Rebel With A Cause : Renzo Rosso & His Provocation To Success

For more than two decades Diesel has been undoubtedly one of the most popular denim brands in the world and as the first company to bring the concept of "premium denim" to the masses, leading to massive success in the '80s and '90s. With over 5000 distribution centers, 15 lines, 12 licenses, 19 subsidiaries, 400 stand-alone stores across 80 different countries, 7,500 employees and generating $1.6 billion in sales each year, the success of the brand is directly linked with the story of Italian fashion entrepreneur Renzo Rosso. Through a holding company called OTB (OTB stands for Only the Brave, which Rosso says is his motto), Rosso spent the last decade snapping up majority stakes in small, prestigious fashion houses all across Europe: Paris-based Maison Martin Margiela, Amsterdam's Viktor & Rolf and, Milanese label Marni. The company is increasingly referred to as an Italian LVMH, but unlike the French conglomerate, which is publicly traded, OTB is owned entirely by Rosso and his family.

Rosso who recently celebrated his 60th birthday, was the son of farming parents from Brugine, he loved fashion and at the age of 15, he himself designed a pair of low-waist bell-bottomed jeans using his mother's Singer sewing machine. Long before establishing the brand Diesel Rosso's first business venture, when Rosso was 10, a classmate gave him a female rabbit. Rosso bought some chicken wire and plastic bottles. Soon, he was in business as a rabbit breeder, selling the animals to neighbors. Later he attended Marconi Technical Institute in Padua, graduating in Industrial textile manufacturing. He also pursued Economics at the University of Venice but dropped out and took up a job as a Production Manager for a local clothing manufacturer Moltex that would produce trousers for different Italian clothing labels and hence worked for Adriano Goldschmied, "the pioneer of Italian casual wear", with whom he founded the company Diesel in 1978.

Ever since the beginning, Renzo Rosso believed in addressing the world with one product and one language, and that it was possible to create an amazing company focused on denim. One of his first steps was building a solid and vast distribution platform stretching across all 5 continents was to address people across the world in one common language and product. Rosso had a disdain for political correctness and an image that established the brand as a "lifestyle." Backed by controversial advertising he set out to develop a new way of creating fashion by establishing an international platform in which he could distribute his product.

Rosso's good business sense told him that his brand needed to grow to accommodate all clients, especially those with deep pockets and to sell the view that the world is a "single, broader-less macro-culture". The company created one product and communicated it in English since it was important that the name they choose for the brand was pronounced the same in every language. The Diesel name, pronounced nearly the same all around the world, came from Rosso's vision to create a "single global market segmented not along national borders but along age and lifestyle lines". At that time, Diesel was also considered an "alternative energy", so the word stood for an alternative taste in fashion. Rosso gave his designers the mandate to ignore what the rest of the world's fashion community was doing and instead create clothing to reflect their own.

In 1985 after Ross took over the complete control by buying out the other partners for $500,000, the company began a period of remarkable growth and expansion. One of the brand's main secrets for success was Rosso's innovative unique international marketing strategy and the non-traditional route of advertising. Starting in 1991, the brand engaged in an international marketing campaign that was pioneering and represented a hallmark in the company's history. At that time, Maurizio Marchiori, the newly-appointed advertising director, developed a global advertising campaign in-house with the help of DDB Paradiset, a Swedish advertising agency. The marketing strategy incorporated creative methods for advertising their brand.

The brands' first campaign "Diesel for Successful Living" in 1992 was inspired by the "products make better living" theme which was popular among advertisers in the 50s. The campaign made a mockery of American advertising, which promised to improve one's life. Diesel's vision of consumer paradise was to be interpreted ironically; the standard promise of "success" was exaggerated, made absurd, and even mocked. Serious themes seemed to be lurking everywhere in the adverts but were undercut by a final admission that it was all just a joke. An example of the Diesel campaign was a print ad featuring a teenager with a gun and the tagline: 'If they never learn to blast the brains out of their neighbours what kind of damn FUTURE has this COUNTRY of ours got?'. Diesel was also one of the first firms present on the Internet when it opened its website ( in 1995, with the aim of informing about the company's latest news and products, as well as the intention to construct a web of Diesel-related activities such as music events, cultural performances, art, night clubs and gyms.

The company catapulted to fame facing a remarkable growth and Rosso opened its first 14,000-square-foot flagship store in Lexington Avenue , New York City in 1996. The following year saw a second store, opened in London's Covent Garden. The company quickly built up its retail operations, topping 25 stores by 1998. At the Cannes Film Festival in 1998 the brand won many advertising industry awards including 'Advertiser of the Year' for the same campaign. Eurobest also bestowed it's the Top Award Prize in 1994, Grand Prix in 1995 and 1996, Gold from 1995 to 1997, and 2001. All these prizes lauded the involvement of the brand with controversial topics, as well as its particular and "against the social rules" way of advertising. By the end of 2000, the company operated more than 120 company-owned or franchised Diesel stores in 80 countries. In 2001 the third New York store opened and by the year 2002, Rosso celebrated $100 million of sales and by 2003, the number of worldwide stores reached 203 bringing Diesel and Rosso to the attention of the world's business community.

