Saturday, Paris fashion week. Renzo Rosso is occupying a suite of rooms at the Hôtel de Crillon named after Leonard Bernstein, a.k.a. "the Maestro." It's fitting, really, that Rosso is in the Maestro's suite: As the founder and president of OTB, the holding company that owns Diesel, Maison Martin Margiela, Viktor & Rolf, the manufacturer Staff International, and, as of December, a controlling stake in Marni, Rosso is himself a kind of conductor. These brands are his orchestra: He raises his wand, and they play.
"I want a brand for the future," Rosso says as he considers what he saw in Marni, his latest and most formidable acquisition, and the one that made the fashion industry realize OTB (which stands for Only the Brave) is gunning for a seat at the same table as PPR and LVMH. "Not an institutional brand, but a brand with a point of view. I want to feel the hand of the designer."
His son Stefano, who became OTB's co-CEO in March, is sitting next to him and adds that designer Consuelo Castiglioni doesn't "play the regular games of luxury brands. They don't advertise, for instance."
His father nods. "Yes, it's true," Rosso says. "Though we may change that. We'll see."
The story of Renzo Rosso's ascent to the tippity-top of the fashion hierarchy is remarkable. Born in 1955, he was raised on a farm in Italy's Po Valley, where his first entrepreneurial endeavor was breeding rabbits. While still in his teens, he began sewing jeans for friends, charging a couple of dollars a pair. At 23, he cofounded Diesel with his mentor, Adriano Goldschmied, and after buying the company outright in 1985, he began hawking jeans at a significantly higher price point. Rosso effectively invented the luxury denim market—and then opened a giant Diesel flagship on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan, right across the street from the Levi's store. It's a far cry from rabbits.
So, for that matter, is this:
"Me and Bono, we've talked many times about doing something together," Rosso says of Diesel's new collaborative project with Edun. "My charitable foundation is very strong in Mali, and Bono and Ali [Hewson] are in Uganda working with farmers on cotton production, and we're thinking, Let's do a tour of Africa together. So we went to this music festival in Timbuktu—a crazy thing, people come on their camels."
And then there's this: "Diesel Jeans Mogul Renzo Rosso Joins Ranks of Forbes Billionaires"—Forbes.com, December 21, 2012.
So how did Renzo Rosso get from the farm in the Po Valley where he raised rabbits to the farm he currently owns in the Po Valley, a stone's throw from Diesel HQ, where he sups with Kanye West, serving wine from his own vineyard? What made him think he could sell pricey, vintage-looking jeans in an American market dominated by straightforward brands? Rosso is not much for introspection. "I thought people would like them," he says with a shrug.
For more detail, you have to ask his colleague at the time, Johan Lindeberg, who would later launch J.Lindeberg and BLK DNM. Lindeberg happened upon a pair of Diesels in Copenhagen, Denmark, and went to Italy to seek the Swedish distribution rights.
"Renzo said no, no, no, and I said yes, yes, yes," Lindeberg recalls. "Well, I got the rights. And then I did this fashion show in Stockholm, there were something like three thousand people there, and Renzo came, and he said, 'You have to come to Italy and work for me.' And I said no, and he said yes, and it went on like that. And I went to work for him." Lindeberg introduced Rosso to the agency that created the "For Successful Living" campaign. "When he first saw what they did," Lindeberg recalls, "he said, 'Johan! You're going to destroy my company.' But I held him against the wall and said, 'I feel it in my bones, we have to do this.' Another 'no, no, no, yes, yes, yes.' But Renzo trusts his team," adds Lindeberg. "His massive strength, and the strength of the brand, is his willingness to take risks."
Rosso's management style extends to the brands he invests in. He told Martin Margiela he wanted the creative side of the label to "stay totally pure," he says. "I gave Margiela a structure; I put in people they'd never thought about, like a brand manager and a merchandiser. But creatively, nothing. I didn't want to contaminate them. And it's because of what we've done for them that all these other brands knock on my door."
The latest brand to knock was Marni, but Rosso appears to have his eye on other prizes, too. He bid for Valentino, and rumors recently circulated that OTB was in talks with ex-Balenciaga designer Nicolas Ghesquière about launching a new house under his name.
Rosso's respect for designers seems genuine, as when he talks about the departure of Martin Margiela from his eponymous Maison.
I didn't want to contaminate them."
"I was very angry with him, and very sad," Rosso admits. "I couldn't believe it. But he was done with fashion; he wanted to change his life. So we thought, Well, what do we do now? We considered bringing a new creative director. But…" Rosso sighs. "You know, it didn't feel right. We analyzed the culture of Margiela, and we saw its characteristic is teamwork. So we thought, Well, that's the way to go. This brand doesn't need a face. And Martin agreed."
At the Margiela show later on, Rosso remains poker-faced, but afterward, backstage, he seems genuinely pleased—and then, for a moment, a bit nervous. "Did you like it?" he asks. "I liked it…." He's like a father at a ballet recital, full of pride in his child but trying to get a square sense of her performance.
A similar attitude prevails the next night, as Rosso, Bono, and Hewson unveil their Diesel + Edun collaboration at a party in the Marais. Kanye and Kim are there; so are Tilda Swinton and other notables. VIPs pack the rafters above the stage where Solange plays. Below, chaos reigns as fashion-weekers jostle for drinks and better views of the action. Rosso leans over the railing, a gentle smile on his face, surveying the madness he's helped to create. If you didn't know to look for him, you'd never know he was there.