NEW DELHI — It was the final moment after his talk at the National Institute of Fashion Technology here when Renzo Rosso said, “Anyone who wants to take selfies come up on stage.”
He won the crowd with that and stood unruffled, and smiling as students leaped on stage with fervor, surrounding him.
Rosso, founder of Diesel and of the OTB Group that also owns Maison Margiela, Marni and Viktor & Rolf, was like a returning hero as he came back to India for the first time after Diesel was launched in India in 2010, in collaboration with Reliance Brands.
Now with 11 stores in India, and more opening soon, Rosso visited at a time when his brand is growing in India. He was also guest of honor at Lakme Fashion Week and at a Diesel party in Mumbai, where the celebration and decibel level were so high that Darshan Mehta, chief executive officer and president of Reliance Brands, lost his voice.
Also unveiled during his visit was the first-ever association between Diesel and the sport of cricket, with the announcement that the brand would produce a limited-edition capsule collection for Mumbai Indians, a cricket team representing the city of Mumbai in the Indian Premier League.
Diesel will produce an exclusive line of off-the-field Mumbai Indian merchandise, with both tops and bottoms. The collection will be available globally across popular cricket playing nations including Australia, England and South Africa.
The first assortment is expected to launch in fall 2016.
While much has changed in his own life — including a new child and grandchild — a lot has remained the same: Rosso’s belief in the number five — he was born in 1955 and both his first and last name are five letters; his ability to connect to the people he is with — the signature warmth that helped build his brand following, and, over the last decade, the tattoos on his body that mark both his personal life and his brand growth.
Rosso uses his hands extensively as he speaks, displaying the two tattooed middle fingers of his left hand, which say RR in bold letters. “A gift to myself for my 50th birthday,” the 60-year-old Rosso explained, describing how he is “still crazy.”
The “crazy” in this case encapsulates things different from what the dictionary intended, encapsulating his creativity, his vision and wild hopes for the future.
Here, Rosso talks with WWD about India, the future of his business, and how his own persona has transformed with time.
WWD: Last time you came here, six years ago, Diesel was just launching…
Renzo Rosso: It was a nice party!
WWD: Nice party, yes, and the Indian market itself was just growing. Has it been a test of patience in terms of growth and sales?
R.R.: We were losing money in the beginning. Now we are happy because we start to make money. We are very happy with what Darshan has done in India. I went to the store, they are profitable now. We have 11 stores and we are going to open more.
I gave a speech for all the people who work for Diesel; I explained the history of the brand, who we are, how we are special, how we want to be cool. I want to create a desire to grow steadily, and that we work like a team — it’s not my company, but their company — our company, we are all working together for the same things. It’s very nice to meet all my people.
WWD: You’ve been doing a lot of different things on this trip…
R.R.: It is so exciting. We went to see Lakme Fashion Week where we went to see up-and-coming designers. We had the Diesel party and then I talked to the students of fashion in Delhi. Creative people make me very happy. I believe our fortune is in the hands of these creative people.
WWD: You also have a new association with the sport of cricket, which is very popular in India, and a collection to mark this.
R.R.: Yes, we are coming out with something very special for cricket very soon. Initially, we said, “Ah, cricket?!” because we are much more about soccer, but now that I am here [in India] I understand how important this fantastic sport really is. The special thing for me is the creativity we are going to put into this capsule collection we are going to do. We hope to do something very innovative in this area.
WWD: Will this collection sell only in India?
R.R.: It is not decided yet. But we must be there in other countries that play cricket as well. This is all in the process. I want something very special in terms of technology for this but it is too early to talk today about what it is going to be.
WWD: In general, though, as the Asian markets have been growing in sales, have you been doing special designs for this market?
R.R.: No, design is only one. What you can do by country is you can do a little touch of local culture. For example, in India the stores take our advertising and customize it for the local market, write some Hindi.
I love that you can have a little touch of the local in an Indian store. Darshan is doing this very well, and they have put it across in a really fantastic way. Sometimes a person can use creativity the wrong way. The way they are doing it is really perfect.
WWD: How do you see Asia growing as part of your global sales in the next five years?
R.R.: I think every company in the world can see this growth. I am very happy for what is going on here, because the future of the world is here.
WWD: You don’t think the price points are too high for India?
R.R.: No, I have just cut the low distribution at low prices, and increased it now. We are not luxury — we are the area before luxury — and this is what the new luxury is going to be about. So we can be very modern in the future, with this “luxury market look” and also be a very important player for the future. Of course we still want to keep our attitude, we still want to be cool, modern and working with humanity.
I always tell my people to “take care of your customer, ask them things, like when is their birthday; if their mother is sick ask about her — create a relationship. Because if you have a relationship it’s much more easy to sell something.”
WWD: And meanwhile, the demand for denim appears to keep growing. Has it surprised you, this unabated desire for denim?
R.R.: When I was younger I was so much in love with this product, but at that time denim was not quite so popular. I discovered that jeans meant comfort, it meant rebellion, it meant blue skies, green gardens; it meant a nice life, a weekend. When I discovered this, I stopped a moment to think and said, OK, this product can never go out of style in the world and that the more we were going to grow, the more we were going to increase our growth. Now when I talk with the young kids I see the same love for denim.
Even in richer countries like Scandinavia, it is important. Modern people want luxury to be more democratic, more premium — they still want jeans, but it will be 350 euro [$400] jeans, not 20 euro jeans. I think the new generation is very interested in having premium products, and that can be the next luxury. That is my vision.
WWD: But now your energy is divided between Diesel and the other OTB brands.
