BREGANZE, Italy — Imagine that Renzo Rosso is the sort of guy you could find yourself sitting next to on an economy flight. Even before take off you'd be talking and laughing; by the time the food arrives, you'd be listening, fascinated. He talks fast and furious, with short breaks to search on his phone to find pictures of what he is referring to.
But it is an unlikely scenario. Mr Rosso is listed on the Forbes 2015 Rich List as having a fortune of $2.9 billion and travels by personal private jet — which is a pity. He is so enthusiastic about his achievements that he loves to talk about them. And why shouldn’t he? He has a lot to tell.
Now 60, Rosso is the father of seven children by three different women — the latest having been born just a few weeks ago; the eldest two holding senior positions in the commercial empire Only the Brave (OTB), the parent company of Diesel, Maison Margiela, Marni and Viktor & Rolf. The group’s total revenues are in excess of €1.5 billion ($1.6 billion).
When Rosso and I have breakfast in London, he surprises me. Within the first eight minutes I learn that when he married as a young man, his wife was pregnant; his father, who was a farmer, had taught him all that was required to seal a deal was a handshake; that he only married once, the mother of his first three children; that he lives on his iPhone; that he has a yacht, a real one with sails, not a floating gin palace most of the other successful entrepreneurs and designers in Italy tend to favour.
A truly international man, he is a personal friend of the Dalai Lama and the former president of Israel, Shimon Peres. These are just two international figures out of the many politicians, philanthropists and movers and shakers who are proud to claim Renzo as a friend. He is, in fact, of a status that ensures when he calls, the call is taken — or returned in double quick time, regardless of what high level the recipient is positioned.
Rosso was born in Brugine, a small village in Veneto, Northern Italy, on September 15th, 1955. His upbringing was simple but not deprived. He worked on the farm after school but he knew early on that he would not follow in his father’s footsteps. He never particularly liked school and was not an academic child, but he realised that, to get anywhere, he needed training and qualifications.
In 1970, he began to study industrial textile manufacturing at the Marconi Technical Institute in Padua. He claims that he chose the course because he thought it would be easy: “I never liked studying,” he says. “But I knew, even then, that knowledge was the thing that would open doors. Also, I thought that there would be a lot of girls on the course. In fact, all my fellow students were guys. What was really valuable was that the course was practical. Instead of full-time teachers, people from the textile industry came to talk to us and give us practical training, and that was exactly what I needed. So, the day I left, I was ready. I knew the way to work. I was always a very practical guy and I knew everything I needed to run a textile business: stitching, fabrics, the economics. I was ready.” It is entirely typical of Rosso’s determination and ambition that he uses the word ‘run’ instead of ‘work in.’
After all, at the age of 15, whilst still a student in Padua, he made his first garment — a pair of bell-bottomed jeans — using his mother’s sewing machine. He made more. Some he gave to close friends, most he sold. In 1973, he enrolled on an economics degree at Venice University, but two years later he dropped out. It was a very American thing to do in those very American years of Easy Rider, Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan; Haight-Ashbury and the entire American counterculture had a glamour and drive that captured his imagination.
“I learned quickly and I knew when I was ready to drop out,” says Rosso. He was soon offered a job, looking after production at Moltex, an Italian manufacturing company owned by Adriano Goldschmied, a denim mogul who went on to found his own popular line, AG Jeans. “That is where I really learned how to make clothes.” At that time, Rosso was waiting to be called up for military service, but the call never came. "I was lucky," he says. "There was a surplus of boys born, all at the same time as I was, and the military only needed 50 per cent of them. It was a lottery, really, and I wasn’t picked."
Initially, things didn’t go well at the factory — “they said I spent too much time chasing women”— and it looked as if Rosso would be sacked. Some quick talking turned that around and soon he increased the company’s turnover and profit so dramatically that, although he was ready to go out on his own, he stayed because he was offered a 40 percent stake in a jointly formed company that was to be called Diesel, a name chosen because the West was in the middle of an oil crisis and diesel was seen as a thing of the future.
