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Renzo Rosso Reflects on 40 Years of Diesel in a New Book

Imbued in the fiber of denim is a spirit of rebelliousness. Sure, the humble fabric started as workwear in Nimes, France, but thanks to its stronghold on 20th-century popular culture, it became synonymous with the bad-boy swagger of James Dean, Marlon Brando, and Bob Dylan. No wonder Renzo Rosso was quickly drawn to the material as a teenager in Italy.

“Denim was the sign of a social movement based on courage and freedom. That caught my attention and made me want to feel part of it,” he tells Vogue. At 15 years old, he stitched up his first pair of jeans on his mother’s Singer sewing machine, intentionally going against the patterns and proportions he had learned at the Marconi Technical Institute. The final jeans were 42 inches long—compared to the classic 30- or 32-inch inseam—and featured a bulbous, flared silhouette and exposed zipper fly. Spiritually, they were the predecessor of everything Rosso has done since at Diesel, the company he cofounded with Adriano Goldschmied in 1978. That long history is celebrated in a new tome, 5D: Diesel, Dream, Disruption, Deviation, Denim, releasing this fall from Rizzoli.

“I get emotional looking at the photos and thinking back on what we have done over the years. What makes me happiest is that the brand has kept its essence from the beginning,” Rosso says. He has cause to get a little misty-eyed: The 247 pages sandwiched between the hard covers of Rosso’s new tome cement his place in denim legend.

Full-bleed images showcase Diesel’s vast offering of denim from the past four decades: Acid wash! Baggy! Super-slick skinny! Cropped! Flared! Overalls! While you could spot a pair of Diesel jeans from miles away thanks to the diagonal tag on the front pocket, Rosso’s crucial contribution to the world of denim is distressing. Started in the early ’90s, Diesel’s practice of whiskering around the thighs, fading along the seams, and scuffing up knees so as to imply a night of thrashing became the new standard for jeans in the years following. “Diesel changed the way the world views denim,” Rosso declares.

Rosso created an entire world founded on provocation. His ad campaigns for Diesel transcend fashion, acting as pop cultural bellwethers for their era. The For Successful Living campaign of parody advertisements made waves when it was introduced in the ’90s and again during its aughts reissue. “We’ve changed the idea of advertising by making ads that advertise anything but our own products, such as tires or hairsprays,” says Rosso. “We called the campaign ‘For Successful Living,’ a parody of the promise of success and eternal happiness used to sell everything and everyone.” He didn’t end there. Other campaigns feature oil-slicked models posing beside desserts with the text “Stop dieting, stick to Diesel” or a smoky-eyed angel holding up the middle finger of her feathered wing. This brand of tongue-in-cheek confrontation hasn’t lessened since the arrival of social media either. Just last year Diesel launched an anti-bullying campaign starring Nicki Minaj—she of the infamous, “Miley, what’s good?”

“One thing has remained consistent and inviolable since its inception: Diesel is as progressive, bold, and fueled by an uncompromising spirit in the design of its product, as it is in its marketing and communications outings,” Rosso says. But for all its posturing, Diesel also has a heart. Not only has it made strides toward sustainability this year by using recycled Coca-Cola bottles to produce new jeans and tees and collaborating with Japanese upcycling brand Readymade, it’s also been contributing to charities like Fashion for Relief. Through its Red Tag project, Diesel has also helped support young designers like Hood by Air’s Shayne Oliver and Y/Project’s Glenn Martens.

So what should a reader take away at the end of almost 40 years and 300 pages of Diesel revving? “That Diesel is an attitude, and it always will be.”

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