Yesterday, some 5,000 people pulled up to Diesel’s SS23 show in Milan, which was held in an indoor stadium and open to the public. Looking at the crowd, who snapped up every available ticket in less than 90 minutes when they were released, you’d think that Diesel had somehow pulled off the most ambitious dressed-by-the-brand scheme in fashion week history: Hundreds, if not thousands, of attendees were wearing Diesel—some in pieces creative director Glenn Martens’ widely hailed debut collections, others in vintage leather jackets and tiny logo tees.
The reality, of course, was much simpler: only a few people there, like Julia Fox, Evan Mock, Skepta, Normani, and Lil Dre, were styled for the occasion. The rest of the crowd, which included around 1,600 fashion students, had gone out and bought it themselves. “The idea is always to be the alternative to luxury, and be a democratic brand,” Martens said after the show, only his second since taking the helm of Italy’s rebellious denim export at the end of 2020. (He also serves as creative director of Y/Project.) As Fox surveyed the scene backstage, where fresh-faced models and young supporters were hugging and applauding, she summed up how wildly successful Martens has been: “I feel like Diesel really speaks to the youth, the kids,” Fox said. “We love to see it.” Martens walks the walk, too: by his count, more than 4,300 of the attendees were at their very first fashion show.
Martens’ Diesel emerged at the right time, as a generation easing out of Covid restrictions began to discover itself—and its taste for the kookier and more radical side of fashion. (Fox remains one of our moment’s most influential dressers, I was reminded, not because she get photographed frequently but because people want to dress like her—powerful and provocative.) They follow fashion like football fans follow sports, and the Diesel show will likely prove to be the match of the week. As guests walked in, they were confronted by an absurdist visual gag: a stadium-filling inflatable sculpture of several erotically-intertwined figures, appendages all over the place. A graphic on the big screen claimed it was the world’s largest inflatable of its kind. (The giant rubber duck would like to have a word.) The show invite included a glass butt plug. Puriteens, look away.
The clothes emerged in four parts on a crew of scary-cool models (like Alton Mason) who, Martens said, represent the spirit of the new Diesel kid: “They really want to fuck you over and have fun,” he said. “That’s really how we cast our models and also how we talk to our models—it’s really about owning your situation and not giving a shit. Not giving a shit is really important.” The first part of the show was denim for the not-giving-a-shit crowd: oversized sun-bleached jeans coming to a rave near you, and a denim coat woven with lace organza that looked like it could have been painstakingly-rendered in a couture atelier, but was made to be worn like any other thrashed jean jacket. Martens stressed that these pieces were processed in Diesel’s elite distressing facilities. “Nothing is really done by high-luxury hands,” he said.
The next part was “utility”: leather jackets that looked like they’d been buried under a defunct nuclear reactor, and parachute pants that looked to be almost decaying. “It’s a bit savage,” Martens noted after the show. “But the clothes are supposed to be a bit raw… it’s part of the DNA of the brand to be a bit rock ’n’ roll of course.” More evidence that the style legacy of rock ’n’ roll is found not in ’70s cosplayers but in those who dress with a futuristic fuck-you flare.
Part three was an acid-washed “pop” movement, which saw Martens riffing on Diesel’s ’90s MTV heyday. “The grungy vibe, emo vibe—that shit’s hard,” remarked Lil Dre after the show. One distressed moto set had been constructed with large sheets of bonded leather, tatters flying off in every direction—a grungy uniform for the emo scenester. The show’s final segment featured artisanal pieces done by hand, including a striking oversized red-and-white coat created out of feathered and upcycled Diesel tags pieced together in a firework of cotton.
The Diesel phenomenon has been one of the more fascinating and exciting revivals in fashion. It follows a playbook that has been implemented in other mass market brands to varying success: a label with heritage appeal and big money resources signs a cultural innovator to turn the team around, in the process making that innovator’s radical ideas way more accessible. Rather than churn out slightly off-kilter basics, as he surely could have done, Martens is bringing his fans all the way into fashion’s provocative future. And they are with him for the ride. When Martens ran out under the inflatable splayed limbs for his bow, the crowd got on their feet and cheered: their star had scored a huge goal.