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Opposites Attract: Diesel Buys Majority Of Martin Margiela

PARIS — Fashion’s Greta Garbo has wed its Harpo Marx: The intensely secretive Belgian designer Martin Margiela and the flamboyant Italian industrialist Renzo Rosso have entered into an unexpected alliance.<br><br>Rosso, the jet-setting...

PARIS — Fashion’s Greta Garbo has wed its Harpo Marx: The intensely secretive Belgian designer Martin Margiela and the flamboyant Italian industrialist Renzo Rosso have entered into an unexpected alliance.

Rosso, the jet-setting president of Diesel, said Wednesday that he has purchased a majority stake in Margiela’s Paris-based house for an undisclosed sum with plans to slowly build the enigmatic designer’s business.

“Martin is incredibly charming and so intelligent,” in an exclusive interview. “I love this man. This is not an acquisition. I’m not buying a fashion company like other groups have done. I’m investing in Margiela so two friends can work together to grow a very special brand.”

Rosso said he has known Margiela for two-and-a-half years, since he purchased Staff International, the Italian ready-to-wear maker that has produced Margiela’s collections under license for the last 10 years.

“We’ve gotten to know each other quite well,” Rosso said. “Two months ago we started talking about the partnership. It seemed to make sense from all perspectives.”

Rosso, who becomes president of Margiela, taking that title from the company’s co-founder Jenny Meirens, said that the house will remain independent, creatively. Meirens will stay with the house.

“What I bring is logistical, production and financial support,” said Rosso. “I don’t want to change the identity of Martin Margiela. I will leave that end of the business totally to Martin and Jenny.”

Margiela and Meirens, who founded the house in 1988, remain minority shareholders under the agreement. Meirens stays on the management board of the company, which had wholesale sales of about $18 million last year. Meanwhile, Margiela’s distribution partner in Japan, Mitsubishi Corp., has taken a minority stake in the house, too.

Rosso said the deal would allow Margiela to develop new products and expand his retail network. At present, the firm operates stores in Tokyo and Paris. Later this month, it plans to inaugurate a separate men’s store in Paris near the women’s shop it opened this summer next to the Palais Royale.

Rosso said he, Margiela and Meirens would sit down in the coming weeks to iron out a five-year development plan for the brand. But he underscored that Margiela, which employs 65 people and is carried in 260 doors around the world, would not morph into a megabrand.

“Diesel is carried in some 5,000 shops around the world,” said Rosso. “It’s a popular brand. Margiela is and should remain more exclusive.” Diesel sales surpassed $500 million last year. (For a story on Diesel’s new shop at Bloomingdale’s, see page 7.)

“It’s so fantastic to have a little brand,” Rosso added. “People want more exclusive products now. That’s the trend. It will remain very important to grow Martin Margiela slowly.”

When asked of the eventuality of Margiela designing jeans in association with Diesel, as Karl Lagerfeld did for his Lagerfeld Gallery collection for fall, Rosso said, “It’s too early to know everything we’ll do. But I think of Margiela as already having a strong jeans identity. It won’t be necessary for him to work with Diesel.”

The partnership represents a watershed among the fiercely independent Belgian designer set, which has long trumpeted its creative freedom and spurned the idea of joining larger fashion groups in pursuit of expansion.

Margiela, in his mid-forties, has long been considered the most independent of the group that became known as the Antwerp Six, whose members include Dries Van Noten and Ann Demeulemeester.

He has a reputation for stirring up controversy and pushing fashion ideas to the extreme, as in his use of aggressively oversized silhouettes and his iconoclastic runway presentations. Meanwhile, he has remained enigmatic in the high-publicity fashion business by refusing to be photographed or interviewed face-to-face. The disclosure of the deal Wednesday was no exception: the designer was no-where to be found.

Besides doing his own signature collections for men and women, Margiela has designed women’s ready-to-wear for Hermès since 1998. Speaking on the designer’s behalf, a spokesman said the new deal would not affect Margiela’s duties at Hermès, nor his approach to his work.

“This is a very natural partnership for Margiela,” the spokesman said. “The shareholders have changed, but the culture of the house remains the same.”

Rosso also shrugged off suggestions that his outspoken ways might clash with Margiela’s press-shy habits.

“We get along very well,” said Rosso. “We are complementary. I can do the promotion and the interviews while Martin can concentrate on the fashion.”

Rosso flew to Paris on Wednesday evening from Tokyo to celebrate the deal with Margiela and his staff. He said that he and Margiela have partied together on many occasions.

“Martin likes a good party and he loves enjoying life,” he said. “I’m more industrial. I’m a businessman and good at marketing. Martin’s totally creative. But we’ve clicked. When we talk about anything, he always has interesting ideas and he’s a great problem solver. I really respect his work.”