Nicola Formichetti Has Come a Long Way From Lady Gaga’s ‘Meat Dress’

Diesel creative director on how to grab attention and reboot a global brand

You might not know the name Nicola Formichetti, and yet even the least fashion-savvy among us is sure to have seen his work.

The 37-year-old Japanese-Italian designer got his start as a columnist for Britain's Dazed & Confused magazine, becoming creative director there in 2008. The following year, he styled then-newcomer Lady Gaga for V magazine, leading to a partnership that helped establish the singer as an international fashion icon. (Formichetti was responsible for looks like the instantly iconic "meat dress" she wore to the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards.) Teaming up with the pop star also propelled Formichetti into the fashion stratosphere.

Formichetti used to work as a columnist for Britain's Dazed & Confused magazine. Photo: Yu Tsai

Despite his lack of formal design training, Formichetti landed coveted positions with big labels. In 2010, he was appointed creative director of French fashion house Thierry Mugler, where he oversaw a successful brand revival. The next year he added fashion director of Japanese fast-fashion brand Uniqlo to his resumé and launched his own pop-up shop in New York.

But it was in 2013 that Formichetti would take on his most significant project to date, as artistic director of Diesel, the Italian denim brand turned multibillion-dollar global lifestyle giant.

Founded in 1978, Diesel was the first company to bring the concept of "premium denim" to the masses, leading to massive success in the '80s and '90s. By the 2000s, however, as purveyors of high-end denim crowded the market, Diesel began to fall out of favor with younger consumers. But today, the edgy, sometimes shockingly original Formichetti is working to restore luster and relevance to the Diesel name—all while launching his own magazine, starting his own fashion line and becoming an ambassador for none other than Pepsi.

Adweek caught up with the busiest man in the business to talk about the mammoth task of retooling a global brand, the industry's love affair with celebrity (and stubbornly slow embrace of digital technology), and why you won't find any miserable-looking models in his ads.

Adweek: You were named artistic director of Diesel
almost exactly two years ago. Overhauling a brand that big is a major undertaking. How has it gone so far?

Nicola Formichetti: Yeah, it's crazy. It's already been two years and I feel like I haven't even started. I didn't know that it was going to be this big. Everything I do, it's all about my gut feeling. If I get a good vibe or good feeling, I just go for it, you know? I don't really think about how to fit things in my schedule. I'm crazy busy, but I still have time to go out and have fun and go to a restaurant or go jogging. I feel like I still have spare time—so I can add a couple more projects, you know? [Laughs.]

But yeah, the Diesel thing was a little bit … it's actually getting bigger and bigger because I'm getting really into it. For the last two years, I've just been rebuilding from within—looking inside the company and at the 35 years of history, talking to the owner Renzo [Rosso], and really finding out what was amazing about Diesel and what was wrong. So now the exciting time happens because now I feel like I have an amazing army of people I can trust within the company, and now we can really go global.

What were your biggest challenges in terms of rebuilding the brand internally?
Normally, if you get a job at a brand like this, what you do is you go in and you change everything. You basically cut out all the old and then bring in the new, right? That's the formula that other people are doing. But the way I started with Diesel was that I met up with Renzo and I really kind of fell in love with the way he was living his life. We had this connection and I just thought, wow, it would be amazing to work with this incredible entrepreneur for the next part of my life and really learn about business and creating this big empire. I was a big fan of Diesel in the '90s—I mean, I couldn't afford it because it was very expensive at that time for me. So we talked about how the company became so big and global that it kind of lost its touch, its relevance, and he said to me that he really wanted me to come on board and bring back that spice, that coolness that Diesel used to have.

When I first visited the company in Italy, Renzo showed me all of the archives, all the amazing stuff that they used to do. And I was like, you have all these amazing things here, so rather than just really starting everything from scratch, I just wanted to refine it and reboot it. It was about reintroducing the DNA of Diesel, which was all about denim, leather, army surplus and sportswear. All the collections I've been doing for them have been all about these four big elements, so that was kind of a starting point. Then I had to find out who were the right people within the company.

Tell us about Diesel's retail strategy.
I'm about to launch a new concept for the stores. The first one will be in New York and then Milan. If the concept is amazing—and I'm sure it will be—then next year we're going to roll it out to all of our stores, more than 300 all over the world.

So do you think that the global expansion of the Diesel brand diluted its identity?
For sure. With licensing, it's a big money maker, but at the same time you're kind of selling your name. And so what Renzo's done is he's basically buying all the licensees out so we can control the whole thing. For example, what we're doing with the watches and the sunglasses and the perfume is great because we have a really good relationship with all those different partners. But you have to have control over it.

Formichetti was named artistic director of Diesel about two years ago. Photo: Yu Tsai

Until last year, you'd see those big stores on Broadway [in New York] where they sell T-shirts and they'd have Nike and Levi's and the big red Diesel logo. So we're not using the red logo anymore—we are only using the new black and white logo, and we're keeping the red logo as more of a history. I might use it again for something later, but for now we want to keep everything very streamlined and make it more specific for the new generation of Diesel.

What changes have you made design-wise to appeal to the new generation of customers?
Denim was all about editing what's right, what's the right shape and what's the right treatment, you know, because sometimes at Diesel we can just be a little bit too overwhelming with so many different washes and shapes. We're selling in so many different countries and there are different needs for different countries, so in the end, we have this humongous collection of denim. It's almost like a supermarket.

