A Conversation with Renzo Rosso, Founder & Chairman of OTB Group, Founder of Diesel and Philanthropist.

A Conversation with Renzo Rosso, Founder & Chairman of OTB Group, Founder of Diesel and Philanthropist.

Renzo Rosso founded the Diesel brand in 1978 and made it an alternative lifestyle icon all over the world. Today he is the president of OTB, the group controlling brands Diesel, Maison Margiela, Marni, Jil Sander, Viktor & Rolf, Amiri and companies Staff International and Brave Kid, with over 6,000 employees worldwide and a 2019 turnover of over 1.5 billion euro. Through his personal company, Red Circle, he invests in companies and sectors that share a strong drive for innovation (Depop, ICONIQ Capital, Cortilia, Masi Agricola, Planet Farms, med-tech companies and more). Red Circle also owns the Pelican Hotel in Miami, the Chiltern Firehouse Hotel in London, and the Hotel Ancora in Cortina D’Ampezzo. Through the OTB Foundation, which he founded in 2008, he has invested in over 250 social projects around the world, from the restoration of the Rialto Bridge in Venice, to the support of communities affected by natural disasters, to programs helping women, young people, and integration. In the Covid emergency, OTB Foundation was among the most concretely active realities in Italy.

In this interview, I speak to Renzo Rosso, President of OTB Group, about his life in entrepreneurship, creative vision, what it takes to build iconic, global fashion brands and why philanthropy & sustainability matter.

Q: What do you think it means to be an entrepreneur?

[Renzo Rosso]: I’ve done many different things in my life, and maybe that’s why people think I’m crazy. I’m just a person who loves to do things before others. I’m very open to listening to young people, and always have a good relationship with them. I’m curious. Thanks to this, I try to do things before they become huge – I feel the market, the world, and try to be more-close to the world today. That’s what I think it takes to be an entrepreneur.

Q: Where do you find your creative vision and influence?

[Renzo Rosso]: My creative vision comes from different culture. When I started my career, I destroyed the enemy, I was in a difficult product area- jeans. I had to look around the world to find people to work with me – so, from the very beginning I was a globally branded business. There were people coming from the East, United States, Japan, France, and Scandinavia. It was fantastic and gave our business a mix of cultures, religions, ways of doing things and aesthetics. That’s where the creative vision came from in those early days.

I have 7 children, and I learn a lot from observing their attitudes, their friends, what music or cinema they’re interested in, what sports they like… To be in contact with them keeps me young in mind. I have a little girl who is going to be 6 in a couple of weeks. A year ago, she started to play Roblox, and it’s fantastic. I had a meeting with my group CEO and explained that we had to better understand Roblox, because these methods of interaction can be used in our world, as well as the virtual world. It’s great to see how many minds we now have exploring things like Roblox!

It’s so important to be curious, and to have young people around you. These sources of inspiration can help you modify your vision, take different approaches, and make better business decisions.

Q: What does bravery mean in business?

[Renzo Rosso]: My courage comes from my curiosity. I love to read, and even when I am busy, I ask my team to read articles for me, and give me the key points I need to know about what’s happening in the world. One of my team lives in China, and that’s a place where there is a lot of evolution, creativity, and innovation. I speak to her in the morning as I drive to work, and she briefs me on what’s happening in China.

It is this mix of curiosity and bravery which has allowed me to change things. I changed the world of denim because Diesel was the first company to bring denim from being something you wore for work to something you wore for every occasion. 10 years ago, we built a Passarella at a wedding in Vienna where 2 gay couples got married, one male couple and one female couple. One couple got married in black denim, and one in black.

We gained huge respect across the industry, and it’s pleasing to see so many brands now developing Denim thanks to Diesel.

I also feel we changed the world of advertising. The founder of Nike talks of advertising before, and after Diesel. We pioneered interactive advertising to understand what the consumer thinks in the 1990s, like what people do with social media today.

That is my courage – I see things thanks to young people around me, and go forward fast, implementing before others do.

Q: How do you create, and scale, brand loyalty?

