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Renzo Rosso: “We have gained respect”

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Renzo Rosso
Photo by The Talks
Short Profile

Name: Renzo Rosso
DOB: 15 September 1955
Place of birth: Bassano del Grappa, Veneto, Italy
Occupation: Entrepreneur

The book Radical Renaissance 55+5 offers insight into Renzo Rosso’s vision of fashion and entrepreneurship and is now out via Assouline books.

Mr. Rosso, as the founder of Diesel and its holding group, Only The Brave, why did you decide to start buying high-fashion brands?

I’m fascinated by beautiful things and I have an incredible respect for high fashion. I gain more and more respect for them the more involved I become in that part of the industry. I’ll give you an example: Ferrari or Lamborghini, they sell fewer cars than Toyota or Fiat, but when you see the beautiful cars they make you go “Wow!” The higher you look, the more you respect you have for the quality of the products they make. It’s the same with high fashion; I am fascinated by the beautiful fabrics, the exclusive distribution…

Maison Martin Margiela, which you acquired in 2002, seems like it was the perfect first luxury acquisition for you.

It actually wasn’t me who made that decision, it was Martin knocking on my door and asking me if I can support him! All the other important fashion parent groups wanted to buy the Margiela label. I asked Martin if he was sure and he said, “I don’t want anybody of these people. I want someone like you.”

“The most important thing is the brand’s lifestyle, the DNA, the heritage.”

Even though Margiela’s avant-garde aesthetic doesn’t exactly match Diesel’s more commercial history.

When you buy a company, the most important thing is the brand’s lifestyle, the DNA, the heritage. Even with Diesel, the history and archive of the brand is crucial. Many brands can just act as a collection to sell season by season, but some brands, they are so strong, they have an identity. That’s something I really see with Margiela, the brand itself is so strong. And that’s also how we ended up working with John Galliano — we just brought him to the Margiela archive, and he fell in love with the heritage of this brand.

A move many considered as risky after John Galliano was very publicly ousted from Dior. The label still holds Martin Margiela’s name — how involved was he in appointing Galliano?

Actually, Martin is the one that convinced me to hire John. Martin admired John, he was one of Martin’s idols. In the end, you have to give a chance to someone that made a mistake because everyone makes mistakes! I think Margiela was the perfect partner for John and his restart in fashion. But people did think I was crazy. And this is something we’ve always struggled with. When I started Diesel, it was difficult because people didn’t always understand my vision. I like to take risks so when I did something crazy or something different, they treated me like I was a little bit stupid, you know?

John Galliano's debut collection for Maison Martin Margiela Spring 2015 Artisanal, presented in London.

What do you think has changed over the years?

We have gained respect from the world of fashion. More and more as years pass, the industry sees us, they see our projects and there’s more visibility to our brand. We’ve earned respect. Today it’s much easier for us, the energy is coming naturally. Nowadays, when we do something normal, the industry reacts like, “Ah. That’s it?” (Laughs) Now everybody’s waiting for me to do something crazy. And sometimes it’s difficult to do always something that gets people to say, “Wow!”

It’s kind of a double-edged sword.

When we have meetings about upcoming campaigns or ideas, I’ll brief my team and I always tell them to please try to go as far as possible when it comes to creativity! We can tone it down later if we need to, but initially, we try to do something that is really unbelievable, really unexpected.

Where do you draw the line when it comes to being provocative?

Of course you don’t want to offend anybody, you can’t attach religion or humanity or sexism. You need to use irony but you need to use it with respect. In the past, it was easier to be provocative, but today, you definitely need to pay more attention because with social media, everyone can reply, everyone can say what they think. You need to have more respect.And that is a vision I have to give to my team! That’s how I drive them. It’s coming along, but it’s also very personal. That aspect is becoming harder.

Because you can’t give everyone the same attention anymore?

Exactly. It’s harder to keep the team motivated and energized now that the company has gotten so big. If you are small company, you can really work with each team member on a personal basis. I have people that used to work closely with me a long time ago telling me, “We miss you!” because now there are many more people in the chain between us. It’s unfortunate, and something I’m actually sorry for. I wish I could keep these relationships alive, but when you become a bigger company, you start to work with the managers, and the managers they have to transfer energy to the people below them. It’s difficult for me, but there’s only so much I can do.

“I might be known as a rebel but I’m also someone who never fights with my competitors.”

You seem much more connected to your team than many other fashion executives.

Definitely. I’m a family guy — I have seven children, I’m happy to say that I have a lot of friends because I know a lot of people in business that have no friends, they are so alone! For me, it’s much more important to connect with the team, to make it like a family, to speak with the guy on the floor at the Diesel store selling jeans.

Really?

Of course. I can go in and ask him, “What’s working? What’s not working? What’s the customer demanding that we don’t have?” And that way, indirectly you’re given exactly the temperature of the market from the people who actually buy your clothes, instead of reading marketing statistics or something… That’s me, you know? Report, report, report, in the end, I don’t like this. I actually hate this.

Is it important for you to maintain that balance? You don’t appear to take fashion quite as seriously as your competitors.

Absolutely. I like to smile because life can be so sad! Recently, we had a robbery at one of our Diesel warehouses and our entire collection was stolen. The local newspaper printed a story about it, so we shared it on our social media by saying, “See? Everyone wants Diesel!” (Laughs) If you don’t smile even at the shit things, the day becomes too long. I might be known as a rebel when it comes to marketing or buying, but I’m also someone who never fights with my competitors or other people in the fashion industry. I gain respect year by year because I have a good relationship with everyone.

Which is not very common within the industry either — especially when you are involved in multiple companies, it’s easy to step on people’s toes.

In the fashion industry, your neighbor becomes like your enemy. Most designers hate each other, they are all jealous of one another. But me, I love to see what the other people are doing. I see my competitors and other brands around me as stimulation for me to do better.