Refuelling Diesel

Renzo Rosso on rebooting the Italian denim brand and why multinational companies could drive the world in the future


Renzo Rosso, president of the OTB (Only The Brave) Group. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Renzo Rosso, president of the OTB (Only The Brave) Group. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

He stands out in a crowd. But even when he stands alone, Renzo Rosso’s mass of long, unruly greying curls and stubble are the first things you notice. He is dressed in a black tailored jacket, black denims and sneakers. Give him a guitar and he will look like a rock star. It helps that he grew up in the 1960s and 1970s in a small Italian village chasing an American dream. He idolized James Dean, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, and literally lived the words “rebel” and “cool”.

Rosso, 60, president of the OTB (Only The Brave) Group that owns Diesel among other fashion and lifestyle brands, was in India last week. He attended the first day of the Lakmé Fashion Week’s Spring-Summer 2016 edition in Mumbai as the guest of honour and shared his philosophy with designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee in a session titled Renzo Rosso Decoded. The next day he interacted with students at Delhi’s National Institute of Fashion Technology.

While in India, Rosso also announced a collaboration with Indian Premier League team Mumbai Indians for exclusive merchandise that will be available across popular cricket-playing nations. The first collection will be launched later this year.

“India is much more global today. The number of brands coming here from across the world speaks volumes about the country’s importance as a market,” says Rosso who was visiting after six years. “It is moving a bit slower than we’d have liked. But, I’d like to believe that India is going the Diesel way, slow but steady. It is not like Russia, China or Brazil that went bust as quickly as they boomed.”

The most popular denim brand in Europe, Diesel was launched in 1978 by Rosso. Regular Diesel wearers would soon become a recognizable community. Washes like 772, 71J, 81M or 61X, among others, defined denim trends after the turn of the millennium. According to a 2013 article in The New York Times, the company had sold more than 100 million pairs of jeans by that year.

But it began to tire out, making reinvention necessary to stay relevant. “I was tired of Diesel,” admits Rosso. “I could not see the happiness and the innovation in the product anymore that was there when I started. So it was time for a reboot.”

The Diesel Reboot that began three years ago saw a new management being brought in to give a contemporary look to the collections. The idea was to refine denim further and make it premium while keeping it cool. The first person to be hired was artistic director Nicola Formichetti, who had formerly worked for Uniqlo and Lady Gaga, among others. “I see him as the new Renzo Rosso,” says Rosso. “He is as crazy as I was in younger days.”

Diesel has also started looking more seriously at female customers to widen its customer base. The Spring-Summer 2016 ad campaign reflects this shift as does the company’s chosen focus on social media. Online retail has changed the shape of the fashion industry but despite the rapid growth and ease of buying, online sales won’t make offline stores obsolete, Rosso says he believes.

“The look, touch and feel is the biggest USP of a physical store. I think the future is going to be a better mix of the two—online and offline,” he says.

Rosso’s is a classic rags-to-riches story. He was born in 1955 to a family of farmers in Brugine, a village in north-eastern Italy. “Till I was 12, my mother gave me my elder brother’s hand-me-down trousers,” he says. “I got my first pair of new jeans when I was 12. It was the moment of my life. I had to go through so much for my first pair of jeans that from that day onwards, I have only worn denims every single day,” he says.

Denims, synonymous with fashion cool or rebellion in Rosso’s growing-up years, were also part of his American dream. At 15, he made the first pair for himself using his mother’s Singer sewing machine. It was a skintight pair with a 17-inch flare. Friends liked it. He made more for them, for a price, and the rest is history.

Today, Rosso travels in a chartered jet as president of the €1.6 billion (consolidated revenue in 2014) OTB Group. Created in 2002, OTB also owns brands like Maison Margiela, Marni, Viktor and Rolf, Staff International, and Brave Kid.

Rosso is known for thought-provoking ads redefining boundaries in fashion advertising. A 1995 ad, for instance, showed two male sailors kissing. Then came the “Be Stupid” ads with taglines like “Land of the Brave, Home of the Stupid” and “Smart sees what there is. Stupid sees what there could be”.

“People often say those ads were provocative. I think they were more to interact with my customers,” says Rosso, now looking at fashion’s new buzzwords with interest.

Sustainability is one. “We want to be sustainable. We have solar panels installed at our headquarters in Breganze, in the Venetian countryside in Italy, and most of the electricity is generated from them. The leftover food in the canteens is given away every day. We use a carpooling system for work and a lot of recycled materials. We are also working on a global project for sustainability.”

In 2012, Rosso pledged €5.5 million for the restoration of Venice’s Rialto bridge through the OTB Foundation, which has invested in more than 170 social projects around the world till date.

“Big companies today have bigger responsibility, bigger than some governments in the world. They also have a global role to play,” says Rosso. “Governments can act in the geographical locations they’re in but multinationals are spread worldwide. They can help the world become a better place; they can drive the world in the future.

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