Over the years, Diesel's campaigns became well known for unorthodox strategy and quickly helped the company develop a reputation for offbeat their approach to advertising. The company found ground with a way to comment on issues of society in a somewhat comical manner and integrated this with fashion and their products. Their ads made one reconsider common life situations and it appeared like they were trying to make ordinary life more interesting and more dramatic. Diesel's Spring/Summer 2008 campaign had the motto "Live Fast" which imparted the message that people are busy these days and things are changing very fast. In the ad, Diesel shot interesting photos with every person in different situations who were in hurry in each shot. Their dynamic motion and movements and music made the ad more lifelike. These ads spoke to the fast-paced nature of the world and brought whole new meaning to the phrase "killing two birds with one stone". By asking "how is this "Live Fast" related to fashion Diesel appealed their brand to people by presenting their product in a way that if people are keeping up with Diesel, they are following the right direction in this "Fast" world?. It could be said that Diesel tied to appeal to those who don't want to waste a lot of time on fashion. The interpretation behind this ad was also that one didn't have to waste time in choosing clothes if they wanted to look somehow trendy. Just wear the brand, Diesel.

Another ground-breaking campaign by Diesel was its so called "Global Warming Ready Ad Campaign" back in 2007. Consistent with its tradition of generating attention and provoking discussion of serious societal issues with a tongue-in-cheek ironic voice, the ad carried the motto that if someone wears Diesel clothes and products, they don't have to worry about life all together, including global warming. One of the images showed colorful birds which looked like mockingbirds, in a town square which were very similar to human beings. Perhaps Diesel wanted to tell people through this kind of exposure that someday we will also become like the birds, floating around the world to find a better place to live due to the global warming. The shocking effects of Global Warming are not immediately noticeable but are subtly revealed through details in the ads depicting ordinary scenes in a surreal, post-Global Warming world. The connection between the global warming problems and fashion may be the fact that the raw materials are traveling up to four times around the globe till they became the final product we are buying in the shops.

Diesel's 2010 "Be Stupid" campaign couldn't be simpler. Conceived by Anomaly London, the campaign explored a wide range of stupid behaviours. "Smart may have the brains, but stupid has the balls," said one of them. Something that may have sounded stupid turned out to be a smart idea, however the campaign came under scrutiny for seeming to encourage risky behaviour. In one spread, a model stands in the middle of a busy street with a traffic cone on her head, obscuring her vision as a car zooms toward her. In another, a woman on safari, clad only in a tiny bikini, casually adjusts her camera while a hungry lion approaches her from behind. The campaign claim asserted that the customer would be happier if they behaved in ways that are considered stupid by more conformist others. By acting stupid, they would assert their own singularity amongst their peers, a singularity Diesel decided to turn into a social value (by committing to it). Therefore, by wearing Diesel clothing, the customer joined the self-aware of Stupid's superiority community and would be likely identified by its members as one of them.

But as ironic and tacky as its campaigns were, by the 2000s, however, as purveyors of high-end denim crowded the market, Diesel began to fall out of favor with younger consumers. Diesels advertising often caused resentment among the general public and triggered a response from public authorities. In 2013 Diesel underwent a creative rebuilding when it appointed Nicola Formichetti (the stylist who helped transform Lady Gaga into a global phenomenon), as its new artistic director. Rosso first encountered Formichetti in March 2012, in Tokyo, when Formichetti was the creative director of Thierry Mugler. Formichetti's marketing vision was on display with the launch of new marketing initiatives when the #DieselReboot campaign featured no models but up-and-coming young creatines instead. The creative collective included graffiti artists, dancers and actors found on Tumblr and other social media by Formichetti himself.

Formichetti's aesthetic was realised in the autumn/winter 2014 collection when Diesel created an Alphabet of Dance to promote its flexible new Jogg jeans collection. The fun and informative A-to-Z of Dance video featured all manner of talented dancers sporting the flexible jersey-denim hybrid line. Each letter represented a different dance, ranging from grand jetes to Indian Bhangra to twerking. Likewise for its #DieselHigh campaign shot by photographer, Nick Knight the concept was a very simple: a group of boys and girls just having fun and laughing. According to Formichetti, he wanted to have people smiling because you never see people smiling anymore in campaigns. For its Fall/Winter 2015 campaign Diesel once again went the non-traditional route with a campaign that is relatively unusual in the fashion industry and creates social commentary. Rebellious and daring, it built on the brand DNA. Using a self-aware approach it starred models Sang Woo Kim and David Flinn and featured military-inspired outfits with the taglines "no military experience required," while another one says "this is what we tell you to wear." The collection celebrates the known authentic essentials of the brand, but filtered through a fresh and modern perspective.

Diesel has a history of going against the grain and in the 35 years since its inception, the company has evolved from a jeans specialist to a multi-billion dollar lifestyle brand. By poking fun at such classic advertising conventions as Levi's and cowboys and Benetton and formula one racing, the brand continues to raise eyebrows today and is a brand for rebels. Diesel advertising campaigns have been artistic, vibrant and sexy, but they are also clearly differentiated by their mix of social and political leitmotifs, complexity and radical irony with a touch of black humor. The ads were not only visually shocking, they clearly established Diesel as a counterpoint to established standards and institutions. Diesel ads have been often confusing, sometimes intriguing and, as a result, highly exclusive. They required smartness and involvement to be deciphered.

As it enters a new decade, Diesel continues to be one of the world's most innovative brands that explores the endless possibilities of creativity and technology. By turning its backs on the style-dictators and consumer forecasters of the fashion establishment it let its own tastes lead them, Rosso and Diesel continue to remain relevant as a premium international brand, even today. Its success ultimately lies in the brand's philosophy: a borderless globe and a singular visual language.

This article appears in the 3rd issue of LoveFMD magazine (Fall/Winter 2015). The magazine is available on the Web at as a digital issue (downloadable as a readable PDF or a print edition PDF), and is also available at leading digital stores Amazon Kindle, Yumpu, Issuu, and Scribd for free for anyone, anywhere.