Italian billionaire and fashion entrepreneur Renzo Rosso doesn't romance the rock star titles often used to describe him. Instead, the 60-year-old university dropout prefers to let the riffs play out through the denim he creates.
Dubbed a "denim genius" by British fashioncritic Suzy Menkes, Rosso founded the Diesel jean label in 1978. At last count, Forbes declared the self-made man's net worth at $US3.2 billion ($4.34 billion), making him one of Italy's richest fashion elite. His philosophy on success is simple: "think global, customise local".
That's how it all began. He put my brand in his Marcs stores. It was a very generous thing to do.Renzo Rosso
His company manufactures five million pairs of jeans a year and sell an average of 15,000 pairs a day worldwide. But these days it's about more than just marketing denim for the sake of selling another pair of jeans – it's about plugging into a fashion lifestyle and following the cool A-list crowd who wear his brand and hashtag it on social media.
Talking ahead of his arrival in Melbourne as a guest of the Virgin Melbourne Fashion Festival, Rosso is happy to talk about the success of his empire but also curious to get the lowdown on how much Melbourne has changed since he last visited in 1985. He's talking Sorrento sunsets and where to dine along the coast.
As well as running Diesel, he is also the founder and majority owner of the OTB Group – an acronym for Only The Brave – made up of quirky, high-end fashion brands including Maison Margiela, Marni and Viktor & Rolf.
Still taking style risks
For someone with his sort of fashion swagger [he did try to buy Valentino, too], he comes across as approachable and chatty, and prefers to do his interviews in Italian. He counts his blessings everyday and says his success was about being in the right place at the right time. He admits he is still someone willing to take risks.
"I have always been an ambitious person," says Rosso, who will make his way to Dubai in a private jet before arriving in Melbourne on a commercial flight.
"I always wanted to be more than an average worker, too. I long had a desire to create my own business. I dreamt of being a leader in my field."
In 1984 Rosso met the late Sydney fashion designer Mark Keighery of Marcs while on a trip to Paris. It was Keighery who asked Rosso if they could share a cab to the airport. Keighery parted ways by telling him if he was ever in Australia, he should call to catch up.
A mate in need
When Rosso arrived in Australia to visit extended family in Melbourne in 1985, he decided to stop in Sydney and pursue the lead.
"I didn't let Mark know I was in Australia until I got there. I rang the store and they told me he would call me back. He did so a few hours later and we arranged to have dinner," Rosso says.
"I had a bag of Diesel pieces with me at the dinner. I offered them to him, but he couldn't afford to buy them because they would be too expensive to sell at the time. I told him I trusted him and would leave the pieces with him. If he was able to sell them he could pay me. That's how it all began. He put my brand in his Marcs stores. It was a very generous thing to do," Rosso says.
Australia became one of the first countries to stock Diesel. By 1989, Rosso took the brand to the US, and now his products are sold in more than 40 countries worldwide.
Just as grunge music was breaking into the mainstream in the early 1990s, Diesel was at the forefront delivering distressed denim to the masses. It was a perfect way to enter an American market already hooked on the sounds of grunge and ready to adopt its fashion equivalent. Diesel pitched to the outlaws, the troubadours and risk-takers.
"I have always thought globally when it came to branching out the Diesel brand," Rosso says.
"But the key was to customise the product to fit with the local market – we would modify styles and what might work in one region might not in another.
"When people see the brand they buy into a philosophy, a way of life and if they like your message they will join you. I gave America my take on the American dream."
Rosso grew up in Brugine in the Veneto region of Northern Italy. His father never approved of him dropping out of university at 20, but went along with his son's instinct. Rosso started working for Moltex - a denim manufacturer run by Adriano Goldschmied – soon after.
In 1978 they renamed the company Diesel. By 1985 he bought out Goldschmied and now shares the company wealth with his children [he has six from two different marriages], three of whom assist with the business developing homewares, eyewear and denim ranges. There was even a Diesel motorbike available at one point.
"Nobody in my family understood or came from a fashion background," Rosso says.
"My relationship with my parents was very simple. It was Catholic and strict, but they really taught me a few valuable lessons I could apply in life and still do – you need to have dignity and value yourself," he says.
"It is difficult to find dignity in people today and respecting others was also important. Without these fundamental principles you won't succeed at anything."
The doyen of denim
It was thanks to Rosso that denim shifted from streetwear to high fashion. He changed the way denim was perceived, from day wear to ready-to-wear catwalks in the womenswear and menswear categories.
"Our brand has taken it from work wear to red carpet," he says.
Inspired by popular culture, movies, music and nightlife, Rosso says Diesel is about embracing the inner cool of all these influences. He's a keen Instagram follower and has recruited more than 90,000 followers.
"I love to see what people are doing and social media is the perfect way to see how people adopt fashion and wear it," he says.
The social butterfly
He also doesn't mind posting selfies with friends in high places, include Naomi Campbell, photographer Mario Testino and supermodel Coco Rocha.
One of my biggest inspirations in the business of fashion, . A visionary and kind heart! 📸 by— Coco Rocha (@cocorocha)
Joe Jonas, Naomi Campbell and Adrian Brody Celebrate Diesel’s New Store— NYT Styles (@NYTStyles)
When it comes to business, he maintains that 80 per cent of Diesel products sold in-store transpire from customers who have seen them online. "People search your product before they come in to buy it," he says. "Now people follow Instagram to see what people are wearing and how they wear it. If they like it, they go to stores and want the same look."
The official Instagram for Diesel attracts more than 700,000 followers, edging closer to Levis' million plus devotees.
"You have to embrace social media and the internet," says Rosso of his ambition to be the best. "If you don't you'll be left behind."