TIGER IN HIS TANK

RENZO ROSSO, THE MAN BE­HIND DIESEL JEANS, IS NOT ONE FOR IDLING. HE MADE HIS FIRST IN­ROADS INTO THE AUS­TRALIAN MAR­KET 30 YEARS AGO, AND IS ON HIS WAY BACK IN MARCH FOR A RE­LAUNCH OF THE FIRST TRULY COOL DENIM BRAND.

The Australian - Wish Magazine - - NEWS - STORY JOSEPHINE MCKENNA POR­TRAIT STEVE McCURRY

With his un­ruly curls and sil­ver stub­ble, Renzo Rosso looks more like an age­ing rock star than a bil­lion­aire busi­ness­man. But the rugged 60-yearold Ital­ian en­tre­pre­neur who cre­ated the Diesel jeans em­pire is a dynamo with en­ergy to burn. As our in­ter­view be­gins Rosso is cel­e­brat­ing the birth of his sev­enth child, daugh­ter Sydne, and ad­mits: “It’s a beau­ti­ful feel­ing — it makes me feel young.”

Rosso has spent more than 40 years mak­ing denim a stylish fash­ion es­sen­tial. Diesel is now sold in more than 80 coun­tries and Forbes mag­a­zine es­ti­mates Rosso’s per­sonal wealth at over $US3 bil­lion ($4.3bn) but he is noth­ing like any of the other big names in Ital­ian de­sign.

Once dubbed the “jeans ge­nius” by fash­ion com­men­ta­tor Suzy Menkes, Rosso is a renegade who rev­o­lu­tionised the con­cept of denim. He has also re­shaped other brands af­ter tak­ing a ma­jor­ity stake in Mai­son Margiela, Vik­tor & Rolf and Marni which are now part of his com­pany, aptly named Only The Brave. Rosso is also con­tribut­ing mil­lion ($7.8m) to re­store the Rialto Bridge in Venice and spear­head­ing his own foun­da­tion (also named Only the Brave) which has in­vested € 12m in 170 projects to re­shape lives in sub­Sa­ha­ran Africa.

A role model for a gen­er­a­tion of young Ital­ians who ad­mire his drive and de­ter­mi­na­tion, Rosso is ready to share some of his youth­ful ex­u­ber­ance with in­dus­try in­sid­ers when he head­lines the 20th Vir­gin Aus­tralia Mel­bourne Fash­ion Fes­ti­val in March. “I want to leave my mes­sage, my en­ergy, my blood, my soul,” says Rosso, in heav­ily ac­cented English. “This is what I like.”

It will be Rosso’s first visit to Aus­tralia in more than three decades. Af­ter a chance meet­ing in a Paris taxi with the late Mark Keigh­ery, cre­ator of the cel­e­brated Marcs la­bel, Rosso fol­lowed him to Syd­ney in 1984 to of­fer him a few sam­ples at a time when hefty tar­iffs de­terred many im­porters.

“He said, ‘How are we go­ing to sell such ex­pen­sive prod­ucts?’ ” Rosso re­calls. “I said, ‘Pay me only if you sell them.’ I put my faith in this guy and that’s how Diesel be­gan in Aus­tralia. They sold well.

“At that time Aus­tralia was very dif­fer­ent to the Aus­tralia of to­day. There were no dis­cos, in the evening there was noth­ing. To­day it is fan­tas­tic, full of joy, full of life, young peo­ple. It’s a re­ally su­per-cool place.”

For a child who grew up on his par­ents’ farm in the Po Val­ley in north­ern Italy, it’s been a re­mark­able jour­ney, but Rosso had an eye for busi­ness at a young age. Ac­cord­ing to his cor­po­rate bi­og­ra­phy, when a school­mate of­fered him a rab­bit he turned it into a breed­ing busi­ness to pick up some ex­tra cash.

Rosso loves telling the story of how at age 15 he sat at his mother’s Singer sewing ma­chine and made his first pair of bell­bot­tom jeans. He was soon sell­ing them to his friends and dreamed of start­ing his own busi­ness while study­ing tex­tiles at Padua’s Mar­coni In­sti­tute. Th­ese days he is of­ten seen on TV shows or busi­ness fo­rums dis­cussing his teenage de­sire to do some­thing dif­fer­ent and ex­hort­ing oth­ers to do the same. “My phi­los­o­phy is to be brave,” he told one pub­lic fo­rum.

Grow­ing up in the post-war boom of the 1960s, Rosso saw a fu­ture filled with in­fi­nite pos­si­bil­i­ties. “All young peo­ple dreamed of leav­ing home,” he re­calls. “They were great years for Italy be­cause it was im­me­di­ately af­ter World War II. There was crazy in­dus­trial growth and peo­ple wanted to start a busi­ness, to do some­thing.”

