Interview by Spencer Bailey | Portrait by Asger Carlsen
As the president of Italian powerhouse OTB (Only the Brave)—the holding company for fashion brands including Diesel, Maison Martin Margiela, and Marni—Renzo Rosso may run a massive industrial conglomerate (with revenues of about $2 billion in 2013, according to Forbes), but he’s also a small- business booster who believes in quality over quantity. Another thing Rosso, 58, believes in is the strength of Italy’s manufacturing, with its small, multigenerational specialist factories. Without them, he feels, Italy would lose its heart and soul. Surface met with Rosso at Diesel’s U.S. headquarters in Manhattan to discuss his burgeoning design collaborations with companies including Moroso and Foscarini, his passion for all things Italian, and why Pope Francis’s overhaul of the Vatican exemplifies how, with the right mindset, Italy can get back on track.
You grew up with the idea of the American Dream, and your mother had a Singer sewing machine in the house. Did American industry inform your approach to the fashion business?
I was always in love with American things. For example, when I was beginning, I was looking to buy American denim fabrics, because for me American fabrics were the best. The denim fabrics from Italy and other countries were much cheaper. The manufacturers in Italy are fantastic, though. When we put “Made in Italy” on our products— especially the high-end products—people love it around the world. It’s a guarantee of quality.
Which of the brands in your group, OTB, are made in Italy?
When we’re talking about our high-end brands—Maison Martin Margiela, Marni, Viktor & Rolf, Dsquared2—these are 95-percent made in Italy. When we’re talking about Diesel, which is the most commercial of our brands, we divide the production into two parts: All the low- and medium-priced goods are made outside Italy; the high-end products are all Italian-made. We also love Japanese manufacturing for special things, because they’re incredible perfectionists. And Diesel just set up a little base in California.
What are you making at this U.S. outpost?
Specialized women’s denim. The California base will take care of this niche.
Was manufacturing a part of Brugine, the town you grew up in?
No. I discovered manufacturing a few years later in school and learned how to stitch, to use machines. It’s where, at 14 or 15, I produced my first pair of jeans. After that, I got my first job. I’m still at the same company that hired me, technically.
That company was Moltex, which was part of Adriano Goldschmied’s Genius Group.
Yes, it was a small company with just 18 girls doing production. I was the director. Two and a half years later, I decided to become a partner of the company. We changed the name from Moltex to Diesel. I started with just a few pairs of jeans, then one T-shirt, then one sweatshirt, then more and more and more. Now it’s an incredible lifestyle. We do every- thing: shades, shoes, bags, cars, even bicycle helmets. And we now have a home collection. I really believe in and love the home area so much. We’ve been participating in the Salone del Mobile furniture fair in Milan for five years. Every year we go, we have a better space, and more people come to see what we’re doing. This year, for the first time ever, we’ll have our own big booth at the fair. This is rare because brands like us haven’t been allowed to have one booth with everything from different brands under it. Previously, we had the kitchen at Scavolini’s booth, the lamps at Foscarini’s, the furniture at Moroso’s.
How did you form your Diesel partnerships with Scavolini, Foscarini, Moroso, and Zucchi?
We contacted several companies that we felt could have a good touch, and in the end we decided on going with Scavolini, Foscarini, Moroso, and Zucchi. And this year we’re launching a new line of tabletop products with Seletti. These companies really are the best.
Why do you think they’re the best? Let’s use Moroso as an example. What separates Moroso from the rest?
Because what they do isn’t industrial and so big. Moroso is very artisanal. It’s better to start with a company that can really follow up my crazy ideas. Nobody can follow these crazy ideas like Moroso.
To grow, it’s better to do something special, because otherwise, if you go to the big, indus- trial companies, they just want to do some- thing very commercial. Diesel’s name being associated with big industry doesn’t make sense. In the beginning, it’s better to do some- thing different with the smaller companies.
Right now, Diesel’s home concept isn’t big. We’re only doing about $20 million in revenue, so it’s still a niche. But potentially we can become more substantial.
Diesel’s DNA crosses so many boundaries. How would you say the country of Italy fits into that?
