Stefano Rosso's Diesel: Both He and the Brand Have Something to Say
Odysseus is argued to have suffered the pitfalls of nostalgia; that sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, normally thought quite harmless. After all, he, like many of us, after a long week at the office or a battle with the Trojans, just wanted to go home. Throughout Homer’s epic poem, the question is begged: where is home, if what you know of it has changed, if the loves that kept you longing to return there have been slain, or gone with others?
In the case of Stefano Rosso, home is, in theory, a small village called Breganze in Italy, but more presumably home for Rosso is where the heart is. At the moment, the heart is thumping at 100 or so beats a minute on a street corner in lower Manhattan. Today, The Big Apple welcomes the measured, charismatic ascent of Rosso into his new role as CEO of North America for Diesel – a brand barreling down on its 40th anniversary in 2018.
And today’s a nice day for it. A bizarre, dare I say offensive, cold front startled this early June morning back into its recently peeled-in-a-springtime-frenzy sweaters and pants. And despite the frosty breeze – which could, were we to allow it, stand as a metaphor to the far from red hot status of retail, denim, and most apparel enterprise as we have historically known it, Rosso, 38, is speaking about positivity, which will set the tempo for our hour-long discussion. “Even on Facebook,” he remarks. “That can be one of the most hateful places you can be. You make a post and disperse it, and immediately there are comments saying something really bad about it. Why does everybody have to be so hateful? Let’s find a solution. I think it’s better. We need a positive attitude.”
Attitude is something intrinsic to the Diesel brand, and I ask Rosso, who previously held the post of CEO of OTB (the parent company of Diesel, Maison Margiela, Marni, Paula Cademartori and Viktor&Rolf, founded by his father, Renzo Rosso), if this positivity will integrate with the more daring or provocative messaging tenets of Diesel’s past.
“I don’t know,” he considers. “I don’t think we were ever really provocative. We never had too much of a contradictory or controversial nature. It’s more about symbolic messages. Even our last campaign [“Make Love Not Walls,” photographed by David LaChapelle, which sees a flamboyant band of diverse friends toppling a metaphoric wall, aided by an inflatable tank] which may have been seen as a political campaign, but the real intention was to send a powerful message about how love is the most powerful thing in the world and how we should celebrate love more than separation. I feel a rebellion is never good. Our brand doesn’t go against the system. Our brand is: people should choose who they want to be and always be proud about who they choose to be. We will always try to do that, maybe in a more modern way, maybe talking also through other people, but we will for sure not change who we are.”
Folded around the challenges of the modern and dynamic messaging that Rosso hopes to evolve on is, of course, the parachute of brick and mortar retail. Over the past several years, many brands from premium luxury down to cotton basics have been shuttering their doors entirely or dramatically downsizing, either publicly or discreetly, given the rise of online e-tailers, changing consumer habits, and the obsolescence for some brands of giant, boastful flagships.
Rosso discusses his intense summer travel schedule (Miami, Boston, Philadelphia, Toronto, San Francisco, etc.), whereby he’ll be assessing and tweaking the nimbleness of Diesel brick and mortar locations, in combo with a robust e-commerce strategy. I ask him if he feels inspired by the challenges afoot, by this scrambled American landscape. He lights up.
“You know, it’s amazing in this moment. It’s very interesting and exciting, I have to say, because when there is a touch of distraction, there are always opportunities arising and you can make your own way. Some of the milestones for what used to be efficient systems are almost gone, and have not yet been replaced by what is going to be the future.”
With four decades of trial and error, and the brand swelling with success globally like a nine-layered stromboli, there are countless advantages to assuming the lead for Diesel in your pocket: resources, infrastructure, investments, and, of course, hard lessons learned. And while Rosso is modest and appreciative of the reigns now squared between his palms, he’s cautious about too much preoccupation with the past. “We should always look forward,” he says with confidence. “We should keep the messages, we should keep the DNA, we should keep the tone of voice – but try to make it modern and relevant. Otherwise, it’s just a nostalgia type of feeling.”
It’s true that some scholars and critics throughout history have spoken towards the danger of nostalgia. But inside the annals of a nearly forty-year-old mega brand, where does that leave heritage? Can nostalgia be confused with heritage? Is the former a state of mind and the latter a state of being? Can heritage encumber in the modern marketplace?
“Heritage is something that goes beyond the brand name,” Rosso concedes, acknowledging the occasional overlap with nostalgia, but with a sharp distinction. “It becomes almost a spirit in and of itself, and it usually speaks to certain identities or communities created or delivered to by a brand over time. When you think of heritage as it relates to our brand, the first thing that comes to your mind is denim and the way we approached denim, which was totally new and modern. Through the years we were able to change some of the rules of the industry, starting from the way we focused on the different washes back in the ‘90s and 2000s. Something we’ve more recently invented are JoggJeans, which are basically sweatpants but look like a regular pair of denim. It is something we invented and not a lot of people know about it.” He laughs. “I guess we were too shy about it.”
Diesel? Shy? Well, I suppose it happens to us all at times. While we’re on the topic of innovation, and in the heart of a city that’s bled brands with ideologies with movements with inheritance with politics with motherboards, Rosso considers how collaborations with other organizations (A.C. Milan’s off-the-pitch garb; more recently Naomi Campbell’s Fashion for Relief) have helped diversify Diesel, and how those experiences might inform the new Diesel direction. “Every collaboration is different,” he says, smiling. “You have to shape the way you work and interact with the partners based on how they work – some were easy and others were a nightmare. When you move your stuff into someone else’s industry, it’s so complicated. They always feel you are invading their space and feel you don’t understand anything. And it’s funny how the best collaborations, and the ones that worked better, were the ones where both sides kind of pushed the limit on the comfort bar a bit. I’ll give you an example: during our collaboration with Ducati, they didn’t want to do a military screening on motorcycles because they said that ‘The public doesn’t want it, it’s not going to work, our engineers will never let us do it.’ And then we were lucky enough for the CEO to walk into the room and say, ‘Come on guys, this is Diesel, let’s do it.’ And it sold out! And now that is a skew of color that is available for all of the models they have.”
We peer up the long arcades of steel, glass, and empire. Those alleyways to misfortune, gluttony, and success that now, more than ever – beyond the real estate listings tipping into the eight and nine digits for what many would call “modest” digs; beyond the bandied about complaints across the river (and the country) that you can’t hear music streaming onto the street anymore, or score a joint on the corner; beyond the suggestion that we did this to ourselves – we consider temporality when building or evolving a brand from this modern megalopolis.
“People are the new brands,” Rosso remarks when I speak to the unruly nature of New York and the U.S., the breakneck pace of everything. “So brands nowadays, if they want to do something, they have to find the right person to help do it – influencers or spokespersons. To us, it creates a lot of reservation because our brand has something to say, and generally speaking, the people have liked to listen to us because they’ve wanted an intelligent message. But now, the consumer doesn’t necessarily expect us to say something. And anyway, maybe the message kind of gets lost along the way. You look at your Instagram and you see more than 100 posts in a minute. But you know what, a brand should do what it feels in our lives is true and honest – that speaks out and sticks to it. And if you are doing a good job, people will come to you and help narrate. Better to be yourself than someone that you are not and that is exactly what Diesel will be in the future here in the United States.”
It’s apparent this Odyssean voyage has found, at least for the moment, a home.
Written by Matthew Bedard
Images by Zach Gross
Location: Diesel HQ
Groomer: Johnny Caruso for Bryan Bantry.