CULTURE

Renzo Rosso, denim’s royalty

Renzo Rosso’s passion for casual wear says a lot about his free-spirited style. It is also a reflection of his acute business savvy and why The Face voted him as the fifth most powerful man in fashion for 2004. «Casual wear can change you very much; it can change your mood, your color, you have more energy and feel more confident,» says Rosso, co-founder and owner of Diesel, a leading luxury casual-wear brand. Confidence has always been central to the company’s development: From the desire to be creatively radical, to the search for novel cutting and stitching techniques, to singular advertising campaigns and a website created as early as 1995, Diesel has long been a fashion innovator. These days, the brand is established in more than 80 countries with 225 single-brand stores. Besides denim, the Diesel universe is about casual wear and accessories – in Greece, a new flagship store in central Athens was recently inaugurated by Rosso. «Diesel is one of the few brands that has the same status in the US, Asia, the Pacific and Europe,» he says. «While there is a focus on the young, because they inspire more, you can say today that a certain target group doesn’t exist anymore, because there are a lot of people like myself who are young in mind.» Born in Padua in 1955, Rosso studied industrial textiles before co-founding the Genius Group in 1978, which developed brands such as Katharine Hamnett, Replay, Goldie and Diesel. In 1985, Rosso became Diesel’s sole owner. Since then, the company has been developing its own brand, with Diesel, Diesel Kids, the avant-garde DieselStyleLab, as well as the anti-gravity 55DSL collections. Moreover, the company today owns DSquared, a hot new brand designed by Canadian twins Dean and Dan Caten – who may or may not be the new design force at Paris-based Celine after the departure of Michael Kors – while acting as the manufacturer of an exclusive denim collection devised by fashion master Karl Lagerfeld. Diesel is also the majority shareholder in Martin Margiela. A solitary fashion figure who maintains an extremely low profile (never taking a catwalk bow, for instance), Margiela recently left his design post at Hermes, a position that has now been filled by the more extrovert Jean-Paul Gaultier. Does Rosso have his own vision when it comes to the reclusive Belgian designer’s label? «Margiela’s vision lies at the center,» says Rosso. «We help with logistics, finance, developing new stores and giving direction in branding, but Margiela remains absolutely free to work on the collections. We take care of the day-to-day things.» By now Rosso is used to working with talent – established or not. Besides the high-power fashion names he collaborates with today, the company takes credit for helping out new designers (some of them even ending up in Diesel’s creative department) as well as artists and musicians. «Diesel is the one fashion company driven by creative people – not the commercial department,» he says. «We are really free to do what we like.» No doubt this kind of freedom stems from the assurance that Diesel’s pioneering vision remains intact. «Beginning in 1995, people in the New Economy were making more money and wanted to be more individual; all luxury brands began selling a lot,» says Rosso. «At that time, Diesel had a choice of two different directions: to take more market space, while lowering quality and prices, or to decrease the number of units and increase quality and price. I chose the luxury direction.» As a result, the company cut 50 percent of its distribution, going from 10,000 sale points to 5,500. Marketing devices followed: While in the past, the same style would reappear season after season, the new strategy involved styles being available for just one, single season. Today, the company is also a big fan of limited editions, often creating pieces for a limited number of stores – such as Denim Galleries in Diesel’s flagship outlets in New York, Milan, Tokyo, Berlin and Paris, keeping die-hard Diesel aficionados on their hip feet. «You don’t gain money by doing this, but you do gain satisfaction,» says Rosso. «It’s so nice for me to spend time doing these limited editions. There we can do the maximum that we can.» Hence Diesel’s reputation as denim’s haute-couture maker. But is the company turning the most democratic of fashion items into something for just a few? «Jeans are still about being comfortable, about being free,» says Rosso. «What happened is that Diesel changed the market in general. Twenty years ago, when I made my case for jeans, people thought that I was crazy. And then they started closing down classic floors in department stores and everybody entered the casual market, including all the luxury brands. Now it’s casual wear for all at every price.» Having mastered the cutting-edge art of casual, would Diesel’s leader ever consider leading the brand into more formal gear? «Diesel must stay Diesel and leave that to other companies with the same kind of expertise and know-how in their respective fields; like Margiela’s suits and their incredible fit, for instance,» says Rosso. «I don’t like people who change the philosophy of a company. You must be able to develop what you know how to do and not change every season. What I can do, however, is create nicer things for Diesel. Now I use cashmere, for instance, but I do printed cashmere, like a T-shirt.» Without changing its signature look, Diesel has, over the years, found ways to expand the brand: Besides its core collections, the company also showcases digital watches, eyewear and, more recently, a jewelry collection – where silver is often given a stone-washed quality. The company even owns a hotel, The Pelican in Miami’s South Beach. Twenty-five years on, is Rosso still having fun? «I’m still working with an incredible passion,» he says. «It’s such a great pleasure to wake up on Monday mornings, and I go to see my people and share a lot – fight with them, talk with them and do crazy things with them.»