Diesel Was Brilliant. This Is Why We Need Designers.

MILAN — Ever since Pharrell Williams, pop culture Renaissance man, was named creative director of Louis Vuitton men’s wear just over a week ago, nabbing one of the most high-profile positions at one of the most high-profile brands in the world, a sort of existential debate has gone on about the meaning of the term “designer.”

Can anyone with eye-catching taste and a track record of hits (in any artistic discipline) be a designer? Is a high profile and a lot of followers more important than an understanding of how fabric hangs on the body? Does a fashion company even need a real designer any more? At least one with actual, you know, formal training?

Two words: Glenn Martens. On Wednesday the creative director of Diesel demonstrated exactly the kind of difference a real designer can make.

He did it with humor and creativity and integrity, by balancing meme bait with invention and a spidey sense of the prevailing mood. Starting with a selfie-ready set involving a mountain of 200,000 scarlet condom boxes, a soundtrack punctuated by orgasmic grunts and gasps, and a cheesy bit of wordplay: changing the brand’s “For Successful Living” motto to “For Sucsexful Living.” (Mr. Martens is not a snob about what gets people’s juices flowing; he loves a bit of the lowbrow.)

That was a nod to a new collaboration with the condom makers Durex, a sly pairing and a nod to Diesel’s history as a rock ’n’ roll brand with a social justice agenda, as well as Mr. Martens’ belief that sustainability comes in all forms: environmental and personal. That, as he said in a preview, you should “have fun, enjoy your life. Live it to the fullest. But be respectful to each other.” Take care of each other.

Fun enough. Sex and the thrill of the naked (or mostly naked) body has been something of a trend for the past year. And indeed, Mr. Martens brought back the bumster — successor to the viral pelmet belt/skirt of last season — as well as chopping off the waistband of another pair of jeans, leaving only two belt loops, so the pants were held up by a rhinestone chain around the belly. But what takes his work to a different level is that behind the schtick is all sorts of substance.

He can do things with denim, the life blood of Diesel and also most wardrobes, that are almost impossible to imagine. That, in fact, hadn’t been imagined. If Renzo Rosso, Diesel’s founder and owner, invented distressed denim (as Mr. Martens says he claims to have done), Mr. Martens has altered the whole concept.

He introduced, for example, devoré denim. What even is that?

It’s denim given a treatment normally applied to velvet, so the fabric fades into polyester organza like it has been eaten away into memory, creating a sheer lacy effect that lay like a scrim over patches of the body in a long corseted dress, a skirt, a trouser. And it was just the beginning.

The same effect was created with trompe l’oeil jersey cardigans and pencil skirts silk-screened to look like denim, while a long dun-tone duster had been washed and distressed so it looked like beat-up leather just emerged from a trek across Route 80 after the zombie apocalypse, only instead of being stiff it had the gentle liquidity of jersey. Peekaboo windows were cut into more jersey to expose layers beneath, and a long-sleeve denim minidress was covered in dried paint with a metallic gleam, like a cracked sidewalk paved with silver.

One coat made from the deadstock linings left over from previous collections had been coated with heated plastic (Remember: condoms! Get it?) and then scrunched into a rippling, puffer-like shape, as if a muscle car had risen from the junkyard. Deadstock shearling was bonded with distressed denim until it began escaping through the rips and tears.

It was beautiful and dystopian at the same time. And technically masterful.

Afterward, audience members snapped photos of themselves lounging in the condom foothills before the boxes were to be shipped to Diesel stores in Italy and handed out free. (Another 300,000 condoms were destined for Diesel stores in other countries, but because of regulations they had to be produced locally).

In a little more than two years, Mr. Martens has transformed Diesel from a successful but largely irrelevant and noise-making jeans brand, with shows that most attendees viewed on sufferance if they viewed them at all, into one of the most anticipated events of the whole season. It’s a turnaround no one could have predicted when Mr. Rosso named Mr. Martens — as head of the high-concept, very niche Y/Project line, sort of a designer’s designer — as creative director. Half the people in the room Wednesday were marveling about the fact they wanted to be there at all.

Before Covid, the opening honor of the Italian shows went to Gucci, then the greatest Italian success story of the past decade. Now it is Diesel. It has become the magnet that draws people in; the source, against all odds, of fashion FOMO. The answer to the question of why designers matter.

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