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Nicola Formichetti Explains What He's Been Up To At Diesel for the Last 2 Years

We sat down with the denim brand's artistic director — and former stylist to Lady Gaga — while he was in town for SXSW.
Formichetti in February. Photo: Rommel Demano/Getty Images

Formichetti in February. Photo: Rommel Demano/Getty Images

There was, to put it mildly, an insane amount of stuff happening at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas this past week: Film screenings, concerts, panels, Adrian Brody, dinners, Uber price surges of 2.1 and higher, parties and tacos — so, so many tacos. But the best thing about SXSW is the opportunity to meet a whole lot of people. 

I sat down with Diesel artistic director Nicola Formichetti, who was in town for a panel as part of SXSW's growing segment of style-focused programming, to pick his brain about finding creative inspiration in Texas and about the behind-the-scenes work he's been doing at Diesel for the last two years.

Have you been to SXSW before?

It's my first time. I'm really excited for this dinner tonight with Jefferson [Hack of Dazed], and tomorrow we're doing a talk. I just drove by some cool vintage stores I want to check out, some cowboy stores. 

Are you doing product research while you're down here?

Yeah, totally. I'm going to go extreme shopping.

What does that kind of research entail?

Every time we do a collection for Diesel, we go on a trip. It's kind of a traditional thing; Renzo [Rosso, the founder of Diesel] used to do that back in the day. I think it's such a cute idea, almost like bonding with your team. Everyone in the studio, like 15 people, we all decide, "Okay for next season, let's go to L.A. or Japan or Mexico." On the research trip, you go to the theater and vintage stores, talk to people, go out and just see what's up there. The great thing for me is that I travel everywhere, so I'm always doing research. 

Research is not so much about copying; it could just be a little funny doll that you keep as inspiration to do prints. You get all these bits together and put them in one place, and you play with it. First you create silhouettes and new proportions, almost like a styling technique. You put everything together and see what length feels cool, and once you have the silhouette, you do fabrication — for this length, we need something heavier or lighter, and then you play with it. That's the way I work. 

With Diesel especially, I don't sketch, because Diesel isn't costume or high fashion. Denim is denim, a jacket is a jacket. We want to do something authentic looking. With Diesel, it's all about the vibe, so it's really important to experience these funny vintage shops in Austin. You never know what you're going to see, and that's the beauty of it.

Denim is so clearly part of Texan culture. What kind of different denim vibes do you see in different places?

If you go to L.A., it's all about bleached hot pants. Ripped jeans. If you go to Texas, the traditional ones are like cowboy or cowgirl high-waisted boot cuts. It's more raw feeling. If you go to Japan, it's more indigo blues and traditional '50s-inspired [styles]. If you go to Europe, it's much more raw, minimal, Acne and APC-type things. I actually don't know what it's really like here, so I'm excited to see it.

So you've been at Diesel for two years now.

Almost two years. I haven't even done anything yet, you know? [Laughs] It's such a humungous brand — so many people working there, and so many things happening — that I feel like all the work I've done until now has been all about internal work, like internal operations. Getting the right people, changing and replacing people. For me this is a super, super long term project and I needed to have the right people in all the parts of Diesel. I changed completely the design studio; we hired new designers. I feel like finally after two years, I have a solid group of people in the design area. There's new PR, new marketing directors and we just started working on the new store concept. 

How did you change the studio flow?

I think it's nice in a way, but they were much slower. I work on weekends. I work really, really hard and play hard, too. For me, it's a balance, but I work every day. I'll retire when I'm a little bit older. 

[The studio] had all these systems already there, I just made it a bit more together so it's like a machine. Whatever we want, we can just do it. The denim studio, I didn't really touch, because it was incredible already.

I've done all the internal work until now, so for me it's now about telling people about it. We have so much to give, and no one really knows about it yet. It's not like we have to come up with some crazy marketing scheme because we have no product. We have an amazing product and amazing people. We're going to have amazing stores.

What will the new stores look like?

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We're working with my favorite architect of all time, Masamichi Katayama, from Japan. He has a company called Wonderwall. They make the best shit. We're changing the concept of the store. It's much smaller and more boutique-y. We're going to have big flagships, too: the first will be in Milan, then on Madison in New York. So a bunch of boutiquey ones and then some mega stores. We've been working on this for a year now.

