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Step on the Gas: The Reincarnation of Diesel

A deep dive into the resurgence of cult 90s brand Diesel under the guidance of industry innovator and sartorial pioneer Glenn Martens.

By Lara Levetan

In 2019, Diesel - the pioneer and powerhouse in all-things-denim in the late ‘90s and early aughts - filed for bankruptcy with an estimated $50 million in debt. Only two years later, the company has experienced an unprecedented reemergence, appearing to be one of the most coveted brands in the industry right now. So, what accounts for Diesel’s remarkable renaissance?

Since founder Renzo Rosso’s launch of Diesel in 1987, the Italian brand became a trailblazer in unorthodox denim fabrications and boundary-pushing advertising campaigns. Nothing quite captures Diesel’s eyebrow-raising historic reputation of rebellious and provocative campaigns quite like the ‘For Successful Living’ campaign in the early ‘90s. Unashamedly confronting themes of gun violence, race, sexuality and religion head-on, Diesel illustrated how the fashion campaign operates as a fitting medium to satirize and subvert the establishment while rousing the youth to interrogate the world around them.

Mirroring their rebellious, ‘against-the-grain’ marketing strategy, Diesel’s ‘90s and early 2000s design aesthetic invariably stayed true to its roots, featuring signature distressed, worn-in and vintage-inspired garments and ultimately catapulting the brand to undisputed cult status. However, by the 2010s, ‘90s import brands like Diesel and True Religion began to occupy a shrinking space that was being supplanted by the athleisure and streetwear craze, and were eventually substituted for upstart labels like Aries, Amiri, Vetements and Off-White.

Diesel’s period of relative obsolescence was marked by heavily-discounted apparel, in-the-red net sales and an average consumer age of over 40. Nevertheless, with the inevitable to and fro of the fashion pendulum, the brand’s highly anticipated comeback came with the appointment of Belgian creative director Glenn Martens in 2020. Martens is renowned for his work as the creative tour-de-force behind Parisian label Y/Project since 2013, known for its subversive approach to construction and askew elevation of streetwear. Under Martens’ stewardship, Y/Project has earned industry-wide reverence, including winning an ANDAM award and accruing the highest caliber of retail stockists from Browns to SSENSE to Luisa Via Roma.

Martens arrived to regenerate the Diesel engine in a manner that can be deemed somewhat of a renaissance, reincarnating the brand’s rebellious energy for the modern consumer. His first few months at the creative helm were spent meticulously studying the brand by sifting through its decade-spanning archives, deciphering its modus operandi and ultimately mapping out a fresh trajectory. His first physical runway show with Diesel debuted at Milan Fashion Week AW22 and almost instantly revived the brand from its state of dormancy.

The AW22 ready-to-wear collection showcased 69 looks in a vast industrial lot on the southern outskirts of Milan, bedecked with inflatable sculptures adorned in Diesel denim. The collection exhibited Martens’ upended transformation of grungy ‘mall-brand’ denim staples into elevated, editorial denim. A synergistic blend between the Diesel DNA and Martens’ own sense of subversive style was woven throughout the collection, featuring a slew of genderless asymmetric shapes, exaggerated silhouettes, low-slung metallic miniskirts and thousands of forms of denim: collaged, tufted, frayed, chromed, recycled, reinvented.

Martens’ position behind the wheel also marked the launch of the Diesel Library, a capsule collection of classic Diesel pieces that extends beyond seasons, underpinning the brand’s ramped up commitment to sustainability. This permanent collection is projected to account for more than 40 percent of sales and is made with low-impact materials, recycled organic fabrics and treatment techniques that curb the use of chemicals and water waste. Martens’ made-to-last leather garments in the collection are chromium free (sans harmful metals), while cellulose trims and labels are made with recycled materials.

At the nucleus of Martens’ debut at Diesel was an emphasis on upcycling through reinvention of the brand’s deadstock fabrics,transforming them using innovative finishes and techniques. For example, Martens’ take on creating a garment reminiscent of fur involves subverting destroyed and frayed denim and then treating it with dye or paint. The creative director’s plunge into the archives also called for the reemergence of the classic ‘90s and ‘00s Diesel ‘D’ logo, which had fallen by the wayside as early as 2004. Diesel’s AW22 collection, which features the chunky metal hardware emblem emblazoned onto mini bags, belt-strap skirts, metallic knitwear and more, speaks to Martens’ unique ability to channel and rework the playfulness of ‘90s styles into a contemporary vision.

It’s evident that Martens’ inauguration behind the wheel of the once-cult-classic Italian denim brand revved up the Diesel machine to unprecedented potential and success for the new generation. The total rebirth of the brand’s rebellious energy that once prevailed as its central essence, alongside its steadfast commitment to sustainability and ethical consumption, have skyrocketed the brand to a categorical ‘second coming’.

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