When Renzo Rosso first tried to sell his jeans, he found a lot of people looked at him as if he was insane. It wasn’t just the price he was asking – around $100 at a time when jeans were a commodity item selling for a third of that – but the fact that his jeans were full of holes. And, what’s more, holes, rips, stains, fades and scuffs that he had deliberately put there using assorted power tools.
‘I just found old and old-looking jeans more interesting than new ones, much as an old house tends to be more interesting than a new one – it’s alive,’ says the 61-year-old Rosso, who claims to only ever wear jeans. ‘But in the beginning people just didn’t understand the concept, neither the price nor the look. People said I was crazy. But you can get people to trust you if you’re really convinced yourself.’
Indeed, this conviction has worked out rather well, resulting in a business with $1.6bn in annual revenues and his own estimated net worth of $3.3bn. Rosso would parlay his idea of pre-distressed denim into the global enterprise that is Diesel, arguably one of the most progressive names in the denim and casualwear business of the past three decades.
‘It’s funny now, but just not that many people were interested in denim then,’ recalls Rosso of the late 1970s. ‘You’d go to a big city like London and speak about denim and people were think that you were strange, or trying to do something revolutionary. But I just wanted denim to be more part of fashion. In that I was part of a small movement. There was no sense that denim would come to be considered a luxury product, or be seen on the red carpet.’
But Rosso clearly had an eye for opportunity. Having made his first pair of jeans aged 15 using his seamstress mother’s sewing machine, he then ran up a few more pairs to sell to his friends. From there he went on to study textiles before joining Moltex, owned by Adriano Goldschmied. Two years later, in 1978, Diesel was launched under the umbrella of the newly created Genius Group; by 1985 Rosso was in a position to buy out Goldschmied’s stake in Diesel and take sole control of the brand. It was a shrewd move: in the first year of his ownership, he says, he quadrupled the brand’s revenue to create a multimillion-dollar company.
Attitude has been key to that continued success. While fashion can take itself all rather seriously, Rosso’s groundbreaking, multi-award-winning advertising is loaded with irony, self-deprecation and downright mockery. ‘For successful living’ has become Diesel’s heavily sarcastic slogan.
‘The fact is that you always have to be fresh and cool in this business – and product isn’t enough,’ he says. ‘Denim was becoming a lifestyle, so I wanted to service a group of people who didn’t want to look strange or think out of the box, but who, so to speak, wanted to be a bit different in the box, to be a community. I didn’t ever want to tell people what to buy, but rather to share a philosophy with them.’
It is a philosophy Rosso has, since the 1990s, turned into a much bigger operation. He has reshaped Diesel as a flexible lifestyle brand – you can, if you want, now buy Diesel furniture, flooring or kitchen units – but also rapidly expanded his business’s reach beyond denim. His OTB group now owns not only Diesel but more cerebral high-fashion brands, including Marni, Viktor & Rolf and Maison Margiela.
‘You get a bigger business in part through working with incredible people who grow your brain, who have a different vision,’ says Rosso. ‘I’m good at finding good people. I’m not a designer but an entrepreneur, and I can see where things are going. But what is really important to me is that we do something special, be it the clothes or an ad campaign. I like to come here, enjoy the day, have a nice lunch and go home: and to always work with passion.’
‘You know,’ he adds, ‘what I like to do is see how things could be, rather than how they are. There’s no genius in that, but you do need to give people the opportunity to think with the same spirit. All my life I’ve wanted to do things bigger. And all the time I expected it to get harder as we got bigger. But actually it’s precisely that spirit that has allowed us to get bigger in the first place.’