Text by Kee | Photos courtesy of Diesel
Renzo Rosso

To be the best you have to be brave enough to beat the best. If there’s one thing that Renzo Rosso isn’t short of – no, not money – is courage. Rather than obsess over making his next billion or flying to space, the president of the OTB group and fashion industry’s original disruptor is making all the right moves in ensuring that Italian fashion interests continue to thrive in these uncertain times. With fresh acquisitions and a new man taking charge of his forever project at Diesel, it’s easy to see why he is no longer an outsider looking in but the one calling the shots.

Renzo Rosso continues to power through his day like the driven 22-year-old he was when he bought a minority stake in a clothing manufacturing firm that we now know as Diesel. (Spoiler alert: He bought out the rest of the company by the age of 30 and is now a multi-billionaire and one of the most influential decision makers in luxury fashion.) At the age of 65 – he turns 66 in September – it would appear that Rosso has done it all. He can lay claim to the title of owner/boss on subject matters like hotel, luxury apartments, yacht, vineyard, football club… seven children. And it all started from a ballsy move to introduce character into denim jeans, marketing distressed denim with a premium price tag and going head-to-head with the more established labels and even charging more for his versions just because. To everyone’s surprise – not his – Diesel’s sales soared, achieving a year-on-year growth by the several millions in the late ’80s and ’90s. Though Diesel’s authenticity in its denim production won over admirers, part of the charm in the early days was centred on Rosso’s role as the ultimate hypeman. He could probably sell denim to a cowboy at quadruple the price if need be. That said, Rosso would be the first to admit that as long as he is having fun, Diesel will continue to thrive. He has invested a considerable amount of money in the last couple of decades to ensure that Diesel’s seasonal advertising campaigns are as tongue-in-cheek as they are thought-provoking. Whether it is opening the discussion on social issues like bullying or questioning the authenticity of social media imageries by influencers, each one is as memorable as the next. Rosso is able to see the funny side of the business and is even able to greenlight guerrilla marketing campaigns that poke fun at Diesel’s expense. For example, in 2018 it opened a pop-up store in New York’s Chinatown that sold bootlegged Diesel merch, obviously misspelling its brand name as Deisel on box logo tees and even on the back tab of its jeans. Earlier this year, Diesel pushed the envelope further by announcing a collab with itself, a Diesel x Diesel capsule collection that was essentially an archival update of its past pieces remade for the new gen. But don’t mistake the brand for being a part-time ad agency; Rosso is adamant that innovation continues to be central in its push for supremacy – in treatments, cuts, and washes. It has a department that specialises on next-level techniques such as laser-cuts and even experimenting with anti-viral treatment on denim. Today, Rosso is also vocal about sustainability being the crux of any business, especially when it comes to Diesel’s impact on the environment (yes, we notice the irony that the name of a liquid fuel is talked about in the same sentence as sustainability). Its first big initiative to tackle this issue is called the Diesel Library, an environmentally-friendly series that has been integrated in its spring-summer 2022 collection. A key push is that the denim creations will be made from recycled fabric and organic fibres, which are all treated with reduced water wastage and less harmful chemicals – woke denim if you can call it that. Belgian designer Glenn Martens is leading the charge, having been hired by Rosso a year ago to bring forth those whacky denim ideas he has championed with consistency under the Y/Project label. Martens isn’t likely to be the last unlikely name Rosso brings into his OTB stable of brands, having previously shown great foresight in giving former Dior creative lead John Galliano a second chance with the new look Maison Margiela house he acquired in 2008. The portfolio of fashion labels at OTB looks strong with Viktor&Rolf, Marni, and Jil Sander (there’s also a minority stake in Amiri) making up the rest of the clique. Rosso has admitted that if given a chance, he would continue to beef up his group’s fashion portfolio with further acquisitions but only brands that he deems sexy and edgy enough to make a difference in today’s highly demanding and overcrowded retail space. And if you think Rosso doesn’t have the same fire in his belly today as when he first started prototyping his own denim jeans as a teenager, he has been proving doubters wrong his entire life – and laughing all the way to the bank while at it.

