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Renzo Rosso - the engine behind diesel

Renzo Rosso
the engine behind diesel
by Slaven Marinovic
May 4, 2009

Renzo Rosso, owner of Italian design company Diesel, is different. He doesn’t have the playboy looks of other Italian fashion moguls (unbuttoned shirt, bronzy, oily skin) and he doesn’t receive guests in Milan’s noble Via Montenapoleone. Instead, he enjoys la dolce vita on his farm in the northeastern Veneto region and looks like Mick or Keith—a seasoned rock ’n’ roller—with long, curly hair, a three-day beard, T-shirt and, most importantly, jeans. And jeans mean the world to him.

For Rosso, who grew up with James Dean and Marlon Brando, jeans are a symbol of freedom and protest against conformity. Rosso also loves old stuff. “I don’t like [anything] that’s brand new. Used things are warmer and softer, they have more charm. My house, my boat and my hotels are all old.” In the 1970s he started treating denim with stones to get a used look. “Everybody thought I was crazy, but that was the birth of the vintage look in fashion... Well, being different is often the key to success. You only need one idea and the absolute will to succeed.”

 
 

After graduation from industrial textile school in 1975, Rosso bought a Ford Transit and went on an endless sales tour through Italy, France, Germany and Scandinavia. He drove by night and visited shop after shop during the day. Shop owners were hesitant about buying his jeans, and the following conversation took place, in one form or another, often:

“Your jeans aren’t new,” the shop owners said.

“They are new, but stone-washed,” Rosso replied.

“But they look second hand.”

“They are supposed to look worn.”

“Why should we sell jeans with that look?”

“Because your customers want them like that.”

“Why should our customers want such jeans?”

So it went, on and on.

“It was a hard sell,” Rosso explains. “I even paid for unsold jeans.” But he never considered quitting. “No, never. I am from a very Catholic village in Italy. You never give up there. Whenever I was in trouble, I told myself ‘Renzo, you are a man of honor!’”

A couple of years later Rosso founded Diesel. The brand name was chosen because it is international, pronounced the same way around the world and has an alternative feel about it. “Diesel,” he explains, “is an international brand—very trendy, very young and very cool. I want every teenager to dream about having Diesel jeans. Diesel doesn’t have to be the biggest brand on earth, but the coolest. For me, a cool image is more important than a big turnover.” Asked what is the essence of Diesel’s brand, Rosso answers, “Passion and creativity. They are the DNA of the brand and the basis for all of our products, our daily work and our lifestyle. My goal is to be a pioneer in everything we do.”

The Diesel Creative Team matches the Diesel philosophy. It’s international, with 50 people from 25 countries, and young—the average age is 26. “The world’s youth gives us our creative stimulus.” Rosso looks for people he sympathizes with and handpicks every employee. “I view myself as a football coach. I may not be the best player, but I can assemble the best team. Diesel is a team, a family.” Like in any real Italian family, eating with family members is very important, and Rosso often sits down with his employees for extensive lunch breaks. “A company that treats its staff well,” he writes, “has more motivated people.”

Diesel creatives enjoy ultimate creative freedom. Although he’s the heart and motor of the brand, Rosso confines himself to making suggestions and has the final say in decisions. He is proud to have an early radar warning system for trends. “I travel nine months per year, read 150 magazines every month and have six kids. I am not a designer, but I know what works and what doesn’t work.” Like many other innovators, he doesn’t believe in market research. The first customer survey Diesel ever carried out showed that 81 percent of Diesel customers found wearing shades in the dark ridiculous, but 45 percent did it anyway. Rosso comments, “What do you do with such numbers? They are useless.” He relies on gut feeling and intuition, because for him, working on instinct has resulted in success.

In 1991, Diesel, like fellow Italian company Benetton, abandoned the established formula of fashion advertising (photographer-product-model/celebrity) and made communication part of the brand. “We would never hire Madonna. Because then people would buy Madonna and not Diesel.” Diesel stopped selling jeans and started selling its way of life, a guidance “for successful living.” While most brands piggyback on pop culture, Diesel jams together fantasy, kitsch, sex and humor to create its very own pop universe. In-house creatives are assisted by funky ad agencies like KesselsKramer. Diesel ads are fun and entertaining, but they also comment on cultural, political, racial and ecological issues—often in a provocative and ironic manner. “Irony is very important in these fast and turbulent times. You feel better when you smile and laugh,” Rosso explains.

Powered by smart, eye-catching advertising, Diesel jeans enjoyed huge commercial success in Europe during the early 1990s. Soon, however, the hype wore off and Diesel became just another jeans company like Levi’s and Lee. Rosso reacted by doing something no other denim brand had tried or achieved before: upgrading. He reduced the denim line by 30 to 50 percent, raised prices by 25 percent, cut 5,000 of 10,000 outlets and opened new stores in high-class areas like New Bond Street in London. “Most said I was committing financial suicide. But it’s a sign of innovation when you are already doing the things nobody even thinks about.” And it worked. Revenue grew, and the premium denim category was born. A new generation of jeans brands arose—7 for All Mankind, Rock and Republic, and True Religion entered the market, and luxury labels such as Louis Vuitton and Hermès added jeans to their collections. Karl Lagerfeld even announced he would only work with Diesel on Lagerfeld Jeans.

Today Diesel is no longer a mere denim brand, but a label that is respected in the world of high fashion. When asked if Diesel is not to be considered a luxury brand, Rosso responds, “No, not luxury. I don’t like the word. It’s a thing of the past. Let’s call it ‘Casual Wear Prêt-à-porter.’” While many design companies moan in reaction to the recent financial meltdown, Rosso is positive and thinks the crisis will sweep away poorly managed luxury brands. With his holding OTB he invests in fresh and inimitable brands: Dsquared, Maison Martin Margiela, Sophia Kokosalaki and Viktor & Rolf. “I provide them with everything that’s necessary to work well, which is organization, financing, production and distribution. I don’t take a hand in the creative process, I just tell them how many T-shirts and jackets we need, the rest is up to them.”

Earlier this year, Rosso launched a new Diesel fragrance called “Only The Brave” in Berlin. “The name is the reflection of my mindset and the credo of my company.” When asked about the fist-shaped flacon, Rosso explains, “That’s my fist. Behind every unique brand stands an aspiring individual—in Diesel’s case, that’s me.”

 
  

Slaven Marinovich is a freelance writer in Hamburg, Germany.

 
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