MILAN — Renzo Rosso is thinking big, determined to build a successful multibrand fashion empire in Italy.

This story first appeared in the December 21, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The Diesel chief shared his strategies on Thursday as he confirmed the acquisition of a majority stake in Marni through his holding company, Only the Brave Srl. “My ntention is to create a beautiful holding with a fresh vision — farsighted, contemporary and recognizable,” said Rosso. “It’s my big dream, to create a modern group that is an alternative to the existing ones. We are beginning to become one such group, and we are working on consolidating it.”

Only the Brave controls the Viktor & Rolf and Maison Martin Margiela labels, the Diesel group and top-manufacturing arm Staff International, based in Italy’s Veneto region. Staff International produces and distributes collections for Just Cavalli, Dsquared2, Vivienne Westwood Red Label and Man, and Marc Jacobs Men. Last year, the group reached sales of 1.37 billion euros, or $1.9 billion at an average exchange rates.

Rosso — who was flanked by his son Stefano, Only the Brave’s director of corporate development — underscored that this is an industrial group, and that he is “not looking at investments per se, as we want to be able to contribute to a brand.” It was this view that attracted Gianni Castiglioni and his wife, Consuelo, who founded the Marni label in 1994, to their long-standing friend as they were looking for a partner who would support the company’s growth and retail development.

Castiglioni said he and his wife were seeking a “long-term or no-term partner” with know-how, who would share their vision and help fully express the Marni brand. “The partnership evolved naturally, stemming from two families who are friends,” said Castiglioni. “Marni’s identity will not change, but we will be able to compete in a complex market with brands that are part of major fashion groups.”

“It’s a wonderful, global company and an iconic, fantastic, creative and recognizable brand,” said the ebullient Rosso of Marni. “We will provide new energies and resources and a modern and technological vision to add brilliance to the label and increase its visibility and status.”

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Rosso and Castiglioni, who held the chief executive officer position at Marni, will become co-ceo’s, and creative director Consuelo will remain head of design. There is no generational issue, as the couple are committed to their roles and have no desire to pull back from the business. Their daughter Carolina, 31, is in charge of developing the brand’s online business and special projects, such as its first fragrance, licensed to the Estée Lauder Cos. Inc., due to launch in January. Her brother Giovanni, 25, is in charge of the group’s outlets. Consuelo Castiglioni, whose quirky designs infused with artistic references and extensive fabric research have garnered a cult following for Marni, said she “will continue to have free reign on creativity.”

“To give total independence is a must to make this work. Margiela has remained in Paris and Viktor & Rolf in Amsterdam,” said Rosso, who noted that Marni will continue to be produced in Milan and Italy, but not by Staff International.

“There must be no overlap or tainting of the brands. We must not make the same mistakes as others have in the past,” he added.

Rosso did not refer to anyone in particular, but a number of previous Italian fashion poles were short-lived, and Italy doesn’t historically have a tradition of major conglomerates or holdings in any sector. Fin.part, which used to regroup brands such as Moncler and Frette, went bankrupt. IT Holding collapsed under its debt load, and its Gianfranco Ferré and Malo brands, as well as its Ittierre manufacturing arm, were sold by state-appointed commissioners under government-backed protection. Prada also tried to create a luxury-goods unit with Fendi, Jil Sander, Helmut Lang and Azzedine Alaïa, but eventually shed most labels as debt mounted, keeping only Church’s and Car Shoe.

There are exceptions, like Diego Della Valle’s Tod’s Group, which comprises the Tod’s, Hogan, Fay and Roger Vivier labels, but whose core business is accessories.

“Renzo has already shown that he is capable of managing the brands that are part of his holding, and they are all positioned differently,” said Armando Branchini, deputy chairman of Milan consultancy InterCorporate. There can be synergies in marketing, communication and retail, but, in the luxury range, each company must be managed separately and individually, as each has its own value and heritage, and each demands the same level of attention, he said. “Rosso is not only a creative denim maker, he’s grown in time. He shows a rock-star attitude to the world, but he is rigorous, consistent and attentive to details,” said Branchini, who spoke in positive terms of the sale of Marni to Only the Brave. “All that [the Castiglionis] could do on their own, they did, and well. This deal will help fuel Marni’s growth.”

Rosso was also rumored to be interested in acquiring the Valentino brand, which was sold to Qatar-based Mayhoola for Investments last summer. He conceded that the “fashion-pole mentality does not exist in Italy, as people rarely look beyond their own four walls.” Rosso, who funds his own talent search, called ITS (International Talent Support), also lamented Italy’s lack of interest in scouting new creative minds. “I travel and attend several talent searches around the world, which are all international. I’ve tried to ask other [Italian brands] to participate, but nobody wants to,” he said with a shrug. “I was born global, I work with people from all over the world and this allows me to have a more comprehensive vision, and I feel privileged for this.”

Rosso touted the group’s expansive crafts and skills, from treatments to distribution. “There are many knocking at our doors, but we are not financial partners. We are industrial partners, and we have a wonderful portfolio of brands we want to focus on, developing many different product categories,” he said.

For his part, Castiglioni said he felt “no pressure to grow. We will expand through opportunities, and this is why we chose this partner.” He identified a home line as one such opportunity.

Castiglioni, who also heads the family-owned fur company Ciwi Furs, said Rosso would help Marni expand in countries such as China, where hefty expenditures in brand boutiques are required.

The company is expected to close 2012 with sales of 130 million euros, or $167.1 million at current exchange, up 10 percent compared with last year.

Marni is available at 300 multibrand stores, while the company has 100 boutiques, of which 80 are directly operated, in addition to 10 outlets. Only two of the Marni boutiques are in Italy.

Rosso downplayed rumors that he was looking at a public listing, saying that the family is on board and that the company is cash-rich. “It’s premature. The Bourse works if you have an aggressive development plan,” he said.

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