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How Diesel Became Cool Again

Dua Lipa stepped out in New York City in Diesel’s quilted jeans and a matching bustier top. Megan Thee Stallion rocked the brand’s ribbed tank. Ye gifted then-girlfriend Julia Fox with a garment rack full of Diesel clothes. Kylie Jenner posed in its coated black denim coat and satin boots in the California sun and Nicolas Cage wore the brand’s black vinyl jacket and matching pants on the April cover of GQ.

Now seen on some of today’s top fashion influencers and earning high rankings on the biggest brands lists, it’s hard to believe that Diesel’s U.S. division filed for bankruptcy just three years ago.

The Italian brand, whose 2000s heyday was built on trendy low-rise and distressed jeans and won numerous awards for its eccentric advertising campaigns, is one of the few brands that came out of the Covid-19 pandemic stronger than when it entered, thanks to a rebrand strategy spearheaded by Glenn Martens, who joined as creative director in October 2020.

Martens started his career at Jean Paul Gaultier, and since 2013 has led the creative direction of high-end streetwear brand Y/Project, best known for its deconstructed denim garments and revealing items like denim panties. His appointment was a natural next step for the brand, which worked with him on past projects including the experimental capsule series, Diesel Red Tag.

Dua Lipa in Diesel
Dua Lipa in Diesel Mega

A ‘core brand’

In April, Diesel was featured in the Lyst Index’s Q1 2022 top 20 for the first time, climbing 31 positions from the previous quarter, where it ranked 46. Its iconic 1956 “pantaboots,” which feature faded jeans that flow into heeled boots, earned the 10th place in the Lyst Index’s ranking of hottest women’s products.

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According to retail intelligence platform Edited, since the start of the year, Diesel’s online sellouts across the U.S. and U.K. have grown 246 percent from 2021, buoyed by its celebrity allure.

“There’s no denying Diesel will be one of the core brands defining fashion for 2022,” said Kayla Marci, market analyst at Edited. “Though Diesel has always been recognized for its sexy, rule-breaking style and marketing, Martens’ appointment propelled the label to new heights aesthetically while successfully positioning it to trade within the future landscape.”

Marci added that the success can be attributed to his “ability to overlap the then and the now, embracing Diesel’s heritage by building on archival styles with founder Renzo Rossi, while innovating to suit customer values and changing tastes.”

According to Maurizio Donadi, who served as the retail director of Diesel USA between 1994 and 1999, this ability is crucial to the brand’s future.

“The creative roots of Diesel are incredibly rich and still highly inspirational with an archive of both vintage and their own (thousands) of styles,” he said. “I am hoping that Martens and his teams look at this resource not as an opportunity to copy the past, but as a deeper look into the DNA of the brand, the ethos and the way product was conceived and developed.”

A new direction

Martens’ first collection for Diesel debuted last June with utility-inspired and upcycled pieces, many with unique finishes and textures including a laser-printed trompe l’oeil effect, plays on seaming, second-skin jersey pieces with a washed denim look, and more. The collection was well-received: OTB, the fashion and luxury group that owns Diesel, Jil Sander, Maison Margiela, Marni and Viktor&Rolf, reportedly earned $1.71 billion (1.5 billion euros) in 2021 sales, up 18 percent from 2020, according to the company’s Q4 2021 earnings report.

In his first year, Martens guided Diesel through a “new phase of development” that helped position it within the alternative luxury segment. OTB unveiled several circularity initiatives through Diesel, including a Diesel jeans buyback program and Diesel Second Hand, a resale business available in Milan, Florence and Rome. The buyback program launched in July 2021, and by November it had collected and reconditioned 900 pairs of Diesel jeans washed and treated with Polygiene’s anti-microbial and odor-resistant ViralOff and OdorCrunch technology. The buyback program will continue to remain active in Italy, with plans to expand to other countries.

Last year, Martens unveiled the Diesel Library, which offers a wide range of genderless core denim items on a “made-to-stay basis,” with 50 percent of the overall denim collection designed to have a permanent shelf life. The collection is backed by responsible manufacturing methods, including fabrics made with low-impact components such as organic and recycled fibers and finishing treatments using water- and chemical-reducing techniques.

Diesel’s premiumization efforts have helped drive hype. Prices in Martens’ debut collection ranged from $160 for a ribbed tank top to $1,895 for a car coat. New York City-based concept store and e-commerce site T.A. New York offered early access to some of the collection’s key looks, including the now-iconic pantaboots. The move has helped the brand target a new demographic while maintaining its original customer base, as it continues to offer jeans for $195.

The brand’s elevated store design is also a factor in its premiumization efforts. In February, it opened its revamped New York City flagship in the SoHo shopping district ahead of fashion week, with the first floor featuring the Diesel Library collection surrounded by an oversized LED wall featuring a CGI landscape that morphs in color and form. The basement level lets consumers shop its Spring/Summer 2022 runway collection and pre- and main collections. The new concept is being rolled out in Tokyo Ginza, Shanghai Grand Gateway and Paris Saint Honoré this year.

Diesel is blazing trails in the web3 and metaverse realm, a space that’s heating up in fashion and generating interest among the highly sought-after younger demographics. In December, OTB debuted a new business unit dedicated to developing products for the virtual world, and appointed Diesel to lead the charge. The same month, Diesel debuted D:VERSE, a new platform that hosts both physical and virtual products, as well as its Prototype sneaker, which will eventually be available as a limited-edition nonfungible token (NFT) created by digital fashion house The Fabricant.

Diesel debuted D:VERSE, a platform that hosts both physical and virtual offerings, and gave customers access to its Fall runway items.
Diesel NFT Courtesy

The brand has also expanded into non-apparel categories like pet accessories and even sex toys, forming a partnership with sexual wellness company Lelo last month.

Customers can stay on the lookout for more of the same, as Edited reported the brand’s greater diversification into accessories and footwear. Combined, these categories equal 34 percent of 2022’s new arrivals, up from 32 percent in 2021. Its latest venture, Diesel Sport, is also expected to make a big splash for Spring/Summer 2022. The brand is expanding into the booming athleisure category with retro-inspired assortment of compression shorts, sports bras, bodysuits, sweats, hoodies and T-shirts with color blocking, logo taping and other ’90s and ’00s influences. The line is now available online and in Diesel stores, and includes innovative elements like wicking fabrics, recycled polyester textile use and wind- and rain-resistant materials.

The Diesel legacy is showing no signs of slowing down. In June, it will replicate the Fall/Winter 22-23 show it held in Milan earlier this year in Tokyo, signaling a large investment in the region. With more than 100 directly operated stores in the area, it recently opened a new popup location in Ginza, Tokyo’s premium shopping district. The store showcases the launch of Diesel Studio, an interactive project that explores and communicates Tokyo’s mixed cultures.

Looking ahead, sustainability remains high on the brand’s agenda, with a Fall/Winter 22-23 collection centered on a “fur” texture upcycled from shredded deadstock and recycled denim and cotton dyed without water.

While the brand is focused on elevating its stature, Donadi said it will need to continue to stay relevant through other means.

“Every company in the world is into brand elevation, from material research to pricing, from communication to sustainable practices,” he said. “Success is not only about revenues and profits—it is about brand relevancy, longevity and value.”