Fuelled by the success of his denim empire and spurred on by advice from the Dalai Lama, Diesel dynamo Renzo Rosso is broadening his creative outlook. Sharon Krum reports.
he Dalai Lama is not a man one ordinarily thinks of as an oracle of fashion. More concerned with teaching unquiet souls about non-violence and spiritual growth, His Holiness seems an unlikely choice for a heart-to-heart about the demands of running a global fashion brand. But Renzo Rosso, owner and CEO of Diesel (pictured), doesn’t see it that way. The 52-year-old is considered a maverick in the trade, an Italian cowboy who has always ridden the unconventional path. In Rosso’s world “there are no borders” and friendships are enthusiastically forged with all kinds of people, including the Dalai Lama.
“I tell him I want to stop working,” Rosso recalls of one conversation. For a man who turned a small jeans company into a $1.9 billion umbrella empire complete with 270 Diesel stores – a new outlet opens in Chapel Street, Melbourne, this month and a luxury store will open on Sydney’s Castlereagh Street in December – this was a huge turning point. “Maybe I can do more social things,” he told the Dalai Lama. “But he said, you have to keep working, because the way you work is very special. With the money you produce, you create jobs and you can do social things.”
Is the way Diesel operates really so unique the Dalai Llama wouldn’t let Rosso consider retirement? Actually, maybe. There will always be brands whose business is built on iconoclasm, but Rosso drove the idea further, making a fortune being fashionably “anti-fashion”. So now he finds himself a force to be reckoned with, which may be hard to reconcile if you think of yourself as an outsider. “I am born a rebel,” he says in his heavily accented English. “I am still a rebel. And Diesel is still revolutionary.”
Rosso sports the curly mop of an ’80s pop star, and his uniform of jeans, sneakers and silver jewellery (all Diesel), and his two tattooed fingers all burnish his “I’m not a mogul” idea of himself. The man responsible for 4000 employees sums up his business philosophy as creativity first, profits second. It’s talk that would give your Gucci Group manager a heart attack. “I never think how to be bigger,” he explains, “but how to be different, special, fresh, modern and cool. I’m not a public company and I don’t need to play the numbers, so I can work from passion to create something different. I prefer to concentrate on the beautiful things.” Paper magazine’s Kim Hastreiter adds, “Renzo Rosso really does work from his gut. I don’t think he thinks about things like strategy. He’s really intuitive. Diesel is gigantic, but it’s a gigantic mama/papa company.”
We meet during Fashion Week in New York, where Diesel now stages a ready-to-wear runway show, part of the company’s move to reposition