R.R.: Now what gives me energy is John Galliano, Marni, Maison Margiela, Viktor & Rolf — all these different very important designers give me a totally different feeling because each one has a completely different lifestyle from each other. They are all headquartered in different places and I never put them together because I don’t want to contaminate them. Each one must believe in its own lifestyle. From each of these lifestyles we receive a different vision, and when I go to talk to one designer, I have influences from another. It helps me to give each the possibilities of seeing the world in a different way. There are so many different ways you can design the same thing.
WWD: So when people call you a fashion entrepreneur, that does it for you?
R.R.: Because I am not a designer, I just hire designers and I know exactly what I want, so I am able to give people the direction and to be very high in creativity. I am a very creative businessman. I know what the market needs, how to drive toward modernity and what the sophisticated consumer demands. Also, I know how to encourage creativity and how to do communication. So yes, I would call myself a fashion entrepreneur — but one with good taste.
WWD: Is it your dream to keep adding more fashion brands to OTB?
R.R.: You know, we’re still in the market….Maybe this year a new brand will come on board by the end of the year. We are just starting work on that. There is fashion, but let’s say what I love most today is not only investing in a fashion brand but in organic food, in wines, in other areas as well.
WWD: Two years ago you brought in Nicola Formichetti as creative director for Diesel when you said you wanted the brand to be more beautiful. Are you satisfied with it presently?
R.R.: I was doing the communication, the brand management, everything and had less and less time. It was no longer the collection with one direction, but rather just the product to sell. I was totally unhappy with that and did not have the time to correct it, because I was in the process of building all the other industries as well. The best choice I had was to go into the market and find someone and give them my testimonial. So I found Nicola Formichetti. I followed him a lot before I met him and discovered that he was crazy like I was when I was younger. He was innovative, too.
I was especially impressed by a pop-up store he had done in New York. Then one day, I met him in Tokyo — he was doing some work for Uniqlo then — and I said maybe we can start with a little project, maybe start to do something for the Chinese market.
I asked him to come to Italy, meet my team, see who we are. We went through some of the archives together — we have 80,000 pieces — which is all of my history from the beginning till today, plus all the pieces that we buy from different brands, and when we travel. I told him stories about some of these pieces — how we stole the carpet from Mexico and put it on a jacket, how a piece was born…at the end, he came to me and said, “I would like to design for you and manage Diesel.” We shook hands right there.
WWD: And Diesel is now less bureaucratic and faster moving?
R.R.: Working for Diesel is very complex because there are so many different collections, the advertisements, the stores, the interior design. So in two years I have transferred the know-how and this is the fifth season — starting the third year, and you can see that it’s there! [snaps his fingers] It is just the right collection.
The last campaign for Diesel understood the real message of the brand, we have opened a beautiful store in New York and also we have changed management inside the company — so it is not just the creative direction that has changed. Earlier, we were like an elephant, big, giant and too many processes to report — so we started to cut these down for quicker decision-making and less reporting in the company and now you can start to see — wow — there is a lot of difference in the last two years.
WWD: You mentioned that when you first met Nicola you liked that he was as crazy as you used to be. Are you less crazy now? Have you lost that creative genius?
R.R.: I’m still crazy like before and for me it is very nice to work with Nicola because when we work together we can do incredible, crazy things and have a lot of innovation. When he works just with management, they stop him to be more conservative. But on the other side I tell Nicola, now the company is yours. I have to run the other companies, too.
WWD: At the Diesel party in Mumbai, there were many young and tattooed customers. Are your own tattoos a form of connection with this young, experimental market?
R.R.: No, this tattoo [pointing to the RR initials on the back of his middle and ring fingers on his right hand] was a gift when I turned 50 years old. I had no tattoos, and then I said, “Before I pass away, I want to sign my body with something that is part of my life.” So I did this one. Then, I did “Enjoy xxx” [on the inner wrist of the left hand]. When I write to people, this is how I always sign off. This is my Only the Brave tattoo. Everything that is part of my life.
The tattoo today is a part of common life so in general in the young generation, so people who play sports, the actors, men or women — everyone does tattoos.
WWD: Does it make you feel more beautiful?
R.R.: It makes me feel more happy for what I have done. I am not one who can do the things and put them aside, but rather from now to my last day, I can be happy for my decisions.
WWD: You’ve just had a grandchild and a child around the same time. Is that too much to handle?
R.R.: I don’t feel like a grandfather, I feel I am more of a father. It’s unbelievable how the child gives me a light in my eyes — I cannot explain the beauty of a baby at 60 years old. When I heard the news I said, “Mamma Mia! Sixty years old and I will have a baby.” But it changed my life and now I recommend it to other people and I say, “Do it if you can, it can be a good heads up to keep you in good shape.”
WWD: How was your experience at Lakme Fashion Week?
R.R.: I expected a more international product. In the end, I saw that Indian designers are doing good work, it is very interesting, but still in general…they are not modern enough. They need to be more aggressive in modernity. They are afraid to be “Only the brave,” like I was when I was young.
WWD: You mean they should experiment more?
R.R.: There is beauty in the product in one way but not enough innovation.
WWD: You’ve always talked about loving India. When you think of India, what is your sense as you revisit? Is it crowds? Colors? Mediation? Dalai Lama? Is it one thing?
R.R.: It is positivity, color, beautiful heritage, the temples. I love history, I love beauty and this light of happiness that Indian people have in their eyes. Thanks to the special mood of the country, the people here have a soul. If you go to a rich country now, they don’t have a soul anymore. They are often depressed.
In Rome, 10 days ago, two guys bring a friend and they want to play a game about how to kill the friend. Can you imagine where we have arrived? We don’t have the value of life, the soul anymore.
This time I have not even had time to look outside. I love India very much, and I just wrote to Nicola Formichetti that I am preparing a trip to India with him next year, and say, “You can be coming here next year like a superhero.” True, or not?