[Renzo Rosso]: Every brand needs to be different; they need to be separate. Diesel was easy – it’s my culture, I’m the founder, and the brand is my vision. All the other brands though… I want them to live in their own countries and buildings to avoid contamination. What I give to them is solid foundations, an incredible team and incredible support. This enables the brands to manage their companies in the best way possible. Being part of a group also means that we can utilize infrastructure – find the closest path from the store – invest in new platforms, and digital technologies, and take advantage of economies of scale.

Q: What does failure mean to you?

[Renzo Rosso]: Making mistakes is necessary- if you don’t make mistakes, you can never grow.

Sometimes, I see a member of my team who wants to do something, and even if I know it’s a mistake, I can’t tell them, ‘You’re wrong, you need to do it this way…’ – if someone goes with their head against the world, they make a mistake, and they can grow. That means next time, they will be much better.

Every failure is a little lesson in how to be a winner. Failure is an opportunity to learn, to start again, to see problems, and find solutions. Failing may be the reason you win next time!

Q: What does winning mean to you?

[Renzo Rosso]: Winning is satisfaction. When you are working hard with your team, when you are working day and night, fighting hard, doing the best you can… when you make sacrifices and see things start to grow. That feeling of satisfaction is more important sometimes than money. The satisfaction of knowing I have done something that others cannot is a huge source of happiness for me.

Q: What has been your journey in philanthropy?

[Renzo Rosso]: My father taught me an important lesson; when you get something, when you receive something, it’s important to give back. This lesson is something that has really stuck with me through my whole life, and I’ve always tried to do social good as much as I can.

At a point in my career, I decided to establish my own foundation. With our foundation, we’re going deep into global issues. We fight for social-equality and contribute where we can to people who are less fortunate. I have been fortunate enough to be able to cover the costs of this foundation with my own resources too, so this means every single dollar, every single euro, goes to the projects that we do.

We have completed over 250 projects and helped more than 300,000 people. We helped with the restoration of the Rialto Bridge, it’s something we’re proud of because it was a public-private partnership, and often these do not work well. We invested 5 million in restoring the bridge, and had it delivered in 3 years rather than 5 in partnership with the local venetian community. I’m also really proud of the work we’ve done supporting women. During the pandemic, we’ve seen a huge growth in domestic violence and we’ve provided psychological support, legal support, accommodation support and the wrap-around care to help women leave the often dangerous situations they are in, and to create new lives. 4-5 years ago, we were working on a project in Afghanistan. Women were not allowed to drive cars, so we did a project called the pink shuttle. Since the Taliban took back control, we brought 160 women to Italy, gave them places to live, education, language training and jobs.

Industry and society today are one thing – it’s the same business. You need to be close to humanity, have a soul, show blood. You must do the right thing, and you have to be transparent – it matters to the consumer, to the market, and to the team.

When we do something with the foundation, we follow the project from beginning to end. We really want to solve problems. I even attach my name to projects as I hope it inspires other people to do the same.

Q: What does sustainability mean to you?

[Renzo Rosso]: Sustainability means a lot, it’s the way we need to go. Today, there is a lot of greenwashing – one recycled fabric is not sustainability, it’s just one thing! I think sustainability is a state of mind – every day when my team are working, they must think about sustainability. This is very different than asking them to do one-more-thing to make the product more luxurious.  We want to be 100% sustainable by 2030 – how can you talk about 2060 or 2080? The people making the promises will be dead by then. We must act now,

For a business like ours, we must make big changes. We are now making denim using 90% less water. We’re giving transparency passports to every single pair of jeans we make. We’re involved in fashion traceability blockchain projects and have pioneered product recycling so that we can remake and resell products rather than throwing them away.

Customers are demanding sustainability now too, and if your company is not all about sustainability? You will get left behind; you will go out of business.

Q:  What do you hope your legacy will be?

[Renzo Rosso]: My dream is that one day- when I pass away- people remember that there was a brand that changed the role of our industry and contributed to a better world. On one side, we (as an industry) have been stupid – sustainability didn’t exist when I was younger – and our industry has caused a lot of damage. I hope we can recover this in my career and that people remember that there was a brand, a company, a man, who did something nice for a better world.

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.