Rosso dropped out of the Univer­sity of Venice at 20 and joined Mol­tex, a denim man­u­fac­turer run by Adri­ano Gold­schmied, who went on to found AG Jeans. In 1978 they re­named the com­pany Diesel, a catchy name af­ter a decade of up­heaval in the oil in­dus­try, and Rosso bought out his part­ner’s stake in 1985. He was al­ready think­ing big. “My dream was an Amer­i­can dream: James Dean, Amer­i­can cars, and a juke­box,” he says. “My am­bi­tion was to get to Amer­ica one day.”

In 1986 he took the plunge and ven­tured into the com­pet­i­tive US mar­ket where su­per­brands such as Levi’s and Lee had been well es­tab­lished since the 19th cen­tury. It wasn’t easy as the Ital­ian jeans were far more ex­pen­sive than their ri­vals, but con­sumers were look­ing for some­thing dif­fer­ent and de­signer jeans were fast be­com­ing a fash­ion craze.

“At that time the most ex­pen­sive jeans sold in Amer­ica were Ralph Lau­ren’s for $US52 and my cheap­est pair of jeans was $US100,” he says. “We were look­ing for dis­tri­bu­tion but there was no dis­trib­u­tor. So I used to sell my jeans to beau­ti­ful stores that sold shoes, to vin­tage stores, to the most di­verse stores that were cool or where in­ter­est­ing peo­ple used to go. We changed the phi­los­o­phy in Amer­ica with Diesel.”

Rosso opened his first Diesel store in New York a decade later and the cheeky de­signer chose a po­si­tion di­rectly op­po­site Levi’s in the heart of Man­hat­tan. “I wanted to show them how beau­ti­ful our prod­uct was,” says Rosso. Diesel didn’t have enough mer­chan­dise to fill the 1400sqm store, so the Ital­ian en­tre­pre­neur built a bar and a DJ booth. “Ev­ery few months we’d close the store at 6 o’clock and throw a party.”

By 1989 Diesel had ex­panded to 40 coun­tries and was gen­er­at­ing sales of $US130 mil­lion. From its global head­quar­ters in Bre­ganze, near Vi­cenza, the brand con­tin­ued its dra­matic ex­pan­sion backed by un­con­ven­tional ad­ver­tis­ing cam­paigns and the early adop­tion of so­cial me­dia. To­day there are 5000 points of sale in­clud­ing 400 Diesel stores in 80 coun­tries around the world, with Ja­pan, the US, Ger­many, Italy and Bri­tain its top-sell­ing mar­kets.

In 2008 Rosso launched pre­mium line Diesel Black Gold, which has its own cre­ative di­rec­tor An­dreas Mel­bostad and shows dur­ing Mi­lan Fash­ion Week.

Diesel’s flag­ship Rome store sits be­side the Span­ish Steps and show­cases the brand’s lat­est de­signs in soft­lylit dis­play cases framed in chrome. Here cus­tomers can be seen sport­ing a Mo­hi­can hair­cut, their lat­est tat­too or a busi­ness suit as they sift through leather jack­ets, watches and an ar­ray of jeans priced from € 150 to a stag­ger­ing € 700. Some of the jeans are torn to shreds, oth­ers are cov­ered in studs but all have been washed in a laun­der­ing process that is a pre­cious cor­po­rate se­cret.

Rosso at­tended the open­ing of the 400sqm store in Oc­to­ber 2014 and made quite an im­pres­sion, spend­ing 40 min­utes quizzing staff and check­ing ev­ery de­tail of their op­er­a­tions. “I was im­pressed by his en­ergy the first time I saw him,” says a sales as­sis­tant who was a loyal cus­tomer for 20 years be­fore join­ing the team. “When I was adding studs to the jeans at the open­ing he came straight up to me and be­gan work­ing on the ma­chines with me.” An­other sales as­sis­tant says Rosso’s un­com­pro­mis­ing ap­proach makes a dif­fer­ence. “He said the store was beau­ti­ful but he wanted it to be even more beau­ti­ful. Per­haps that is the se­cret of his suc­cess. He started from noth­ing and now has an em­pire.”

Rosso is quick to play down his achieve­ments and prefers to pay trib­ute to Diesel’s 7500 em­ploy­ees, the tempo of his de­liv­ery step­ping up a notch. “The team you work with is al­ways very im­por­tant, to­gether you share ideas and carry projects for­ward. What can you do on your own? Noth­ing,” he says.

“I hope I am a good coach but the team is im­por­tant. When you share ideas with ev­ery­one, you move in the same di­rec­tion to­gether. Ev­ery in­di­vid­ual should be part of a team that looks to ad­vance our com­pany.”

Rosso’s team in­cludes his three el­dest chil­dren from his first mar­riage. The el­dest, 38-year-old An­drea, is the cre­ative di­rec­tor of Diesel li­cences, which in­cludes ev­ery­thing from watches to eye­wear, while Ste­fano, 36, is the chief ex­ec­u­tive of the OTB group. Their younger sis­ter Alessia works in mar­ket­ing for Diesel USA.

