Glenn Martens, the creative director of Y/Project and of the denim brand Diesel, has a firm grip on some of fashion’s key constituencies. Fashion kids love him: my Instagram and Twitter feeds this week and last were overtaken by images of his Fall 2022 menswear collection and his special collaboration with the house of Jean-Paul Gaultier for Paris Couture. (“Make sure to zoom in bc this is INSANE,” said the writer Jose Criales, an HF Twitter and Instagram north star.) The avant-garde snobs love him, because his massively artful pile-ons of fabric quickly established him as a Margiela acolyte for the internet era—a mainstream misanthrope whose clothes can hang alongside brands like like Hood By Air, Rick Owens, and Vaquera. And Ye loves him, too: on his infamous second date with Julia Fox, he brought her to a hotel room filled with Martens’s Diesel clothes, presenting her with pieces from the Spring 2022 collection and not yet released pre-fall. She’s been wearing his combination denim boots-and-pants regularly since.
Martens doesn’t know quite how that Diesel date night happened, by the way. “I didn’t even know that they were doing it!” he said by phone last week. “Kanye just really likes my work; I think he’s always been a big fan of Y/Project. So it’s something that happened very naturally. I have no idea how he actually got all the samples—I’d have to ask my PR!”
In truth, the main man Martens has on his mind lately is Jean-Paul Gaultier, whose brand announced in January 2020 that it would relaunch its couture business by bringing in a guest designer each season to interpret its founder’s work. Martens is the second designer to take the gig (Sacai’s Chitose Abe was the first), and his couture show, which took place on Wednesday, was certainly coolest of the week: tulle bunched and draped into flattering, futuristic gown shapes; ribbons laced and pulled taut and loosened across the body in a sculpted dishabille; denim coiled into gown of belt loops; and spiky, corseted, glittering knits. Women’s fashion is in a seesaw of taste right now. Clothes are either extraordinarily tasteful, as with Valentino’s irreproachable gowns on models of all ages and body types, or purposefully distasteful, like at Schiaparelli, which made picture hats with gold brains for the crown and put rococo trimmings on cinched bodices. (Schiaparelli is also responsible for the cone-breast denim jacket Julia Fox trotted around Paris in on Sunday, but the cone-breast, in fact, is a Gaultierism.) Martens navigates a more creatively tricky path, making unfamiliar clothing that never relies on gags, though it’s often—like the work of fashion’s other four great comedians, Gaultier, Yohji Yamamoto, Palace, and Supreme—quite funny. Not slapstick funny; more like you’ll see someone walk by in it and think, “What’s that guy’s deal?” In our shock-and-awe times, that’s a pretty special thing to pull off.
For those who are not in the couture demographic, the men’s collection he showed late last week during Paris Men’s Fashion Week, was infused with Gaultierisms. The work of the French designer, who retired in early 2020, has been undergoing an enormous revival that seems unfading. Part of what’s interesting about young people’s fascination with Gaultier is that, unlike other ’90s phenoms who have undergone revivals, such as Giorgio Armani or Martin Margiela, you certainly couldn’t get away today with most of what Gaultier did in the 1990s. His clothing was all about the cultural melting pot, and he saw appropriation, cultural collision, and offense as part of his remit as a classic French provocateur. He pulled together religious dress and traditional clothing from the Global South, and tweaked his nose at heteronormative style, designing clothes that encapsulated the chaos of a rapidly globalizing world and the era’s culture wars. Designers can pick up on his mesh printed tops and peculiar silhouettes (as the brand Ottolinger has), but when a designer tries to play with clothes and cultural codes the way he did in his prime, they are often criticized for it (that’s been the case for Marine Serre, anyway).
Martens’s couture was pretty apolitical, but his ready-to-wear, though not formally a Gaultier collaboration, was more spiritually in conversation with Gaultier and therefore more daring. For one thing, he used to work for the designer, so he has a leg up on anyone else trying to do Gaultier for today. (He made the couture collection with Gaultier’s team, but had his own team reproduce the Gaultierisms for ready-to-wear.) In terms of the Martens’s men’s outing, the Gaultier-est part was a series of mesh and viscose pieces printed with breasts and genitals. Gaultier did similar X-ray or trompe l’oeil prints between 1995 and 1997, but Martens gave it a twist by layering and mixing the men’s and women’s pieces. A euphoric expression of genderfucking, perhaps. Or, in our body-obsessed times, a comment on the transphobic fetishization of genitals—a really hilarious phrase to write or read, but contemporary when right-wingers are obsessed with policing our physical forms with such horrifying vigor that you wonder if all they do is sit around and imagine people naked. Or: it could be incredibly offensive! Bodies, as a fashion statement? Classic Gaultier. But I didn’t see anyone complaining.
What makes Martens so appealing, and his work feel so on-the-pulse? It’s certainly not that he spends all day scouring Depop and archival fashion accounts on Instagram, which I know some youngish designers do; he told me he tries to stay out of the fashion world as much as he can to avoid seeing the work of other designers. What I think works about it is the way that it seems to be clothing about clothing, about mixing style codes (like prep or raver) rather than social or political ones. Often, the clothes have strange layers of fabric, or make the utilitarian, like buttons or collars or sleeves, into the decorative, which makes the wearer feel like a bit of a designer himself. This is a touchstone of streetwear—how you put your own spin on something—but it’s rarely done these days in high fashion, or with such technical obsession. His are the rare complicated and confusing garments, a $1000-plus puzzle for the shopper.
He is also aware that he occupies an unusual, even singular place in fashion. When I spoke with Martens last year, on the occasion of the reveal of his first collection for Diesel, our conversation solidified for me just how strange everyone’s style had gotten over the previous year. It’s almost impossible to find anything standard issue or basic these days; every kind of clothing has become fashionable, a cynic might say, or, if you’d like to be more cheerful about it, everyone has gotten really freaky with their style.
“Y/Project is such an individual brand,” he told me last week. “We have such an individual language that I don’t feel the concurrence of any other brand. The same thing with Diesel. We are not luxury; we are not mainstream. We are somewhere in the middle.”