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MOLVENA, Italy — Much like the brand that he works on, Diesel’s Wilbert Das likes to embrace contradictions.
Das, the $660 million company’s creative director, appears laid-back, nonconforming and young in spirit.
Although owner Renzo Rosso is seen as the main driver of Diesel’s growth and success, Das is the quiet giant pushing its creative engine. That’s just fine by him.
“It’s heavy to be the man in the picture. It takes a lot of time,” Das says, referring to Rosso. “I’m perfectly happy being the man behind the scenes. As long as people know what you’re doing, it can’t be completely denied.”
After close to 15 years with Diesel, Das’ imprint, from creating a modern denim company to executing irreverent ad campaigns, is undeniable.
“It’s difficult to put all those years in a couple sentences, but I think what has made us so successful is that we understood that change is possible in the denim world and it is also what people like,” Das said, sitting comfortably behind a reproduction of a French provincial table in his office at Diesel’s style studio in the northwestern Italian town of Molvena. “People appreciate innovation and we’ve never been afraid to change every six months.”
Change is what drew the Dutch native to Italy in 1988. During that time, Das said, he was intrigued by the revolution that was going on in Italian fashion.
“It was a sense of freedom in design, but for wearable clothing,” Das said. “It didn’t have this feeling of high fashion. It was just really well-thought-out clothing made with a lot of love, and made really well.”
After graduating from design school in Amsterdam, Das packed up his car and drove to Italy. He arrived at Diesel at three o’clock one afternoon and started working there an hour later.
“It was my first job,” Das says laughing. “It’s been my only job.”
The Diesel brand grew slowly, but Das said he remembers one season in the early Nineties as being a watershed moment in the development of the brand. The company was showing its collection at the now-defunct SEHM trade show in Paris when they decided to go against the status quo.
“At the time, the whole denim world was very much based on Americana — this Fifties image,” Das says. “We had the courage to leave that world and went instead into this whole Seventies European feeling.”
Everything from the cut and wash of the jeans to Diesel’s lacquered and colorful booth caught the attention of retailers, Das said.
From that moment on, Das and his team continually strove to create new appeal in denim. The challenge, however, has always been reinventing season after season.
“We try to keep our heads cool, because now it’s a little too hot,” Das said. “We’re really living in the explosion of denim. Normally, you get too much and then people go to something else for a while and then they will come back to denim. Diesel’s heart is very close to denim. It’s our essence. So we just go ahead without too much speculating on what will be the next trend. Everything we do is very intuition based.”
Das appears to be firmly grounded in reality, perhaps because he lives in the hills of the Veneto — and not in the fashion-inundated streets of Milan — or because he approaches design by colliding images.
“We’re really a team company and work together. That was one of the reasons why I came to Diesel, because it didn’t have a name, a person behind it,” Das says. “Our process of creating collections has always been very organic.”
Standing over 6 feet 2 inches tall and dressed in white jeans and a white hooded sweatshirt with Diesel in blue letters and his flaxen buzzed hair slightly receding, Das looks like a Diesel customer.
Although he’s about to turn 40 later this year, he still seems to possess the wide-eyed curiosity and inquisitiveness of a younger man.
Das has numerous pictures of boxing champs, from Muhammad Ali to Mike Tyson, plastered across his wall. The rawness of those images is offset by the bucolic view from his window.
His office is a kitschy mix that includes a Fifties credenza, a modern plastic orange chair and a pony-skin throw rug. Even when taking time to indulge his favorite hobby, gardening, he prefers to mix things up, using wild plants, hardy vegetables and delicate flowers.
Das said that from the time he joined Diesel, he wanted to challenge what a denim company could become. He has always stressed creating clothes that could be worn by real people.
“One of my goals was to see something that I created on the street,” he said.
From Diesel’s sales figures, it’s safe to say Das has accomplished that goal.
For Rosso, Das’ input and guidance have been invaluable. “A long time ago, Wilbert begged me for a job,” Rosso said in his autobiographical book, “Forty.” “Now I beg him to stay.”