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Creative Engines: The Story of Diesel

Categories Fashion

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Men’s Style recently spoke with enigmatic Diesel founder Renzo Rosso and the man he has charged with rebooting the brand, artistic director Nicola Formichetti (pictured, above).

In the 1990s, Renzo Rosso presided over one of the coolest brands in the world. Diesel – the denim-led company he’d founded in Italy in the late 1970s – was famed all over the world for its edgy, create, socially aware ad and marketing campaigns, and to own a pair of Diesel jeans was to definitely be one of the “cool kids”.

But coolness, as it does, particularly in fashion, eventually loses its lustre and through an early noughties period where the energetic Rosso expanded his empire under his Only The Brave parent company – bringing Maison Martin Margiela, Viktor & Rolf , Marnin and some non-fashion businesses into the fold – Diesel inevitably lost some of its cutting-edge cred.

For the past couple of years under artistic director Nicola Formichetti – known to some as Lady GaGa’s personal stylist and to others as a wunderkind of London fashion magazines in the last half of the last decade – Diesel is in the midst of a brand reboot with no less a mission than to recapture the hip factor that made it great in the 1990s.

Both Rosso and Formichetti were in Australia for Melbourne Fashion Festival in March, speaking at a seminar as part of the festival’s Business Events Program, and took time out to speak to Men’s Style about the progress of Diesel’s reinvention. For Rosso, it was a return to the town he’d first visited in 1985, bringing a bag of Diesel product which he convinced the late Mark Keighery (founder of Marcs) to put in his stores as an introduction of the brand to the Australian market. Men’s Style wondered what the local audience for his appearance at Melbourne Fashion festival wanted to hear from the man acknowledged as guru of high-end denim.

“My formula is very simple,” he tells us. “I am very brave, I am willing to take a risk and I like to do new things. I’m a man who likes motivation. I’m very curious and I travel a lot, and I can get inspiration from a bar, from a restaurant, from a disco, from a street… everywhere I can find something interesting. Of course, I’m also very lucky because I have so many designers on board and when you have so many creative people working for you it’s very easy to share opinions and share ideas.”

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Rosso has previously said his approach to marketing his denim creations was shaped by his love of classic 1950s American culture – the rise of the rebel, biker culture, an anti-establishment mindset. It’s this DNA which Formichetti immersed himself in when he started with the brand in 2013, spending time in the Diesel archives in Italy in order to reacquaint himself with the cultural underpinnings of the brand.

“I wanted to make Diesel the coolest brand on the planet again, like it was in the 90s,” says Formichetti of his mission when he started with the brand. “And that’s still my goal and I never thought that I’d achieve it overnight.

“When I first went to the museum, I arranged the history into the most important parts of Diesel, which is the denim, the leather, the biker style, and I thought it was very important to keep that when I created the collection for today and for tomorrow, because that’s at the heart of the brand. It was a very good experience to live and breathe the archive pieces because they still feel relevant and they still will in five or 10 years, because it’s such a timeless thing and we’re so lucky to have this beautiful DNA.”

Since Diesel’s glory years, of course, much has changed in both the world and the fashion world – the rise of the Net and social media, and the arrival of “fast fashion” on the high street. Both developments provided a challenge to a company that had made its name with head-turning outdoor and print advertising. Rosso says that digital has transformed “every industry” and that Formichetti, still in his 30s, has brought vital knowledge to the company about how to interact with today’s consumers online.

“You have to pay attention to everything you put on the web,” observes Rosso. “Even if it’s not important where you buy, it’s important that you represent yourself in a nice way otherwise you’re dead. Before people buy in the store, perhaps 70 or 80 per cent of them already know your product form online research.”

Formichetti agrees, though having been repeatedly asked about social media  during his Melbourne trip, also has a slightly different take.

“Let’s not get eaten by social media,” he says. “The most important thing is to have your own image, and know what you want to say. Social media is just a tool to reach people and that’s it. I feel like everyone is just going a bit bananas, trying to take selfies… it’s getting a little ridiculous.”

Formichetti says whereas he once found ideas and inspiration in platforms like Tumblr, he currently finds himself more often referring to old-school formats like books and printed art for creative concepts and creating content “which exists in the places we live, from billboards to online and which says… Diesel!”

Of the challenge posed by fast fashion brands to a company like Diesel, which has always hung its hook on quality garments with a degree of handcrafting and premium materials, Formichetti sees a developing trend.

“Things that are special are becoming more important today,” he says. “You can get anything for super cheap these days but the quality isn’t there. We really care about the quality of the denim and we have crazy workmanship, and when you do that it’s hard to make the prices very low. But I think it’s important to have that one special garment that you save up for and you buy and you wear for a long time. I feel like that is becoming more important.”

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Rosso, now 60, clearly invests a lot of faith in Formichetti’s mission to reboot the famous brand, saying “he’s as brave as I was”. Does he ever wonder whether the global brand he created will still be around in 100 years?

“We have built a very solid statement for this brand,” he says. “It’s incredible what we have done in 38 years. The heritage of his brand is unbelievable., I think we’ll still be here in 100 years, but of course, in a different way. Diesel is very solid, very human and part of an incredible lifestyle.”

diesel-adsDIESEL’S KEY DATES

1978: Rosso founds Diesel with business partner Adriano Goldschmied in Italy, the name Diesel taken because it was an “alternative” to petrol during the 1970s oil crisis, and Rosso wanted his jeans perceived as alternative.

1981: Rosso begins his mission to take the brand global, distributing his denim in other markets via strategic partners.

1985: Diesel exits the original parent company, Genius Group, with Rosso taking full control.

1991: It’s famous “For Successful Living” ad campaign is first launched.

1995: The company launches www.diesel.com, one of the first fashion companies to launch a site.

1996: Diesel begins launching its own flagship stores, initially concentrating on the US and UK but by 1998 encompassing 35 directly owned stores internationally.

2007: Collaboration with L’Oreal on Diesel’s first fragrance, Fuel For Life. Collabs with Fiat and adidas followed the next year.

2008: Introduction of new premium line extension, Diesel Black Gold.

2013: Appointment of Nicola Formichetti as Artistic Director