Italy is a special country, but it has a lot of problems at the moment. It’s special because so many creative people and artisans live here. Anything you want, you can make here—and with taste. It’s not like in China. They can make anything there, too, but often they’ll make it with a defect. Here, they make it with taste. The bad things about Italy—our economy, our politicians, our corruption— don’t help the little companies that are the real soul of the country. Many of these companies won’t have the luxury to stay alive. So many are already dead.
Last year, Staff International, which is part of OTB, started a project in which we found ourselves working with these artisanal companies—as long as they met a certain standard of quality. We give them credit at a rate of around 2 percent interest. That’s fantastic, because the banks don’t care about these small companies right now. If they give money to them, they give them money at 13, 14 percent interest. I discovered one bank giving loans out at 18 percent. So what we’ve done is start a platform that, thanks to us, allows some of these little companies to stay alive.
These days, so many Italian journalists from newspapers call me, because they want me to do more operations like this. The politicians are so corrupt and don’t do anything, so the journalists see me as a fresh person to take action. But I can only do so much. I can’t substitute for the government.
What’s the biggest change in manufacturing you’ve seen in Italy over the past two decades?
You need to know who you are and who your consumer is. Today, with your brand, you need one price level, and from that price level you know whether you can or cannot produce in Italy. That wasn’t always the case. Now, if your products are at a cheaper, more commercial price, everything has to be made outside of Italy. But if your products are on the premium side, you can still produce in Italy. Italians can no longer be invested in mass production and quantity. They must be invested in small production, which is the richest value we have as a country.
What are some brands that you think exemplify Italian know-how?
Moroso and Foscarini. And special companies producing fabrics, like Bonotto. There are all sorts of people we work with in small quantities. With them, we’ll produce 10, 15, 20 pieces—that’s nothing. This is the real gold of Italy that we have to promote and invest in and give energy to. There should be special conditions, such as cutting taxation, for these brands to remain alive.
You’ve also done Diesel partnerships with Fiat and Ducati. What’s it been like working with those two brands?
And with Pinarello—we did a bike. With Fiat, it was a beautiful project that started with [former Fiat head of marketing] Lapo Elkann a long time ago. Lapo and me were friends; we were together all the time back then. They wanted to reinvent the Fiat 500, because it was an old car. At the time, we were thinking: What could we do to promote the Fiat 500 that would be special? In the end, it was a success. We sold 10,000 cars. Ducati was also a success. With them, we were thinking that we would sell 200 or 300 motorcycles, but we sold 1,000.
What separates a Diesel-branded Fiat or Ducati from a regular Fiat or Ducati?
The products are more expensive because we add a lot of Diesel touches: the interiors, the colors. These aren’t industrial products. For example, we did the first matte black car. Nobody had done a car like that at the time, and now brands are starting to do it. Just to do it that way cost 2,000 euros more at the time. We conceived so many other details for the car that we weren’t able to develop because the price would have become too expensive.
Are there any Italian brands you haven’t worked with yet that you’d like to?
Well, we’re working with AGV on helmets, not for the super speedy bikes, but for scooters.
Have you learned new things about the Diesel brand through these partnerships?
With every category of product, you learn more. I’m 35 years into this job, and I feel like a man with incredible experience. To touch certain categories with Diesel is very different from touching them with Maison Martin Margiela. You start to think of different ways to communicate, because the consumers for each brand are different. You start to give different dreams to the different consumers. If you put it all together, all these different brands I run—and the different categories of products I touch—it’s massive. I’ve done hotels, wine, and now, with my family’s investment company, Red Circle, I’m doing an electric car. Red Circle also just bought an organic-food company, which is great, because eating well—without pesticides—is a real luxury for your body.
We have a big problem in Italy right now, because more than 40 percent of the young people don’t work. But thanks to agricultural production, I believe we can get many of them working again. It can be sustainable.
What’s your personal and professional modus operandi?
I’m a Virgo. What I do is about quality: quality of life, quality of beauty, quality of aesthetics. To live well doesn’t mean expensive travel. To me, living well is about educating yourself on quality. You start as nobody, and through your growth you’re always looking for better quality. The more things you see, the more you accumulate in your head and the more you look for things that are exclusive and beautiful.