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'I want crazy, bigger, more, more, more': Diesel founder Renzo Rosso, advertising’s original provocateur

The Drum's series looking into the origins of some of the world’s best-known companies continues with Diesel. Here, Renzo Rosso, the enigmatic founder of the denim brand, talks to The Drum about embracing controversy and why, 40 years later, disrupting the status quo is more important than ever.

“There's a starman waiting in the sky, he'd like to come and meet us, but he thinks he'd blow our minds. There's a starman waiting in the sky, he's told us not to blow it, cause he kno –

“– HELLO!”

The hold music to Renzo Rosso’s office line is abruptly cut short by an enthusiastic greeting from the Italian billionaire and fashion mogul.

Rosso has earned a reputation as a “flamboyant paterfamilias”, an outspoken “eccentric” who holds political correctness in low regard. But he is also a staunch business "guru”, who founded fashion brand Diesel, aged just 22, which went on to sit at the heart of an empire that now includes luxury labels like Viktor & Rolf, Maison Martin Margiela, and Marni.

They all come under the holding company OTB, or Only the Brave – Rosso’s personal motto and a name which serves as a constant reminder to its over 7,000 global employees to keep pushing the boundaries.

Bowie’s Starman, it seems, is a somewhat fitting tune to introduce the man who answers the phone.

“WE ARE VERY HAPPY. VERY EXCITED,” he shouts, having just won a Eurobest award for its 'Go with the Flaw' advertising campaign.

Despite being at the helm of a multi-billion dollar business, Rosso still gets a thrill from good advertising. And still has opinions on what makes good advertising.

The Diesel brand – which marks its 40th anniversary this year – was built on provocation. As denim companies set up at the time thrived on creating “new” jeans, Rosso went the opposite way, reportedly taking Black & Decker tools to new denim to add scuffs and rips and then charging $100 a pair, three times the average price of a pair of jeans back then.

If people didn’t get it, he didn’t care. And in essence, that's his attitude to marketing the brand.

“The message was: ’If you like the way we think, come and see what we’re doing',” he says. “And it wasn’t advertising that existed before Diesel, we brought a real change in this world.”

With the help of Swedish creative duo Johan Lindeberg and Jocke Jonason from ad agency Paradiset, its first real attempt at advertising resulted in a multi-award winning campaign – including an Advertiser of the Year accolade at the Cannes Lions festival – which would go on to run for over a decade.

Race, religion, sexuality and politics; nothing was too controversial to satirise through the ‘For Successful Living’ tagline.

Diesel is the reason why I went into advertising. This cheeky Italian brand from my home region, called out the world’s bullshit, unapologetically.

Take the 'How To' series from the early 90s. Seemingly unrelated and random, they all broke cultural conventions to give people another way to view life. I love 'Super Denim' the most. At that time everybody was talking about Bollywood movies and that was the only image of India for many. Diesel went in the complete opposite direction to create the greatest product demonstration ever.

Even the line “no problem jeans for no problem people” gave a big F**K YOU to overly-complicated marketing. Nothing makes sense about this ad and that’s why it made sense.

By pushing all the wrong buttons, Diesel became the European bad boy, turning the product into a symbol of bravery against conformity. Diesel’s popularity spread like a virus on steroids. I was obviously infected too.

Bruno Bertelli, global chief creative officer, Publicis Worldwide

It was 1991, a “depressing time” where “the economy was bad and people were suffering”, Jonason told Dazed in an interview a couple of years ago. “Then we came up with this happy-go-lucky, political, completely wrong campaign.”

Other companies targeted a younger generation of shoppers with glitzy, celeb-fronted, product-pushing campaigns. Diesel on the other hand wanted to reflect society, what was going on that people had opinions on and comment on the widening divide that existed between old and new cultures.

“You could really push push push with brand brand brand and product product product but that was never where I wanted to go. If you receive all this push, [the customer] becomes a victim. I wanted them to know they had intelligence and they can be free to think about what they like and prefer,” Rosso recalls.

“We were revolutionary. There was colour, irony, showing problems in the world. We didn’t want to be pretentious; these were the problems existing in the world.”

One of the most widely recognised ads from the early days of the marketing push shows the celebrations at the end of the Second World War. Superimposed in the foreground are two sailors kissing.

In another, a group of black women and men wearing little more than a pair of jeans are shown partying in an office. Superimposed is a fake newspaper headline from The Daily African declaring ‘European developing countries targeted by African tobacco industry.’

