Owner, chief executive officer, and designer, Diesel
Born: 1955, in Brugine, Italy.
Education: Graduated from an Italian textiles school, 1975.
Career: Moltex, 1975–1978, production manager; Genius Group, 1978–1985, designer; Diesel, 1978–1985, designer and partner; 1985–, owner, chief executive officer, and designer; La Maison Martin Margiela, 2002–, majority owner and investor.
Awards: Best Italian Company of the Year, Premio Risultati award of the Bocconi Institute, Milan, 1996; nominated by Ernst & Young as Entrepreneur of the Year, 1997; chosen one of the 100 Most Important People in the World, Select magazine, 1997; honorary MBA, CUOA Foundation of Italy, 2000.
Address: Diesel, Via dell'Industria 7, 36060 Molvena, Vicenza, Italy; http://www.diesel.com.
■ Renzo Rosso never looked or acted like a chief executive. He attended corporate meetings and interviews in what could only be described as eccentric fashion—faded jeans, cowboy boots, and whatever else might have sparked his imagination on any particular day. Rosso never apologized for his attire nor his singular vision for Diesel, the company he founded and made into a multimillion-dollar fashion empire. Rosso was an original, and his vision turned a small wholesale clothier into an international sensation.
Rosso was born in 1955 in the town of Brugine, located in northeastern Italy. He was raised in a small farming village and attended a local industrial textiles school. After graduating in 1975, Rosso went to work at jeans maker Moltex as a production manager. While at Moltex, Rosso partied at night and cared little about his job. When he learned Moltex's owner,
Adriano Goldschmied, was going to fire him, Rosso saved his job by creating a business plan to increase production and de crease costs. Goldschmied was impressed, kept Rosso on, and eventually offered him a stake in the company. The two launched the Genius Group in 1978, which became the home of several up-and-coming designers, including Katherine Hamnett.
Designing under the name "Diesel," reportedly because it was pronounced the same in all languages, Rosso began to make his mark in the fashion world in the early 1980s with jeans and casual wear. An outlet store was opened in 1982, and three years later Rosso, seeking his independence, was ready to take sole control of Diesel. He bought out Goldschmied and several other Moltex business units and assumed full re sponsibility for Diesel's future. As Rosso declared many times, "Diesel is not my company, it is my life," and his complete devotion to the company proved this sentiment repeatedly.
Rosso differed from most fashion houses in that he pushed creativity over the bottom line. Once designers proved themselves, they were given much freedom to design as they saw fit. Rosso wanted to create an international market for Diesel, and he slowly tested the waters. Within five years of taking control of Diesel, the firm had reached sales of more than $130 million and was available through retailers in more than three dozen countries.
As Diesel's jeans and casual clothes gained notice, so did Rosso. He was outspoken and irreverent and often flamboyant. He bought an art deco hotel in Miami's South Beach in 1991, giving it a stylish, if not somewhat outrageous, makeover. Ross also learned how to use the media to his full advantage, launching controversial advertising campaigns that gave Diesel prominent coverage in newspapers and magazines. No subject was too touchy for Rosso; he reveled in the attention, along with increased brand recognition and sales. By 1994 revenues approached $330 million.
An early foray into licensing in 1994 produced popular Diesel Shades (sunglasses) with in-your-face style names. The following year Diesel introduced its first fragrance, eponymously named and for both sexes. As the extreme sports phenomenon raged, Diesel launched a collection of extreme sportswear called 55DSL. Diesel's outrageous ad campaigns continued during the 1990s and picked up Clio and Cannes Film Festival awards in the process. By the time Rosso launched a Diesel Web site in 1995, the company had a huge cult status and received thousands of hits per day on a site that was more psychedelic than retail, since it was designed to sell image, not product.
The first Diesel store opened in New York City in 1996, and it was followed by a store in London. Within two years there were 24 more stores in the top retail areas of the United States. In 1999 Diesel signed with Fossil to produce watches. In 2000 Rosso bought the Italian luxury clothier Staff International, which licensed Vivienne Westwood apparel, and brought in annual sales of $380 million, which it bested in 2001 with $495 million in sales.
In September 2002 Rosso created a stir by buying a majority stake in Martin Margiela's Paris-based fashion operations. Most of the industry found this an odd pairing; the quiet, avant-garde Belgian and the flashy outspoken Rosso seemed akin to oil and water. Rosso stressed that the investment was not an acquisition and that he had no plans to change anything about Margiela's designs or business. Since he had long criticized fashion conglomerates like LVMH (Moët Hennessey Louis Vuitton) for their pursuit of profits at any cost, Rosso was quick to clarify his actions. "I'm not buying a fashion company like other groups have done," he told Robert Murphy of Women's Wear Daily , "I'm investing in Margiela so two friends can work together to grow a very special brand" (September 5, 2002).
By the end of year, Rosso's empire had annual sales of more than $600 million. In his many years in fashion, Rosso had been called radical, eccentric, and a host of other colorful terms as the maestro behind Diesel's success. He continued to push the limits of the industry with ironic, outrageous advertising in the early 2000s and was rewarded for his efforts with several Italian awards and an honorary MBA from Italy's CUOA Foundation.
Rosso explained his take on the fashion industry to Courtney Colavita of the Daily News Record : "Fashion companies—the ones that really drive the market—shouldn't work to produce numbers but rather should work to sell dreams, to create products that make you feel good and are right for the moment in which you live. Sure, a company has to be healthy financially, but the more we move forward the more people really want something that makes them an individual. Fashion companies have to focus on not being big but instead focus on being more of a niche product" (September 15, 2003). While number crunchers disagreed with Rosso's unique vision, they could not dispute his success. Diesel brought in sales of over $750 million in 2002, which qualified the brand as serving considerably more than a niche market.
In September 2003 Rosso celebrated Diesel's 25th anniversary with characteristic zeal, hosting an enormous party for 25,000 friends in Molvena, Italy. By 2004 Diesel products were sold in more than 75 countries through retailers, luxury department stores, catalogs, and about two hundred Diesel stores worldwide. The Diesel name appeared on children's clothing, undergarments, jewelry, leather goods, eyewear, fragrances, and footwear. Diesel jeans, however, remained the firm's primary claim to fame, with trendsetters willing to pay $100 to $200 for a pair.
See also entry on Diesel SpA in International Directory of Company Histories .
Colavita, Courtney, "Diesel's Engine," Daily News Record , September 15, 2003.
Dillabough, Chris, "Diesel Runs Rich-Media Ads on High-End Fashion Sites," New Media Age , March 20, 2003, p. 11.
Manuelli, Sara, "Fuel for Thought," Design Week , July 10, 2003, p. 15.
Murphy, Robert, "Opposites Attract: Diesel Buys Martin Margiela," Women's Wear Daily , September 5, 2002, p. 1(2).
Preston, Pieter, "Choosing A Unique Look," New Media Age , May 20, 2004, p. 20.
"Renzo Rosso," Biography Resource Center Online , Gale Group, 2003.
Sansoni, Silvia, "Full Steam Ahead for Diesel," BusinessWeek , April 29, 1996, p. 58.
Webdale, Jonathan, "Diesel Considers Loyalty Card on Eve of Online Campaign," New Media Age , January 24, 2002, p. 7.
White, Constance C. R., "New Line, New Images," New York Times , December 10, 1996.