“I had never designed anything in my life,” Rosso explains. “But after all, I had done a denim dress when I was only fifteen. And I knew I was a very practical man, like my father. I knew that whatever the clothes I would make, they had to be in denim. I was in love with the USA and denim. I used to go with my mother to the flea market and that’s where I bought my first pair. I wore the back pocket tag at the front. My school friends laughed at me but I didn’t care. They were probably jealous. Since then, I have worn jeans every day of my life.”
When he is not travelling, which takes up quite a lot of his year, Rosso is essentially a family man who likes to go home at the end of the working day, be greeted by his kids and have a barbecue. “I tell them what I think they need to know, from my experience. I let them know nothing is easy, and if they get ahead in the family business, it won’t be because they are family but because they are good. And I give them a tough training. I always say: 'Do not copy your father. Do your own thing. Every position you get, you work for,'” he continues. “We are not just working for the family Rosso; our responsibility is the 7,500 employees we have. It is fantastic that I work with my two sons. It means I sleep happy at night.” Indeed, Rosso’s son Stefano is currently chief executive officer of the OTB Group, while his eldest, Andrea, is creative director of all Diesel licenses, which includes fragrances, watches, eyewear and home collection.
Rosso is not like other exceedingly wealthy men. He is, underneath it all, a man who accepts the responsibility that a lot of money brings. It would be all too easy to cynically assume that he is playing a part when he talks idealistically. But his actions speak louder: “The Dalai Lama gave me a good lesson when he said, ‘The more profit you make, the more people you can hire and make happy.’”
Rosso is also a philanthropist. He helps people to help themselves. When he founded the OTB Foundation in 2008, he was rich enough to step down and take life easy, especially as it was a not-for-profit enterprise. Its intention was — and still is — “to rebalance social inequality and contribute to the sustainable development of less advantaged areas and people throughout the world.” 90 percent of the foundation funds are invested in Africa; the rest in Italy. The projects are nothing grand or fashion-related. There’s the H Farm digital support network to help young Italian companies; training rats to root out landmines and providing pumps to small farmers to enable them to irrigate their land. Everything practical, just like the man. But some projects are cultural: he gave €5.4 million ($5.9 million) in 2012 to sponsor the restoration of the iconic Rialto Bridge in Venice. Yes, there are tax breaks but the act was done for the glory of the country he loves. “I would not live anywhere else,” he declares.
Perhaps the major thing as far as the fashion world is concerned is what Rosso has done for designers and fashion companies. When he bought Maison Martin Margiela in 2002, there was a frisson of surprised alarm. Some thought it was the end of Margiela. But Margiela himself certainly did not think that. “Martin knocked on my door,” Rosso explains. “He said to me: ‘I have many groups and companies that want to buy me, but I want to come to you. Will you help me?’” The two men were not strangers and had worked together on production for the Margiela label in the previous two years. “We knew each other, trusted each other and knew how to work with each other.” But perhaps the most surprising coup of Rosso’s career is the hiring of John Galliano in October 2014 to be creative director of the house.
“Unlike with Margiela, I went to John,” says Rosso. “All I was looking for was creativity and, for me, John is the only one. The best. That’s why I wanted him. He was surprised when I talked to him. He kept saying, ‘Are you sure?’ My answer was ‘yes,’ because Margiela is a very particular company, one that a lot of brands take inspiration from. With Margiela [the founder] gone, it needed a creative input of the very highest standard. John came to see the Margiela archive. He fell so much in love with it. From that night he kept saying to me, ‘I never imagined I would design for another brand, but this is the brand for me.’ What I find exciting about John is that he is still at the top of his creativity. He says, ‘I am working just for a dream of beauty. I don’t want to show my face, give interviews. I just want to create beauty!’”
Rosso gives Galliano total creative control. “He is free to do what he wants,” says Rosso. “We have lunch once a month. Informal. Chatty. The two men have met and Martin said to John: ‘Make your own Margiela.’ He also said to me: '’Thank you for not bringing just another creative director to Margiela. You have brought a couturier.’”
Interestingly enough, Rosso tells me he has met and talked with Alber Elbaz since he left Lanvin, whom he found charming and talented. It was all very informal, but when Elbaz said “I don’t have a company,” Renzo replied: “make one!” It might or might not be a case of ‘watch this space,’ but whatever happens, Renzo Rosso is still motoring. He has enough energy, self-belief, finance and idealism to do many things — and then there’s a second generation right behind him.