You wouldn’t pick up a pair of Fratelli Rossetti shoes if you’re looking for something that’s terribly fashion forward. Lucite wedges? They’re not in their latest collection and are unlikely to ever be. You won’t find shoes with an FR logo plastered all over the leather either. But the moment you’re one pair down, you won’t be able to get enough of the soft calfskin moccasins, open-toed pumps and jewelled stilettos.
We ran into Diego Rossetti, the CEO of this Italian family-owned brand, at the Hindustan Times Mint Luxury Conference held last month at New Delhi’s Taj Palace Hotel.
And he taught us a thing or two about pigeonholing heads of luxury brands. When he says he loves the outdoors, don’t put that through the CEO-speak translator and figure that he plays golf over the weekend. What he really means is he has spent hours hiking, bicycling and gliding around the world. When he says he loves Nepal, that translates to supporting two charities there, releasing a book of photographs on its children and making one of them his own.
We settle down for the afternoon at the plush Networking Lounge. Before our meeting, Rossetti sits through part of the discussion on the future of luxury in new markets, between Yves Carcelle, chairman and CEO of Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, and Françoise Montenay, chairman of the Comite Colbert and CEO of Chanel. (Rossetti also speaks at the conference the next day, on understanding the luxury consumer. He says his brand aims to integrate itself into the Indian way of dressing; he’d like to see Rossetti shoes worn with saris.)
Despite the Moet chilling in a silver bucket and despite Rossetti’s India-based associate recommending the grappa, he picks a glass of orange juice. I know he’s got two meetings after this, so I don’t push the Moet and follow his lead. Vitamin C never hurt anyone.
The dark suited and (of course) impeccably shod Rossetti is the eldest of the second generation. His father, Renzo, and uncle, Renato, started the shoe label in 1955 and the Rossettis still own it. Fifty years is baby talk if you compare it with some luxury houses that trace their genealogy back to the 1800s. Rossetti’s very proud of the fact that his company is as old as he is. “When I say we started in 1955, what I mean is that my father actually hired someone in that year,” he explains. Before that it was his father and uncle who ran the company, “which, like any typical Italian business, was born from an embryo”, he says.
Rossetti says he grew up wondering whether his house was a home or a workroom. “My father worked seven days a week. We had to go to the workroom in order to see him,” he says. That’s where he learned to live shoes. He started working when he was 14, cutting leather. “You know, shoes are very difficult to make,” he smiles, sipping his juice. “One can’t imagine the number of small components and different materials and pieces that go into it. But that’s where I found my passion for the product,” he says.
His fondest memories of that time are those of his father trying to teach him not to waste leather. Leather has different parts, he explains, setting his glass down to gesticulate. “I was very sharp in choosing the direction of cutting. You can’t just cut however you want, you have to choose the right part,” he says. Rossetti remembers he wanted everything to be top-notch, cutting all the parts of the shoe out of the best bits of leather. “I was a big waster,” he laughs.
Today, his father, now the honorary president, presumably doesn’t give him lectures on prudence, because under Rossetti’s guidance, the brand has doubled its business in the past 10 years.
His label today has a presence in “all of the civilized world”, and is expanding to include fresh markets. The brand’s first store in Mumbai’s Grand Hyatt Plaza was opened a little over a year ago and one in Delhi was scheduled for this year, but because of a lack of good retail space, that perennial problem for foreign luxe brands, that store is on hold.
His other project is Nepal Ghaar, a shelter for women and children who are victims of the civil warWhile India has a lack of luxury retail space, Rossetti says he’s not too keen on expanding in China, where they have more infrastructure. He also won’t sit on the fence if there’s ever a China vs India debate. “Between China and India, this is the best market. Indians are ready to understand quality. In China, they are only impressed by the brand, they have no style,” he says. In new markets, the ones that are doing well are the biggest global brands, he explains. “If you’re not among the top five or six brands, business is difficult.”
His greatest hurdle in India, besides a space to sell out of, of course, has been to make consumers aware of the product. “Our products fit Indian tastes perfectly and consumers who can afford them are all over the place, but I know exactly how difficult it is to teach consumers how to see a good quality shoe,” he explains.
Rossetti doesn’t look like he spends much time in the boardroom. He’s got a tan that definitely hasn’t come from doing time under a tanning lamp. “I love being in the open—hiking, bicycling, gliding,” he says. His beloved Milan is perfectly located. “It’s one hour from the seaside and 45 minutes from the mountains,” he says. He often takes his 14-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter sailing in the Adriatic.
His love for adventure is what brought him to Nepal, and he put down roots there, which still remain. “My first trip to Nepal was in the late 1980s, when I came as a hiker and spent some time in Annapoorna and Kathmandu,” he says. He became involved with an orphanage and he later adopted a Nepalese girl, Swarswati. He is the main benefactor of Apeiron, an NGO that teaches women weaving. “They make silk scarves, which we sell in Italy at fair prices and reinvest the margins,” he explains. His other project is Nepal Ghaar, a shelter for women and children who are victims of the civil war. “I’m the only entrepreneur in these projects, so I’m trying to organize it and teach them good management,” he says.
His love for the country also resulted in a book of photographs of Nepalese children, Il mio Nepal (My Nepal), the proceeds of which went to his shelters. (He dashes up to his room to fetch a copy; the pages are filled with black-and-white shots of beaming Nepalese children.)
“My children don’t love shoes as yet,” he says, as he packs up to head to another meeting. “But since there are seven cousins in the third generation of the family, my brothers and I decided not to push them. I don’t think my son even knows where my office is,” he smiles. Won’t be long before he wants to find out.
Name: Diego Rossetti
Born: 1956 (in Milan)
Education: Went to a local school in Milan and later graduated in architecture from the Politecnico di Milano.
Work profile: Started working in the workshop of the family-owned shoe business at the age of 14. Is now CEO and chairman, with a focus on marketing the Fratelli Rossetti brand worldwide.