Renzo Rosso in a campaign for Diesel Library

MANIFESTO: When it comes to the creative people you have hired, it has consistently been a surprise, from Nicola Formichetti to John Galliano. Since last year, Y/Project’s Glenn Martens has been on board with Diesel. What made him the perfect hire?

RENZO ROSSO: Glenn is a true fashion designer and he did not enter into fashion from other means. He studied in the same school (Royal Academy of Antwerp) as Martin Margiela and he has a couture mentality in his work. There’s a real fashion mindset in what he does; he knows how to create a piece of clothing from scratch. I’ve followed Glenn’s work for the last four to five years. He was part of a competition in Paris called Andam and I was also his mentor. I also did the Diesel Red Tag concept with Glenn a few years ago and we got to know each other well. He is able to interpret denim with credibility. What you see in his collection for Diesel is the incredible technology and the treatments coupled with his creativity. He has brought a few others into his team and they are coming up with unbelievable things. I can’t wait to see the products in the stores.

M: Does Glenn remind you of your early days at Diesel?

RR: Yes, he encompasses the DNA of the brand. I’ve spent time with him at the museum and looking at the archives, poring through all the pieces we created in the ’80s and ’90s. He has brought a lot of detailing into the product-making process, being able to refine a prototype with additional touches such as in the stitching. It is fantastic because it reminds me of what I was doing back then – and I’m not a couturier like he is and never designed in my life – but he has that eye for modernity too. I work with John Galliano too [at Maison Margiela] and he is fantastic. I consider John to be the best creative director in the world. Before Martin Margiela left the company, he told me: “Don’t hire another designer; hire a couturier.”

Glenn Martens' first complete ready-to-wear collection for Diesel, spring-summer 2022

M: You appear to have such a hands-on approach for Diesel. But that’s also because it’s the brand that started your entire fashion investment and creative journey so there’s a stronger attachment there.

RR: I have always been interested in the creative side of the business. I was in Sardinia last weekend and I saw a wall. I took a picture of it and sent it to Glenn. We have a group chat that includes the merchandiser and I still feel very much part of the team.

M: You’ve been through your fair share of challenges in the last few decades. Is this current pandemic the hardest time thus far?

RR: For me, it is a fantastic moment. The pandemic has accelerated digital strategies. The company has started to work in a different way. We are becoming more modern. We work using 3D to create our products and we don’t even have to make the prototype. We are able to show our retailers what we intend to create digitally and in turn save costs. Because the borders are closed for most countries, I feel you have to work closer with the local teams in each country to create something new. For example, we do special collections for China because the Chinese do want the brand. So, this helps to expand on our creativity. Of course, I do miss travelling. Travelling always gives me more energy and ideas for my work.

One of Diesel's masterful guerilla fashion campaigns

M: You do take an effort to support up-and-coming designers. Why is this renewal process important for you and what’s the next step in helping the new gen?

RR: Every morning, I’m being informed about what’s happening around the world in terms of fashion trends and new designers. I love the new creativity from Chinese designers and I was even part of the jury a few weeks ago for the Yu Prize at Shanghai Fashion Week. I was shocked at the level of improvements being made in China in terms of design. It is unbelievable. They are young and making mistakes is part of the learning process. But if I get a chance to work with them – to provide my expertise and experience – it would be a perfect marriage. (The winner of the Yu Prize also earns a one-year mentorship with Rosso.)

M: When was the first time you were in Asia? And what was the fashion scene like back then?

RR: It was in the early ’80s when I went to China. I remember there were no large buildings, just little houses and rickshaws on the road. There were no retail stores like today and I thought “Mamma mia, I don’t think I can sell a pair of jeans here.” Back then, there was only one TV channel and if you wanted to buy anything at the supermarket you had to wait in-line for a long time and there weren’t many things to choose from. Now, I consider Shanghai as one of the most modern and coolest cities in the world. What has surprised me about the Chinese is how fast they have developed their fashion sense. At Salitun in Beijing, where our store is, you can see the kids dressing in more extreme ways than even in Harajuku. The progress is crazy.