“We talked about the rich people as poor people and global warming,” Rosso continues. “It was natural to look at existing problems with irony, sympathy, modernity, a vision and a little provocation but not telling the consumer what to do.”

The campaign ran between 1991 and 2001 and undoubtedly propelled the brand into the multi-million dollar business it is today. In 2016, it was reprised, with now-controversial fashion photographer Terry Richardson who shot 50 different portraits, each accompanied with Diesel’s own advice for ‘successful living’.

Diesel were the adverts you waited to see as a teenager. In the days of i-D, the Face, and indeed early Vice, every month meant a new Diesel advert and a new ad to rip out and put on your wall.

They had a social bite, they commented without preaching, they were brave and at times, stupid. Their ads were as much about the brand as the jeans and t-shirts they sold, something you see less and less these days. Wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the guy with the strange fin hair or having that sliver of a label on your overly faded bootcut jeans meant something.

Rick Brim, chief creative officer, adam&eveDDB

Sandwiched between these two iterations of ‘For Successful Living’ came waves of other eccentric, controversial, advertising.

In 2010, this time with creative agency Anomaly, the ‘Be Stupid’ campaign told customers that while “smart may have the brains, stupid has the balls”.

“Stupid is the relentless pursuit of a regret-free life. Smart critiques. Stupid creates. The fact is if we didn’t have stupid thoughts we’d have no interesting thoughts at all. Smart may have the plans… but stupid has the stories," it said.

A series of out-of-home adverts with the 'Be Stupid' tagline showed everything from a woman taking a picture of her vagina as a lion looked on to a couple letting a racoon eat out of their fridge.

Perhaps surprisingly, UK ad regulators eventually banned just one particular image that featured a model flashing her breasts to a surveillance camera.

Diesel was the first brand to advertise on Pornhub and in 2016, under the influential guidance of then-artistic director, Nicola Formichetti, would call out young people for their digital obsessions.

“It’s still the same. Everyone today on social networks just show their beautiful attitudes, places, life and no one wants to show the imperfections, the tough moments. We want to be real. We want to show the reality of the life you lead today. We have the power to show the reality of life,” says Rosso who, after 10 years' absence to focus on OTB’s other businesses, is now a daily presence in Diesel’s Milan headquarters.

Today, it's the core brand in OTB's portfolio, achieving revenues of nearly €1bn and accounting for 60% of the Group's total revenue.

What I’ve always loved about Diesel is their punk attitude.

Not your ordinary way of looking at things. A provocative view of society born out in their iconic communications. Bold. Subversive, provocative. Anti-establishment. Controversial.

There was no subject too risque to talk about, but through a Diesel lens with wit and humour. And amazing photography.

Never bland, boring or middle of the road.

All the things that creative aspire to.

Even at my age, I love the punk attitude to life, guess that’s why I’m a die-hard Diesel fan

Sue Higgs, creative director, Grey London

Since returning, Rosso has been more hands-on with its advertising efforts, even fronting a tongue-in-cheek ad campaign that asked customers to fill the chief executive role left vacant by Alessandro Bogliolo after he moved to Tiffany's. ("My people know how crazy I am. We started to talk about it on a Friday and by the Monday morning they came in with that idea.")

On a more serious note, he says his approach to the brand in today's market is unwavering from 40 years ago.

“I took all the Diesel advertising and put it around the walls of my office and looked at it, and I thought about who are we now and who we want to be. It was very easy to choose the direction," he explains.

Its most recent campaign, the Eurobest award-winning ‘Go with the Flaw’, is the latest iteration of the founder’s vision and one the first to come from ad agency Publicis Italia since it won the account from Anomaly 18 moths ago.

The film challenges the conformity of perfection, telling people to be unordinary "because flawless is forgettable" by showing different models who in closeups all have slight, what some would consider, flaws.

“It’s very exciting and it’s a good moment. After many years…it gives us a good energy. This is a starting point for new marketing with a real vision inside and direction, team and people wanting to drive Diesel to be a leader,” he adds.

“I push them to get brave work. With my team, I’m pushing them for something crazy, bigger, more, more, MORE," he shouts. "And that gives the result.”

More like this: For this series, The Drum looked into the colourful history of Hello Kitty, exploring how the button-eyed totemic character went on to become one of the most recognisable brands on the planet.