The “designer’s designer” talks Y/Project, bad taste, and the Belgian disposition towards beauty

Glenn Martens might be one of Europe’s busiest designers. On top of leading the cutting-edge label Y/Project for the past decade, since 2020 he’s helmed Diesel—while making time to take on couture shows for Jean Paul Gaultier (for whom he worked as a menswear designer, just after graduating from Antwerp’s Royal Academy) and to put forward collabs with the likes of Melissa, UGG, and JPG.

Martens grew up in Bruges, where he attended a “very classic” high school whose ordinary career directions he wasn’t “vibing towards.” He drifted into interior design for its seemingly logical architectural underpinnings and discovered his interest in creative practice—but quickly tired of the need for furniture to be “really functional.” Some might say the same of fashion, but this casual dismissal of strict utility is distinctly Martens. Across the brands he’s designed for—and perhaps most pronounced in his ANDAM award-winning work at Y/Project—his concept-forward garments stand as wearable aesthetic manifestos. Layered, twisted, printed, folded, jagged, crumpled, slanted, oversized: Y/Project products (“of course, you completely can’t get rid of the product”) repurpose “archetypal” materials like denim, wool, and leather—or trompe l’œil versions of them—to avant-garde ends.

As of late, Y/Project and Diesel have been attempting to mitigate some of the inherent ecological damage of fashion production, introducing recycled and deadstock materials, organic cotton, and “evergreen” capsules set to outlast the fashion cycle, as well as QR-coded tags that might educate consumers. (“I say to my team, We should be the Mother Teresa of clothes. They’re trying very hard,” Martens remarks.) Plus, he is first to admit, today’s designer is more than a designer: The contemporary “creative director” is called upon to cultivate a vision through runway shows, stores, events, ads, and all manner of brand messaging. With projects ranging now from mass-market undergarments to haute couture, Martens considers how to direct his range of platforms to speak within and beyond the fashion microcosm. “That’s the great thing about the fashion industry,” he says. “There are so many different ways of talking.”

Left: Greta wears shoes by Y/Project SS18. Right: Top, skirt, and shoes by Y/Project FW17.

Drew Zeiba: You’ve got a lot going on—Y/Project, Diesel, the Spring/Summer 2022 Jean Paul Gaultier show. How is it stepping into these different roles? Do you feel like you’re occupying different versions of yourself, or do you see it more holistically?

Glenn Martens: I actually am a different version of myself. I once made a joke about having multiple personalities, and the journalist wasn’t so happy about it. [Laughs] I’m sorry, I shouldn’t make that joke anymore. But it’s true. At Diesel, I’m really Diesel. And then at Y/Project, Y. At Jean Paul Gautier, I did couture and I really had my couture fingers on. I mean, at the end of the day—to talk about those three again—they do have something similar in their ethos. They make jokes. They don’t take themselves too seriously. There’s always a fun factor, an irreverence in there. So the fundamental values are quite similar; it’s just how to translate them. With Y/Project, it’s about garments. It’s really about the construction of the garments.

Drew: In the New York Times, Vanessa Friedman called Y/Project a thought experiment. How do you turn these ‘experiments’ into garments?

Glenn: Vanessa Friedman said something like I’m the designer’s designer. That was actually a compliment. I try to do the designs that nobody has done yet. Like, let’s try to surprise ourselves and other people. What I started 10 years ago is still the same—it’s quite rich, it’s really explosive, there’s something royal in there. I think it comes a little bit from my obsession with history and art history, and also growing up in Bruges, where everything is medieval and overwhelming. I really love this kind of world. It’s a bit decadent in that way.

Then, of course, Y/Project is also disposed to a realistic vibe, which is maybe also quite connected to Belgium. And then, violà. There’s never a strict concept for the season. It’s never, I saw this film and… The starting point is very me in the studio, saying, ‘Let’s surprise ourselves on construction.’ By now, my team has complete carte blanche. They can do whatever they want as long as we try to shock ourselves. Every season has a moment where we’re doing fittings and thinking, Are we seriously going to do this? [Laughs] It’s that border of good taste, and also what is acceptable or not. It’s about having fun and experimenting as much as possible.

“By now, my team has complete carte blanche. They can do whatever they want as long as we try to shock ourselves.”

Left: Top and trousers by Y/Project FW18. Right: Dress by Y/Project FW19.

Drew: When you first became creative director at Y/Project, did you feel you were diving into its existing DNA? Or was it more that you were trying to figure out how to make it your own without throwing out what you’d inherited?

Glenn: I was, of course, in a super complicated position, because the initial founder, Yohan Serfaty, tragically passed away. There’s no proper way of taking over a brand in mourning. It was tricky, emotionally. I obviously stayed closer to Yohan in the beginning. But the thing was that we were actually a very small company with a very small output, with, like, 12 stores. And everything was actually very much connected to Yohan, because he was a very enigmatic character, and he would really draw the collections for himself. He was literally dressing himself. He was making his own wardrobe. People who bought into that collection also bought into Yohan. When he passed away, there was no point really to continue that, because I wasn’t that person. There was no one else that could do it but him.

My creative world is very opulent and decadent, and there’s fun factor, and it’s also a bit trashy. Regardless, I think the technical-ness—that starts from Yohan. Because from the beginning, you had leather. That was a very clear way of constructing very sharp, very directional lines, which I think you can still find at Y/Project. Even though it’s not leather-based anymore, how we construct clothes [refers] to that. And then it was also the whole budget situation. At a certain point, we were like, Let’s split into womenswear—great, great, but there wasn’t budget for womenswear. [Laughs] So we had to find solutions. A lot of the garments that I was designing were versatile in wearability. And you could put them on the menswear, and then, one month later, on the womenswear. Nobody would notice that, actually, it’s the same jacket. Things are adjustable, twistable—you can give them different moods.