Since be­ing ap­pointed Diesel’s cre­ative di­rec­tor two years ago, Ni­cola Formichetti has re­vived the brand and clev­erly ex­ploited so­cial me­dia with his #DieselRe­boot cam­paign, which gen­er­ated wide­spread me­dia at­ten­tion. Last month he pro­voked a new buzz when he said Diesel would ex­ploit porn sites Porn­hub and Grindr for its lat­est ad­ver­tis­ing cam­paign. Rosso says Formichetti has “some of the mad­ness I had when I was young”.

Rosso is also happy with his de­ci­sion to ap­point the dis­graced de­signer John Gal­liano as cre­ative di­rec­tor of Mai­son Margiela, in late 2014. Gal­liano made head­lines around the world in 2011 when he was sacked by Chris­tian Dior af­ter an anti-Semitic tirade in a Paris bar. Margiela rev­enues have been grow­ing by 30 per cent and Rosso says only one re­tailer dropped the brand af­ter Gal­liano’s ap­point­ment. “I chose tal­ent,” Rosso tells Wish. “I think John Gal­liano is the most tal­ented, most im­por­tant, most in­cred­i­ble cre­ative di­rec­tor that I have ever met. I am learn­ing many things from him.”

Since Rosso is happy to chal­lenge tra­di­tional per­cep­tions, per­haps it’s not sur­pris­ing that he has cre­ated a fam­ily-friendly, en­vi­ron­men­tally sen­si­tive head­quar­ters for his staff and pro­motes car-shar­ing and re­cy­cling. “I think a mod­ern busi­ness­man must take re­spon­si­bil­ity — first for the salaries of em­ploy­ees, se­cond to be more com­mit­ted so­cially. The third is to lend a hand in sav­ing the planet. We are de­stroy­ing it, so we can do a lot with how we work, the ma­te­ri­als that we work with, the waste. We can do a lot in help­ing to save the planet. Our com­pany is 80 per cent self-suf­fi­cient us­ing our own en­ergy.”

Dubbed the “cam­pus”, the 90,000sqm com­plex at the com­pany’s global head­quar­ters is some­thing that is rarely seen in Italy. Apart from of­fices, it in­cludes soc­cer fields, ten­nis courts, a gym, a restau­rant, a kinder­garten and an or­ganic orchard. Cyn­ics may ar­gue it is a so­phis­ti­cated way to keep em­ploy­ees closer to the of­fice to work longer hours but Rosso sees it dif­fer­ently. “I al­ways say mak­ing peo­ple calmer where they work al­ways makes them feel free to give more to their cre­ativ­ity and re­ally con­trib­ute to their job,” he says. “We have a very mod­ern model for do­ing busi­ness. It is a com­mu­nity.”

Rosso ex­pects noth­ing less from him­self and con­tin­ues to set a crack­ing pace. “I am very or­gan­ised. I get up at 6am and be­gin with my per­sonal time — train­ing for an hour, break­fast, tak­ing the kids to school — and ev­ery hour I have ap­point­ments. My day is very or­gan­ised. I am a war ma­chine!”

It’s un­likely Rosso will draw breath dur­ing his Aus­tralian pit­stop. As well as his guest ap­pear­ance in Mel­bourne, he is plan­ning to re­launch the Diesel brand. “We have a fan­tas­tic dis­trib­u­tor who is in love with us, we have a great busi­ness plan. We are go­ing to cel­e­brate the re­birth of Diesel [in Aus­tralia]. Once again we have be­come cool, like we were in the past.”

Rosso is clearly ex­cited to see how Aus­tralia has evolved since his pre­vi­ous visit and wants young Ital­ians, so of­ten sti­fled in their own coun­try, to learn from Aus­tralians who pur­sue their dreams. “It is beau­ti­ful to see that tal­ented peo­ple, those who want to suc­ceed, go to Aus­tralia. I want Italy to learn from Aus­tralia, a mar­vel­lous coun­try, an enor­mous coun­try. And long live this men­tal­ity, it is a men­tal­ity that we re­ally need.”

When he’s not dream­ing of new things to do with denim, sav­ing Italy’s cul­tural icons or con­tribut­ing to sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment in Africa, Rosso takes time out to prac­tise yoga, cy­cle and kick back with his friends and his ever-ex­pand­ing fam­ily.

But the denim leg­end is rarely still and he’s look­ing for­ward to shar­ing his high-oc­tane en­ergy and good hu­mour with Aus­tralians who might have heard his name and what he has ac­com­plished. “I have been well­known for as long as Diesel has ex­isted,” he says. “It makes me re­ally happy when peo­ple shake my hand and com­pli­ment me be­cause Diesel was re­ally cre­ated from a dream. It was the dream of some­one who be­lieved he could ful­fill his dream and achieved it.”

“We are go­ing to cel­e­brate the re­birth of Diesel. Once again we have be­come cool,

like we were in the past.”

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