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Multitasker doesn’t even begin to describe Renzo Rosso.
As he builds his OTB SpA Italian fashion empire, he invests in a number of projects—ranging from e-tailer Yoox Group to an organic food retail chain (through his family-owned Red Circle Investments). He also funds socially responsible initiatives with a focus on Africa through his Only the Brave Foundation, and he produces wine and olive oil on his Diesel Farm.
“The world is full of ideas, you need to be hungry for them and understand what people do,” says Rosso, 58, giving a visitor a tour of the group’s modern and sprawling headquarters in Breganze, about an hour’s drive from Venice.
“I’m partly moved by instinct, but I always try to visualize the project. This is the same way I approach everything. How can I transform the idea that someone has shared with me into the best thing for both of us, and quickly?” he says, mimicking the thinking process with his fingertips propped against his temples, framed by his unruly salt-and-pepper curls.
The RR tattoo of his initials stands out on his knuckles and his blue eyes are matched by his aqua-colored sweater by Viktor & Rolf, one of the brands under the OTB umbrella, formerly known as Only the Brave. “They will be happy to see this,” says Rosso about the garment, posing for a photo and referring to designers Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren. Besides the Dutch duo’s label, the 1.57 billion euro, or $2.07 billion at average exchange, OTB group comprises Diesel, Maison Martin Margiela, Marni and production arm Staff International, which manufactures and distributes brands including Dsquared2, Just Cavalli, Vivienne Westwood and Marc Jacobs.
His day job almost came to an end in 2007, if it had not been for a chance meeting with the Dalai Lama, Rosso recalls. “I was thinking of giving it all up, I wanted to work less and devote my time to social projects until I met the Dalai Lama on a flight from Edinburgh to Rome. He told me that people would want to imitate me if I continued to do my work as an entrepreneur and that I had a responsibility toward the families of my employees. It was a fundamental day for me,” says Rosso, who is not a Buddhist. “After all, this is very RR.
“I had a very simple education about dignity and life values,” he adds, referring to his growing up on a farm in Brugine, near Italy’s Padua, the youngest of three children. At the urging of his parents, Rosso enrolled at a textile school. It was a game-changer, and led to a job with Adriano Goldschmied managing a small production plant in nearby Molvena. He became a partner and eventually bought out Goldschmied in 1985, becoming sole owner of Diesel.
Rosso’s ambition to develop OTB stands out in a country that has a bumpy history for fashion conglomerates. In the process, he has nourished profitable relationships with designers, both established and budding—also a distinction in this industry.
“My passion is talking to designers. I find a way to talk to them and I work to earn their respect,” says Rosso. “I relate to them to understand them and make myself understood. I know now how to make myself clear.”
He lets slip that this has not always been the case, admitting to past moments of “going crazy.” Today, he says he deals with designers “in an intelligent way when they sound off. I have learned to manage them with diplomacy. The personality of the entrepreneur behind it all is very important, but with designers I am crazily sweet—there is not one designer in the world I don’t get along with,” he says with some pride.
Keeping each brand separate is a priority, as is reining in his design input—except for Diesel, and less so since Nicola Formichetti’s arrival last year as artistic director.
“I never stick my nose in the designs of other brands, I don’t want to, as a basic [premise]. Each has its own lifestyle and they need to be kept distinct,” he stresses.