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Diesel said in November that Birkhold would take over as chief executive officer of Diesel USA after the departure of Panicko Philippou, a 12-year Diesel veteran who had been ceo since 2004. Sources said Philippou vacated the post for personal reasons and returned to his home in London.
As a company outsider with a career built at May Department Stores Co. and apparel giant VF Corp., Birkhold could be regarded as a somewhat unlikely fit with Diesel's often edgy and provocative image. However, his management background and breadth of experience with large denim-based brands resonated with Diesel's management, which is pushing hard on its mission to expand into fresh product categories and reach new consumer markets.
"I've always been really into product," Birkhold said in an interview at the Diesel offices above the brand's first flagship on Lexington Avenue here. "So, for me, one of the major reasons I came to Diesel was because of the focus on the consumer and absolutely the focus on the product. That focus, that's the first thing that everybody talks about."
Attaining a better balance between Diesel's wholesale and its company-owned retail businesses will be a continuing effort over the next three to four years. There are 40 Diesel stores in the U.S., including outlets, a unit for the higher-end Diesel Denim Gallery and a Diesel kids' store, and the plan is to open five to eight new stores this year. The biggest will be a three-story flagship on Fifth Avenue that was previously home to Gucci. The store, scheduled to open late this year, is being touted by management as Diesel's most important flagship.
"It's going to be distinctively Diesel, but done in a way that communicates Renzo's future vision," Birkhold said. "It's basically the prototype of what our stores will look like going forward."
The location will have Diesel rubbing shoulders with titans such as Tiffany & Co., Prada, Bergdorf Goodman and Louis Vuitton, reflecting what Birkhold described as an effort to go after quality rather than quantity. He said Diesel considered a space in Rockefeller Center across from Saks Fifth Avenue that could have drawn far greater foot traffic.