked a banner year for Martens, who was easily one of the most talked-about designers of the fall 2022 season. After his debut at JPG, the rather obscure designer rose out of a cult following and into the masses. Now, he’s become recognizable for his indelible ability to reach both high street and main street, crafting haute couture and ultra-wearable pieces with the same deft hand.
It’s rare for a designer to create work that is truly directional for two brands at the same time—even more rare, if not unheard of, to do so for three. And there’s no denying Martens has built up an identifiable aesthetic. Originally from Bruges, Belgium, the designer studied interior architecture before getting a fashion degree at the prestigious Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp. He then landed at Jean Paul Gaultier as a junior designer and worked at Y/Project, founded by Yohan Serfaty, before creating his own label in 2012, which would continue for three seasons. When Serfaty passed away in 2013, Martens took the helm of the brand and introduced womenswear, as well as an entire new lexicon of weird and wonderful staples like asymmetric jeans and artful heels that wrap all the way up to the thighs.
But the thing that ties all of Martens’s work together is, without a doubt, denim. He admits that it’s his favorite material to work with. “That the starting point,” of all his work, in fact. “How can we reinvent denim or what can we do with denim [that’s] unexpected?,” he adds. “How can we twist it? How can I conceptualize the way our denim is perceived?” For each collection, Martens tests out various denim fantasies, sculpting and shaping the material into experimental constructions before deciding on the final forms that appear on the runway. “I feel that denim is a very democratic material,” he says. “You can wear it with a high heel, you can go to a cocktail, you can go rave.”
Along with that humble fabric choice, Martens cites an equally democratic source of inspiration that fuels each of his projects: the metro. “I actually really love to take the metro for some strange reason,” he says. “I get a lot of inspiration from those moments because I really see people. It’s very interesting to see how people are reacting on the streets and how they actually are portraying themselves differently.”
Most hardcore Martens fans know him from his work at Y/Project, which has always been about a purposeful sort of kookiness that becomes unforgettable. Think: convertible denim jackets and jeans with extra slouchy fabric that snakes up the calves, pleated gowns that look like corrugated cardboard, or those infamously contentious thigh-high Uggs. “We often ask ourselves questions like, Are we literally gonna do this thing? Is this really gonna go on a runway? And then we just say, ‘Fuck it, let’s do it.’”
Looks from the Diesel fashion show at Milan Fashion Week, and Jean Paul Gaultier Couture during Paris Couture Week.
Martens feels his work for Y/Project particularly has been embraced as of late. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that fashion is shining an optimistic spotlight on a maximalist aesthetic—or maybe Y/Project’s core message, to embrace individualistic styling and oddities, is super timely. “I think a few years ago, people would be scared of it,” he says. “The clients or people watching wouldn’t understand it. Today, they’re celebrating it, they actually understand why we do it and they really engage with it. They think it’s funny and they accept it.” Challenging the idea of wearability and standing out are core tenets for the brand, even if a button-down shirt or trompe l’oeil naked dress appears to be an everyday garment. “Through social media, there’s a group aesthetic existing,” he says. “I try to reconnect with individuality a bit more.”
There’s been tons of talk about the pandemic giving people time to shape their personal style and explore expressiveness through clothing; that might be another reason why Y/Project feels so apropos right now. Martens agrees: “Right now, people are reflecting on who they are, what they are, why are they like this? They ask themselves a bit more questions. Five years ago, people hid behind the brand’s name—the logo and the identity of that logo. I feel there’s much more integrity now.”
Although the Y/Project look is certainly discernible, you can see flashes of Martens’s inventive designs at Diesel, too–though in a completely different context. “I think each one of them has a very different message to the world and to the markets,” Martens, who became the artistic director of the famed denim brand in 2020, says of working on two labels at the same time. “I think the most important thing is that you just stay coherent and you respect the founding values and the DNA of the brands and the message.”
So how exactly is Martens interpreting those messages? “Y/project is there to be experimental; Jean Paul Gaultier is there to create beauty of the eye—emotions and dreams—and Diesel is much more about the action and the psychology behind the garments: being active, having an ‘I don’t give a shit attitude,’ being sexy and nailing life.”
But Martens regards Gaultier particularly as a hero—so much so that the Belgian designer made a little tribute in his fall 2022 menswear collection to Gaultier, which will appear as part of the upcoming Jean Paul Gaultier ready-to-wear capsule. The homage came in the form of a trompe l’oeil naked print. “I thought the print was really interesting because it’s so iconic and also because it’s so conceptual,” he says. “It’s not just a pretty print,” and it definitely has the potential to stir some conversations. “When I launched the whole concept, there were so many people freaking out about it even before it was on the runway, because there was nudity and maybe certain markets would boycott it, all because of a pair of boobs. If I put a guy’s chest naked on the catwalk, nobody talks about it.”
Even as Martens approaches his 10-year anniversary of leading Y/Project while he brings about a sense of newness at Diesel, the designer sees his couture collaboration with Jean Paul Gaultier as bringing his work to the next level. “We sometimes put things on the runway which are not specifically supposed to be beautiful, but they are there because of the thinking process—and the message is interesting,” he says. “This is more important than the beauty, so that’s where I really pushed it. I think people could understand that, in my experimental expressions, I actually can create goddesses and otherworldly creatures.” There’s no arguing with that—in his collection, deep ruffles permeate divine ball gowns and diva-like dresses come encrusted with fronds that look like pieces of coral.
Martens’s desire to make a statement, it turns out, isn’t limited to the fashions he creates. When asked about other creative projects he’d like to pursue, Martens mentions Mariah Carey. “I think this is one of the biggest things that a creative person can achieve,” he says, “To shut up a whole stadium, because of your song.”