Ask Renzo Rosso what the hot fashion trend for this autumn/winter is going to be and he has to pause. That’s because he is already thinking ahead to the summer of 2012. As president of Only the Brave, an Italian company that groups iconic fashion labels like Diesel, Maison Martin Margiela, and Viktor & Rolf, the visionary Rosso is always two steps ahead of the field.
Born in 1955 in Padua, northeastern Italy, the young Rosso made a pair of extravagant flares on his mother’s sewing machine. When he wore them, all his friends wanted a pair too. And a clothing pioneer was born. He began producing his own clothing in 1975, after graduating from a textile manufacturing college. In 1978 he joined forces with several other manufacturers in his region called the Genius Group, which was the birthplace of such famous brands as Katherine Hamnett, Guy Martin, Goldie, Ten Big Boys, Replay and, of course, Diesel, all of which remain widely recognized and highly successful.
In 1985, Rosso took full control of the Diesel brand. He surrounded himself with like-minded designers with the aim of creating unusual clothes for individualistic consumers. Driven by its singular brand image and its bizarre yet appealing advertising, Diesel is today a cult name.
From day one, Rosso has urged his staff to be different, whether it is making jeans layered with a metallic mesh to give them a permanent rumpled appearance, waistcoats designed to resemble life jackets, T-shirts with shark warnings or jackets featuring U.S. tank manuals. Once, at a fashion show in Europe, Rosso turned the tables on the audience and made them walk the catwalk with models inspecting them as they passed by.
The energetic Rosso is a walking advertisement for his company. Everything he wears - from head to toe and including his underwear is made by his company. He often talks about his 6,000 employees as being part of the Diesel planet and says that the company is a lifestyle, not a brand, and especially in Japan, which is the biggest market for Diesel with 116 stores, which includes KIDS line and 55DSL as well. Despite the worldwide recession, Diesel Japan recorded 4.8% growth in sales in 2009 compared to 2008.
Rosso is excited about his newest project, launched on Sept 14 -- the Only The Brave Foundation, with the mission to mobilize youth to contribute to the eradication of poverty around the world, and with a specific focus on the African nation of Mali. The foundation has partnered with Millennium Promise (an international organization dedicated to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals to halve extreme poverty by 2015) for the development of Dioro, a village of 20,000 inhabitants.
Japan Today editor Chris Betros meets Rosso during one of his whirlwind trips to Japan to hear more.
Where did the idea for the Mali project come from?
One day I was talking with the Dalai Lama whom I have known for years, and I told him I wanted to do something with more social responsibility and maybe I should stop working. He advised me to keep working, that I was very fortunate to run a big company and provide jobs, but to use that to build a foundation to help the needy.
I have a particular affinity with Africa. Even in their poverty, I felt the spirit, the incredible richness of traditions, history, know-how and hope for the future. People in Africa have the capacity, they only need the opportunity. When I went to Dioro in July, the kids were smiling and happy. It was a joy to see the village start to take shape. As of today, seeds and fertilizers have been distributed to boost agriculture, bednets have been provided to every household to decrease malaria, and we’ve built a new health clinic, primary school and a community center. Next steps include the installation of new water sources, bringing free Internet to the village and incubating new business opportunities.
There are a lot of good causes and lot of charities. How is yours different?
We are interactive. For example, when you access the foundation website (http://www.otbfoundation.org), you can see what is going on and interact with the villagers. Soon we will have a web camera and you will be able to follow the progress of the village’s growth.
The website is visually catching, and encourages participation, engagement and contributions (not only monetary but also of ideas, free time, advocacy work, etc). The real village itself has been recreated digitally (a revolutionary platform synchronized with Facebook) and browsers can navigate through it, visit and view the real places (every corner has been photographed, and every character on the website recreate a real and key person of the village who has been interviewed and taped telling what happens in the village daily and on special occasions.
Where do you go from here?
I hope that what we are doing will inspire other entrepreneurs, companies and end consumers to do something, even if it is just in their local communities.
Have you experienced poverty in your life?
I was born and grew up on a farm. We weren’t poor but I learned to value life and the land.
Are you a hands-on boss?
I have a competent team to handle the foundation projects. Early on, I used to do everything. Now I delegate production, logistics and financial administration, and concentrate on marketing strategy, design and interactivity.
How is Diesel doing this year?
This year we are doing well. Last year, our sales globally were down 3.5%, while the clothing industry as a whole saw a sales drop of about 20%. However, in Japan, which is Diesel’s biggest market, sales grew 4.8% in 2009.
How often do you visit Japan?
Every few months. I bring my designer. Fashion styles here are fantastic. There are always new ideas on the street.
Your stores promote the idea that Diesel is a lifestyle and not just a brand.
That’s right. It is about attitude. You should turn your back on the style dictators and forecasters and let your own tastes lead you. Sampling, mixing and style surfing are the best ways to go.
How do you get feedback from young people?
We have a lot of young employees. They help keep my brain young. Besides our website, we are part of a big online social community.
What sort of personality should a Diesel employee have?
They should believe in what we are doing and always think we can do something different and better. The main motivation should be to do something innovative.
How do you like to relax?
I ride my Ducati or just hang out with friends or at home with my family and friends, drinking wine and eating good quality food. I also have a boat which I like to take out on the Mediterranean.
You have a laid back fashion sense, I see.
Everything I wear is 100% Diesel.
Ever worn a suit?
Only once – at my wedding.© Japan Today