Diesel made a parody about collaborating with itself in a Diesel x Diesel campaign

M: The world is more connected now because of social media and people are getting more knowledgeable. You’re also rather active on Instagram as well. Is this something that you’re used to, this information at your fingertips as well as instant feedback?

RR: I use social media in an honest way. I don’t use Instagram to show off. I’m on social media because it’s necessary if you’re living in the world today. You get to understand how the world moves and what people are thinking. If you give someone your account to run it, it’s not right. I make mistakes online but it is part of life and part of existing.

M: You’ve always been honest with your words and this form of sincerity is also rare to come by especially when we’re all afraid of offending someone in today’s hyper woke culture. Have you always been a straight shooter?

RR: My father taught me some simple values: respect and help others, and value life. It is this education that I have applied to help grow my company and it is how I work with my people as well. I’m not fake when I talk to people every day. I’m the same person in the way I talk to you now and how I behave on social media too.

I’m a super positive person. I believe that every problem can be solved. It’s just that a lot of people keep talking but don’t put in the work to want to solve the problem. I have a new ambassadorial role in Italy. The government has given me the mission to help showcase Italy’s beauty to the rest of the world. (Rosso has been appointed as a delegate by the Confindustria to boost the image and connections of the Italian industrial sector within Europe and in the rest of the world.)

Renzo Rosso considers John Galliano as the greatest creative director around

M: Some of your children are part of OTB. Is it the plan for the next generation to takeover when you do decide to step away from the business?

RR: I have seven children. Andrea is already part of the company. He is the creative director of the licenses of Diesel, so if you talk about lighting, bathroom and kitchen ware he is the creative guy in-charge of those segments along with running his upcycled line Myar. Stefano is closer to me in terms of business as he is part of the board and takes care of most sections in the company. Stefano has been doing such a good job especially in his last mission of taking care of North America as it was losing money for 10 years and now we are back to making money there. My daughter Alessia is working at our marketing department in New York. The rest of my kids are still in school.

M: Has it been easy to work with your children?

RR: Let’s put it this way, I have never asked them to be part of the business. I told them: “You’re free to do whatever you want. Even if you want money to go surfing for the rest of your life, you can do that.” For example, Andrea told me one day that he was going to go surfing for a year. I said fine. And after a year, he said he wanted to go to university. Four years of education later, he came back to work for the company. I respect my children and want them to live their lives.

Diesel's anti-viral denim

M: The group’s acronym stands for Only The Brave, how did that come about and what does it mean to you today?

RR: I came up with the name back in ’81 or ’82. At that time, denim jean companies were often associated with the Native American image and retailers were not entirely convinced about our name. So, I brought in a London-based artist to work on a new logo for the company. He stayed in a rented apartment and kept to himself doing research. After 15 days, he came up with a design that reflected an attitude rather than a Native American imagery. (The original logo features a man with a Mohican hairdo.) He told me that this logo was based on a punk rocker, which at that time was reflective of the punk tribes at King’s Road in London. We wanted to differentiate ourselves from denim companies who were using Native American imageries as marketing. The meaning of brave has since become part of my life and attitude – I even have the words Only The Brave tattooed on my body.

A Diesel campaign, starring Nicki Minaj, that tackled the topic of bullying

M: Diesel’s campaigns are critically acclaimed for its cheekiness as well as social commentary. Most importantly, they show off the clothes as well. Is this an extension of your character?

RR: It’s totally me. If we ever had a super serious meeting, I will still find a way to make it less serious. I feel that life doesn’t need to be super serious or it would be really sad. I think seeing the irony in any situation is a part of me.

M: Which has been your favourite campaign for Diesel thus far?

RR: It’s difficult to say. I’m in my office now and there are a lot of Lions (from the Cannes Advertising Film Festival) in front of me as a result of these campaigns. I don’t count them but I think there might be 50. Now, we have a chance for Diesel to be super cool again and I’m excited about it.


A post shared by Renzo Rosso (@renzorosso)

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