Renzo Rosso is the head of Diesel and more than just a Jeans Genius, writes Matthew Hernon after speaking to the man this month.

Though laid-back, charming and extremely friendly, Renzo Rosso looks more like a rock-star than the man who, as President of one of the world’s most famous fashion labels, predises over a billion dollar business. The passionate Italian, who founded Diesel in 1978, and was said to be the first to turn stone-washed denim into a premium category in the 1980s, is a man who doesn’t like to play by the rules and that is reflected by his brand.

‘Only the Brave’ is their mantra, with Rosso placing an emphasis on individuality and self-expression. When I recently met with the man known as the ‘Jeans Genius’ we discussed a variety of topics, including rats that discover mines, the influence of the Dalai Lama and the importance of ingeniousness in the workplace.

“The kind of people who I like to have at Diesel are those who see things not as they are, but how they could be,” Rosso says. “It is a movement we have inside the company. Even if you do a simple job: try to put all your imagination and creativity in to it, feel like you are the owner. Together we can make something special.”

The son of farmers, Rosso was brought up to value and respect people, particularly his employees. One of his top priorities is making sure that they are comfortable at work. With six children of his own, he knows how difficult it can be juggling a career and a family.

“I don’t want people going back from their job with stress, this causes a bad atmosphere in the home. For me, an office should be a place where you feel happy and that is why we built our beautiful headquarters in Breganze. They have a gymnasium, aesthetic salons and all kinds of facilities. It is an amazing place to work.”

Champions of the Future

For winners of the International Talent Support (ITS) Diesel Award, there is an opportunity to experience those offices first hand. Rewarding exciting new designers, the prize includes a six-month internship within the Diesel creative team plus 25,000 euros that the recipient can invest in their career. It’s all part of the company’s policy to promote up-and-coming raw talent, a policy that goes further than simply the fashion world.

Over the years Diesel has championed artists and musicians who are raw and exciting. Diesel U:Music for example, has given unsigned bands a platform for their songs to be heard and has helped to unearth groups that may have otherwise been overlooked in an increasingly manufactured industry.

A more recent project that has also proved very popular here is the Diesel Art Gallery in their Shibuya store. Holding four exhibitions a year, the space showcases collections from a variety of international artists with customers given the opportunity to purchase some of the artwork. Installations by architects and interior designers are also exhibited in the shop.

“I love discovering new people,” says Rosso. “Giving them visibility and helping them grow. There are so many competitions for musicians and designers who are already ‘someone’, we like to work with people at the beginning of their journey. That is why we are so respected.”

Rosso speaks with so much energy and enthusiasm that it is surprising to hear that he was once very close to giving it all up. Words of encouragement from a certain Tibetan spiritual leader, however, helped change his mind.

“It is true, there was a time when I thought that I didn’t want to do it anymore, but his Holiness the Dalai Lama persuaded me to use my profits to do something good, to help people. His words inspired me to start the Foundation.”

Known as Only the Brave Foundation, Rosso is talking of the non-profit organization that initially focused on young disadvantaged people in Northern Italy but has since switched its attention to Africa. The goal is not only to provide financial aid to the region but also to help local communities achieve sustainable development.

For the greater good?

“You can’t just erase poverty by throwing money at it. People need support to help them grow. For example, together with locals, we are building a big village in Mali for 20,000 people that I hope will be self-standing in five or six years. A project like this gives individuals stimulation to achieve something memorable.

Sometimes to make a difference it only requires a small amount of capital. We recently invested 100,000 euros in APOPO, an organization that trains rats to detect landmines and tuberculosis [research is showing that rats can sense TB in saliva samples much faster than humans using microscopes]. It’s a wonderfully innovative way to save thousands of lives.”

As well as taking a huge role in a variety of other charitable projects, Rosso is also the President of an investment group, owns a hotel in Miami and runs his own Italian football team, Bassano Virtus 55 S.T. Yet even with so much other than fashion in his life, Rosso’s passion for clothes and design still burns brightly.

He has been heavily involved in the Diesel Black Gold collection that he has “fallen in love with,” and he is constantly looking for new things to inspire him. He particularly enjoys observing the way Japanese people dress when he visits here.

“Japan is a special, truly fashion-conscious country. I come here and play with my eyes. You see so many different styles; it helps me develop new collections. It is a fantastic place to visit, people have amazing fashion sense. Our Japanese customers select the most creative items in our shops, things you can’t find in Europe or America.”

Diesel’s popularity in Japan shows no signs of letting up. Once seen as a premium jeans brand, it now offers all kinds of lifestyle goods, including textiles, furniture and even motorcycle helmets. Yet it is not a company that should be defined simply by what it sells, and Rosso hopes Diesel can represent much more than that.

Diesel has become a symbol of non-conformity: a label that encourages people to think outside the box with a leader determined to show people that change is possible.

by Matthew Hernon