The concept of the stores is that we divided them into these little different apartments in a way. The original idea of the Diesel store was basically Renzo's house. It was like a loft, with leather sofas and wood and metal. That was the first concept, and since then, everyone has copied it, so the language of denim is always wood with metal. So, we still keep that kind of house feeling, but it's more like different kinds of houses all in one space. There's a Black Gold section, Diesel men's, women's — then at the end, we're creating this "denim temple," I'm calling it. It looks kind of like my favorite shrines in Japan: traditional, but super futuristic.

What's been working with customers so far?

At the moment, we are transitioning. We have the existing customers, and then we have the new ones that we're getting because of the new things we're doing. At the moment, it's a weird position. [Often] you kill the old customers and then start all over again, but I really like what they had already, so I don't want to do that. Some brands do it, and you lose a lot of money and I feel like that's a little bit negative, saying "fuck you" to your customer. To me, it was more about educating already-existing customers about a new thing. At the same time, you engage new customers using social media and things like that. It seems to be working really well.

Today we're launching the Jogg Jeans campaign. Basically it's jersey, so jogging pants, but they look like denim. I wear it every day. For traveling, it's amazing. I go running, I go to work, then parties. This is my favorite thing in Diesel at the moment. We're going to launch it today [on Monday] properly, and we asked this Instagram artist, @bessnyc4, to do the campaign. He puts two images together, and he's always kind of making fun of brands.

How often do you and Renzo talk?

All the time; 10 times a day. He loves WhatsApp, so we use that. I used to stay at his house in Italy, so we went to work together. He's very, very involved. I don't know what his plans are for the future, but he always tells me, "I don't want to be here forever, so I'm injecting you with my DNA so I can retire."

And you've said you want to be there for the long haul.

Yeah. I've never done anything for that long. With Mugler, I was there for two years. When I was at Dazed, I was there for a long time, like 10 years, but I started as a junior and kind of went up. Normally I just do a project here and there, but I'm taking my time [with this]. A lot of the time people say, "What are you doing? We don't hear from you!" I'm not just doing it for the sake of it. I really want to make it very successful, so I'm planting seeds so that we can blow it out this year.

What about Diesel made you want to get in it for the long haul?

For me, it was both the brand and Renzo, actually. I thought he was so cool. I want to be like him when I'm older. He's in fashion, but not. He has a family life, a non-fashion life, which I really like. He can be going to shows and building brands, but then at the same time, he'll just go away with his daughters and have a real life. And I can come up with crazy stuff, but he's like, "Go crazier!" Nobody tells me to go crazy.

Does the crazy go into the product, or is it more about the branding?

The reason Diesel became successful in the '90s was not because of the product, or not only because of it. It had the craziest campaigns and visuals to go with the product, and that made the whole thing work. In the campaign — they never showed the product in the campaign — they were talking about gays and gay culture, boys kissing. You get attention because of that and that goes into sales. It wasn't about the newest silhouette. It's not about that. It's denim. You know what you're going to get. It's about what goes with that. Diesel is about creating these tribes and a culture that you want to be associated with.

So what's the Diesel tribe at this point?

For me, it's people who are brave. People who can make fun of themselves, so basically, people who are confident. That is very Diesel, because Renzo's like that. That ethos has always been in the advertisements and the DNA. Denim is sort of a symbol of a rebel, so you have that side — that you just want to be something different. Then there's also the idea of doing something very brave, that no one's ever done before. You don't really care if it fails. And there's that ironic side, which I love and we haven't really tapped into yet. That's what I'm working on now, which will be the idea for the next campaign.

I didn't want to do [irony] at the very beginning because people would be like, "You're just making fun." When I say ironic, I don't really mean hipster things. In the '90s, when there was Corinne Day and David Sims and grunge and heroin chic were the trends, Diesel came out with this campaign with David LaChapelle that was completely the opposite. They basically made fun of this successful living, typical '50s living. It was bright and colorful, with bodybuilders and housewives, this very kitsch world. It was the complete opposite of what was cool at the time, and that blew the whole thing out. It was a joke. We have to do that in a more modern way, and that's what I'm talking to my team for next season about. 

How does Instagram, which is such a strong visual medium for consumers, play into all of this? 

When I joined the company, there was nobody that was working on social media. There was a digital section, but they were more graphic designers. 

That's crazy.

I know. It's nuts. We've come a long way and now it's not huge, but we have Instagram followers. I recently did a photoshoot in LA just for the Instagram account. I'm telling people in the company that we have to have budgets for shoots to collaborate with a cool artist like Doug [the artist behind @bessnyc4] and to do lots of things just for Instagram or Tumblr. Imagine this huge company, and there was nobody [on social].

I love social media, Renzo loves social media, Diesel has to be about social. We're learning. That's why we're here [at SXSW].