The Diesel designer discusses Italy’s draconian anti-rave bill, doing karaoke with Julia Fox, and sex as the secret to successful living
There will be no photos taken of Glenn Martens at the Diesel rave. “I think my publicist is doing that to save me,” he says. “Because it all depends on what hour of the night it’s being taken.” Martens has just touched down in Milan, bottle-blonde and on the tail end of a weekend-long bender in Switzerland, when he Facetimes from the backseat of a cab. “I was there for a friend’s 40th birthday and there were like 60 people dancing around a bonfire for 12 hours. But I’d be in prison if we did that kind of thing here.” It’s true: Martens would risk six years in jail and €10k in fines had the Italian government caught him organising an unauthorised rave with more than 50 guests. “It is absurd,” he says. “Because it’s a human thing to want to gather with people and have fun. And it is extremely dangerous as a political system to attack that.”
Giorgia Meloni, the leader of a far-right party with neo-fascist roots, won the Italian election with a decisive 26 per cent of the vote in September 2022. Since then, the prime minister has introduced a number of strange and excessive bans that would protect Italians from meat alternatives and ChatGPT. Most of these policies have been designed to uphold an idea of cultural nationalism, distracting from more urgent debates regarding prison reform and LGBTQ+ rights. And when Meloni passed a controversial anti-rave bill in October, she did so despite the fact that these parties had been going on for decades without being considered a public threat. Not only does the “decreto anti-rave” authorise the use of phone tapping, but it also carries a minimum prison sentence six times higher than kidnapping – meaning rave crews are now considered among the most nefarious criminals.
With the Italian rave a symbolic battleground for right-wing hysteria, Martens made the split decision to move a free, Diesel-branded rave slated for South Korea to the Italian capital of Rome. “We’re not just doing this for the fun of it,” he says. “We’re doing it to make a statement against the government. To encourage people to keep going for it rather than being oppressed.” The event, which took place over the weekend, was an extension of Diesel’s ongoing collaboration with NTS and gave a (now rare) platform to Italian club collectives NERO Editions, Club Adriatico, and SLIPMODE. “The culture needs to be there for them,” Martens says, just as it was in the early 90s when English ravers fled to Bologna and Turin to escape their own crackdowns. “Raves build communal values and life-long connections and it’s something that is fundamental to almost every single young person.”
Martens knows this because he treats his latest 15-hour stint at Berghain like an athlete would their personal best. “My life is hectic and I live out of a suitcase so letting off all that steam is better than seeing a shrink. I come back completely refreshed. And it was the same when I was working five days a week as a design assistant. It helped me to smile again.” He says that “it’s all about enjoying life and not giving a shit,” which could just as feasibly describe the architecture on which Diesel hangs. “I love boring and serious brands but we’re not solely about aesthetics. The clothes and the images are mediums to communicate what ‘successful living’ (the brand’s strapline) means”. Hence the 200,000 boxes of Durex condoms that backdropped the AW23 show and the Guinness World Record-breaking inflatables of SS23, which saw behemoth blow-up dolls entangled in an orgiastic struggle.
“What’s more successful than leading a sex-positive lifestyle? I think it’s super nice,” Martens says, with a laugh. “Sex is a direct answer to feeling happy and lucky in life. It’s the same as raving.” And in a culture of ascendant Puritanism, where sex equals moral panic, Diesel’s pleasure principle begins to feel like a political proposition. “It’s about loving each other, pushing limits, and broadening minds. I received so many death threats after the first campaign we did (which featured real-life queer and interracial couples) but you have a responsibility as a creative director of a brand like Diesel. You have a voice and you have people listening and you can actually help to build political awareness,” Martens adds. “I’d feel like a stupid, superficial fashion designer if I only made beautiful clothes and pretty pictures. Everything we do should be connected to society because Diesel is for everyone.”
But desire, in fashion, rides on the illusion of something being exclusive. Could Diesel therefore fun the risk of becoming too democratic? For example, the brand’s signature D1 handbag is near-ubiquitous in London. “For sure. I’m a businessman as well as a designer and I’ve got to protect the brand because certain success stories can burn,“ he says. “But the bag is fun, no? It’s in your face and it’s straightforward. You have to be a happy person to wear it. The reason we’ve had so much success is because Diesel has that no-bullshit attitude.” The same could be said about Martens’ notorious belt skirt, which became an online talking point for its arse-bearing impracticalities. “We’re trying to have fun everywhere and the skirt just does that in a more conceptual way,” he explains. “Diesel gets over-theorised a lot but the clothing is really quite simple: it has two legs, two arms, one neck hole.”
If High Fashion Twitter really wants something to pore over then it is Y/Project – which is like a game of high fashion sudoku – with all its roving buttons and collapsable waistbands and malleable wire frames – that merits unpacking. “You really have to experiment with and challenge those garments. Nobody is buying that stuff just to be a part of the culture,” Martens says. It means if Y/Project is his Prada, then Diesel is his Miu Miu. “Maybe!,” he continues. “We do push the design of Diesel on the runway because you have to play the game in order to stand next to Prada and Bottega Veneta in Milan. And Glenn Martens is supposed to be a creative person.” But the catwalk is only a fraction of the Diesel enterprise, which is as much a cultural agitator as it is a lifestyle brand. You might not be able to afford a handbag but you can still go to a free rave and feel part of something bigger than yourself.
In other words, you can feel like Julia Fox without having a custom Diesel wardrobe – particularly if you were one of the 5,000 members of the public that attended Martens’ SS23 spectacle last summer. The Dua Lipa to Martens’ Versace, the Beyoncé to his Balmain, Fox has modelled herself of the designer’s vision of denim sleaze (crafting DIY joots and justiers and jags from her rodent-infested apartment) and an official collaboration is not out of the question. “There might be! I’m not going to give anything away but… maybe. She’s so fun to have around and her personality is actually very different to Instagram,” Martens says. “She’s a really, really nice person and she’s empowering to women, which I think is important. We go bowling and do karaoke together and I love that there’s no sense of celebrity with her. She definitely shares that no-bullshit Diesel outlook.”
“Don’t be shy. Be cheeky,” he continues. “It doesn’t matter how much money you make or what religion you believe in or who you find yourself attracted to. Go for it.” Successful living is, to Martens, about escaping the established order and surrendering to impulse, embracing fluidity and chaos. Like the rave, it is an invitation to step outside of the mechanisms of discipline, erasing all the boundaries that conservatives work so hard to maintain. “You have to be aware of the messages you’re putting into the culture and you have to keep on talking about these things,” Martens says, lighting up a cigarette outside the Diesel headquarters. “I hope I managed to get that correct message across.”