Nicola Formichetti reboots Diesel with debut autumn-winter collection
Nicola Formichetti is rebooting Diesel with his debut collection. Jing Zhang catches up with him and the label's owner in Venice
Italy's most rebellious fashion mogul Renzo Rosso rocks up casually to his farmhouse atop the sun-kissed hills of Bassano del Grappa, a mass of unruly salt and pepper hair, dressed in jeans and T-shirt with a heavy lock pendant on the chain around his neck. It's the day before the debut of Diesel's new direction under artistic director Nicola Formichetti, but Rosso is unfazed.
"Nicola, I have been following him for a long time, and he is like me - always doing crazy things. I finally found someone as crazy as me!" Rosso says of his choice.
The debut of Formichetti's first full collection, in Venice of all places, is not going to be your typical Italian fashion event. But Rosso has never been very typical. The signature sunglasses are in place as he chats informally over lunch and glasses of his home-made Prosecco.
"I am not young any more and Diesel is about a young attitude, so Nicola is perfect," he says. "I am just working with him and giving him the DNA of the brand so he can take it into the future."
And into the future it went, but via the past, through the brand's rich archive. The next evening the first full rebooted Diesel mainline (both men's and women's) collection by Formichetti is unveiled to 300 international VIPs in the ancient halls of the Arsenale in Venice. Nick Knight videos play as a backdrop and New York performer Brooke Candy gyrates in an electrifying performance to usher in a new era for the denim label.
The autumn-winter 2014 debut was dedicated to a new vision of the Diesel army with wearable as well as wilder pieces built around three major themes that are central to Diesel history: leather rock'n'roll, denim and military-utility. Models were mostly striking, many street cast, or covered in tattoos and piercings: a modern message about the new kind of tribe Diesel wants to lead, and very much Formichetti's style.
"Last night [Renzo] said that 'I've given you what's mine, now it's yours' … we were almost very emotional," the Japanese-Italian Formichetti says over breakfast on the morning of the show. "Because it's really his baby. It was 35 years ago that he created Diesel and what an honour to take that and bring it to the next 35 years."
Formichetti's collection certainly made a bold statement - something of a signature throughout his career.
He made his name styling for edgy London magazines like Dazed and Confused before moving on to his infamous role styling Lady Gaga and fashion-editing Vogue Hommes Japan. It was only after becoming creative director of French fashion house Mugler that he moved into proper designing. He was appointed Japanese high street label Uniqlo's fashion director last year.
"I'm probably a bit like Renzo," Formichetti says, "a natural born punk … We're a little bit bad boys, but we're not trying to hurt anyone - we just like to break the rules and go against the norm a little bit because it's fun."
Remarkably, there was no formal meeting to seal his appointment at Diesel, although the two men had kept in touch over several years.
"For me - this new role, it's so dreamy, the whole thing happened so organically and naturally," Formichetti says.
The realities of a commercial denim label is a huge a leap from the crazy costumes that he was known for. With additional casual and contemporary wear at Diesel also came a chance to prove that he wasn't just a wild child figure, dealing in outrageous designs.
"I wanted to prove to myself and to the world as well that I'm a really, really good designer, because some people don't know that about me," he says.
"The images, the entertainment, the lobsters on the head [yes, that Gaga outfit was his doing], those are so strong visually, that they just stick, and people remember me for that … So this time I wanted to focus on the clothes, to create an amazing, wearable collection."
During the initial stages of the collaboration, Rosso took Formichetti through his archives and was able to tell him a story behind each garment throughout the brand's 35-year history. "It was so cute, he was like a kid in a toy store, " Formichetti says.
And for the stylist-turned-designer it was a revelation to see "casual wear in a museum context".
"One of my favourite collections [from the archive] was from '92 or '93 when he [Rosso] went to America and Mexico, so the whole collection was based on Mexican prints. At that time it was very cool to go to America from Italy … and it was totally Italo-Americana," he says.
Indeed, this latest role at Diesel seems to fit Formichetti to a tee - a natural progression in a rather eclectic career.
"Oh my god, I f**king hated it at the beginning!" he says of his sudden fame upon joining Lady Gaga. "I was always happy to be backstage doing my thing before that … all of a sudden you are being criticised - and I got a bit depressed at the start.
"I wanted everyone to love what I did - but that's not the case, you can't make everyone love everything, that's the beauty of the world. It was harsh at first."
Since realising the positive power of his influence and fame, Formichetti has begun to take it all in his stride.
"It sounds a bit cheesy, but now you meet young people and they want to come up and take pictures, and they say, 'I want to be like you when I'm older'... it's really beautiful meeting these cool kids and seeing that what you do can affect them … That made me realise that I can be very positive about it, that I have a voice and that I can change people's views."
After his stint in overseeing creative at Mugler, the move into Diesel felt like a release. "There is less bitching," he says of the move from high fashion to casual wear. "For me, sometimes high fashion seemed to create everything through suffering and bitchiness!
"So it's really nice to see that these guys [at Diesel] just enjoy life … That sense of community is kind of missing from high fashion."
Rosso's holding company, Only the Brave, includes Viktor & Rolf, Marni and Maison Martin Margiela as well as Diesel. And when we tour the Breganze headquarters just before the show, there is a new energy and staff are clearly abuzz.
The staff are quick to tell people that Rosso and Formichetti are like two peas in a pod - both daring rule breakers and rather mischievous.
"Last April Fool's Day I put the Diesel company on eBay for €55. It was so funny, we got a lot of interest," Rosso says, laughing.
Diesel had its heyday in the '90s but, together, Rosso and Formichetti hope they can tap into the current zeitgeist once again. Diesel's success has always been hinged on turning fashion and denim into a "lifestyle". With this reboot debut, the brand has earned some added edge. At this early stage, the outlook seems rosy.
"You have to go with your gut," says Formichetti of setting a modern, hip image for the brand. "I've just been very blessed with all the people that I hang out with. It's very natural. I get really inspired by people, and love collaborating. You cannot do everything alone and I don't need all the glory. People lead to you places. That's what I'm doing with Renzo."
Nicola Formichetti's Diesel Tribute collection is streets ahead
Nicola Formichetti's collection opened with some punky looks. Tight, leather-zippered dresses and skinny separates, then '90s-inspired denims were cut skinny, androgynous and reminiscent of Formichetti's time "growing up and discovering Diesel" - with distressed effects, innovative fabrications and patchwork aplenty.
The look also echoed the street vibe Formichetti's set championed and popularised at Dazed and Confused magazine in the late '90s and early 2000s. Updated army khaki jackets were also a revisit of a '90s trend, as were loose plaid shirts and skimpy crop tops. "Diesel boys and girls should go together - they inhabit the same world," Formichetti says. "It wasn't like that before; before it was a bit macho for the men and for the girls it was a bit too sexy.
"For me it was really important, that whole '90s Diesel look," he adds, of how he interpreted from the existing Diesel archives in this latest collection. "The '90s was my youth … the first time I went to London - I couldn't afford any Diesel at the time, but it was the first time you'd look at wearing logos, bold colours in denim."