Left: Jacket and boots by Y/Project FW18. Right: Dress by Y/Project SS20.

Drew: You have mentioned bad taste and trashiness more than once. What’s bad taste to you—and why do you like it?

Glenn: Bad taste… I don’t know. Bad taste, of course, is very subjective. I mean, I’m mostly thinking about bad taste for me, because I’m a very plastic-schools person, and I come from Belgium and the West, and I was very much obsessed by this classic, occidental aesthetic in the beginning. Stepping away from that [means] maybe including things that are not as balanced aesthetically. A lot of the garments we do at Y/Project are not there to be aesthetically correct. I mean, we’re not like brands like Dries Van Noten or Balenciaga or whatever, which are all about the aesthetic silhouettes. Of course, there’s conceptualism in there, too, but the main thing is this kind of elegance and beauty. At Y/Project, we don’t insist on that so much, though it’s always nice when it happens.

It’s also a mindset. Even though I was just saying Bruges was a very beautiful, medieval town, that’s really the exception of the rule in Belgium. Belgium is a very ugly country. It’s one big industrial zone; there are factories everywhere. It’s not like living in upstate New York or whatever, or Italy or France, where everything is pretty and joyful. So as a Belgian person, you are kind of obliged to find beauty in a bit of an unexpected way, and to try to look at things differently, and to appreciate things for a different reason than just beauty.

Drew: To return to talking about material and form—it seems that one way to put forward clear concepts across a collection is to reduce other elements. How do you balance complexity and simplicity?

Glenn: A lot of the time, we go for super archetypal materials because the garment is always so expressive. On top of that, to put experimental materials—I mean, it just becomes a costume. And so at least there are connection points to something that you know. The construction is already so experimental, I think it’s nice that we work to stay with something referential to help ground the design, and to add a little bit of a reality factor.

Drew: You can’t defamiliarize if there’s nothing familiar to start with. And that also ties back to the many ways you can use the garments.

Left: Top, jeans, and boots by Y/Project FW23. Right: Top and skirt by Y/Project SS18.

Glenn: It translates much deeper into the clothes. As we are talking about versatility all the time, it means that one jacket can be worn by so many different people for so many different reasons. You can slick it down, you can make it more sexy, you can make it more deconstructed, you can do whatever. There are a lot of different ways to embody a garment—meaning it’s a very diverse way of working. Diesel is much more in-your-face. I mean, the greatest thing about this is that it’s a very global brand. That’s one of the reasons why I took it. With Y/Project, I can scream as much as I want about social sustainability, about environmental sustainability—great. We have a massive evergreen capsule which is completely sustainably and circularly produced—but still, who do I talk to? I only talk to a few people who are really into fashion.

Y/Project, we’re not mainstream in that way. But at Diesel, I touch everybody. It’s a lifestyle brand more than a fashion brand. And on top of that, it’s a lifestyle brand which has had 20 years of engagement with a very hetero-norm clientele—which we really love, and I think it’s really amazing. My brother loves Diesel, fantastic. But it also means that we are very popular in countries that are not the most politically open. So, for example, doing the Tom of Finland collaboration—if we did it with Y/Project, those fashion people would love it. But with Diesel, it’s way more aggressive. I mean, the amount of hate I’m receiving.

Drew: Oh?

Glenn: It’s crazy—people wish me death. [Laughs] And I think that’s exactly what we need to do, and that’s the reason why I do it. Because we touch every single person, it’s very important to give clear messages. A gay couple kissing at Diesel is way more loud than anything else you could do within the luxury business. A lot of people hate me, of course.

“You can slick it down, you can make it more sexy, you can make it more deconstructed, you can do whatever. There are a lot of different ways to embody a garment.”

Left: Boots by Y/Project x UGG FW18.
Right: Dress by Y/Project SS18.

Drew: Wait, you’ve been getting actual death threats?

Glenn: Every year I get a few death threats at Diesel. Every year. And I’m like, Woah. I have to admit, the first time, I was really freaking out. But now I just think it’s funny.

Drew: Well, at least people are paying attention, I guess. And sex and fun stay part of the projects.

Glenn: That’s also one of the reasons why we go for archetypal materials—because we do need to ground it, and we need to bring that sexuality in there. I think there’s something in all of the brands that does this: Like, this is a garment which is quite flirtatious. Even with a more conceptual brand like Y/Project, there’s this flirtatiousness. I mean, I work a lot. I really work all the time. It’s my calling. And I’m very blessed, because it’s also my hobby and my passion. But I’m working seven days a week, and at the end of the day, I’m a person who takes a lot of time to adjust again. For example, with Fashion Week and socializing every day, it would be very impossible for me to leave to the countryside of Normandy and sit in a garden.

Drew: Your body would be vibrating.

Glenn: I’d just be obsessed, on my iPhone. If I take off during the year, it has to be active things, like going hiking. But if I only have the luxury to take off a weekend, which I mostly don’t, then just going partying and getting drunk is really easy. Go dance, whatever, be super intense; get a hangover the next day and then you go back to the office—voilà. Everything’s been quite intense. I like intense-ness.

Left: Dress by Y/Project SS20. Right: Jacket, jeans, and boots by Y/Project FW23.

Model Greta Carnbring at Next. Hair Mélissa Rouillé at Artlist. Make-up Florence Teerlinck. Production Kitten. Casting Director Aymeric at AYMCasting. Shot at Studio Zéro. Special thanks to the Y/Project team.