With the [apparel] collection, including the leather and sportswear, it was about keeping all the iconic shapes and key pieces and kind of refreshing it. I don't see Diesel as a high-fashion brand—it sort of fits in between high fashion, casual and high street. I call it the new alternative area. High fashion pushes trends, but with Diesel I want to create a stable wardrobe that is right today and will be right next year.

Since Diesel reached its height in the late '90s, so many premium denim brands have entered the market. Has that made it a lot harder for the company to compete?
Yeah, for sure. In the '90s, Diesel was the first one to basically bring much more premium denim [to the market], but it also it had really incredible advertisements, like the famous David LaChapelle ones with two guys kissing. And that made Diesel super cool—it had both the new product and the very edgy marketing, which was a very unique thing at that time. And of course, over the last 20 years, things evolved and everyone is doing crazy advertisements now and everyone's doing denim. So yeah, it's a huge challenge that we have.

For me, it's very, very important to always [focus on] new denim technologies. We're constantly thinking about what could be the "new" denim, like the new Jogg jeans we created a couple of years ago, which are basically a jogging pant that looks like denim. And then, of course, the marketing campaigns are super important. I always try to do something different and new every time I work on the images.

Tell us about the current Diesel campaigns.
The #DieselHigh campaign is by my favorite photographer, Nick Knight. Basically, [the concept] was very simple: I just wanted everyone to smile, because you never see people smiling anymore in campaigns. They're either very cool or upset looking. I feel like Diesel is much more about inclusiveness and not exclusiveness, so I just wanted to have a group of boys and girls just having fun and laughing. There's so many horrible, negative things happening at the moment in the world that, at least where I can control, I just want to have some people smiling.

We also have another campaign out right now that's specifically for Jogg jeans, the jersey-denim hybrid. I worked with this artist that I found on Instagram named Doug Abraham [@BessNYC4] who has this incredible account where he does these collages of hybrid things, so since I had to promote the idea of hybrid jogging and denim, I asked him [to create art for the campaign]. It was super cool to work with a digital artist that I found on Instagram. And that's the beauty of Diesel—you can do this kind of stuff because they're very open to trying new things.

Speaking of Instagram, you were an early adopter of social media, which you actually spoke about during a talk at South by Southwest this year.
It was very inspiring because I love social media and I love the digital world, but I never talk about it in detail. It was really interesting for me to look back. I mean, I started with Myspace! Remember Myspace? [Laughs.] My first-ever job was with Alexander McQueen, when they launched the McQ brand. It was kind of a secondary line, and I remember going on Myspace and casting specific types of people [for a marketing campaign], and that was about 10 years ago.

At South by Southwest, the big topic was Meerkat and Periscope, which blew me away. I got so excited. I was like, oh my God, how am I going to use these for what I'm doing? So I just started using them, and I like both—I love the spontaneousness of Meerkat and I love the logo, but I also love that with Periscope you can just install all your videos and people can see your old videos, almost like a diary. I cannot decide which one's better yet. [Laughs.]

Do you see those as being something the Diesel brand could use for marketing?
Oh my God, for sure. I want to use it myself first and get the hang of it, but sure, it could be incredible. When I was at Mugler, before Diesel, it was a big thing when I livestreamed an entire fashion show, and now, of course, everyone does livestreaming. But with Meerkat or Periscope, every single person who is there can [have their own] reality show in a way. They can be livestreaming everything from different angles. I mean, if I want to go and see a concert, I can just follow all the fans there so I can see the concert from different angles. It's mind-blowing.

Have you tried out any of the new virtual reality headsets yet?
Yeah, of course, of course. [I've tried] the Samsung ones, and a director who makes films for the Oculus showed me one of his videos, and now I'm really thinking of using one for a fashion show or an event. It was like, oh my God, I felt like I was falling from the chair. It was a really beautiful experience. I mean, imagine what they're going to do with porn! You don't have to have a partner anymore! [Laughs.] It was that real, you know?

So do you think people will be livestreaming fashion shows in virtual reality at some point?
I don't think it's going to be that far away. And I want to be the first one to do it—I want to be the first one to do all that stuff. I feel like, in fashion in general, we are so behind. People have an Instagram account and they think they're digital. When I first joined Diesel, I launched this campaign called "Diesel Reboot," and I created a Tumblr account so that people could submit their work and start a dialogue with us. Tumblr told me that we were the first brand to create a Tumblr account on that scale. And that was only two years ago.

Why do you think fashion has been so slow to get into the digital game?
Because we have an establishment. Both the marketing side and design side are behind, I think. As far as marketing, I feel like magazines are still one of the only ways to communicate fashion, and I think that needs to change. I'm not saying magazines are dying, because they're not—you cannot go wrong with an incredible fashion story on paper. But we also should think of other ways [to communicate]. And then with the designing as well—we haven't really invented anything new since, I don't know, when did they start stitching clothes? I'm sure there must be a new way of binding two different materials, or maybe it's not even about fabrics anymore. I think that we can be much more advanced, and I'm always on the lookout for new things like that.

You actually just launched your own magazine. Tell us about that.
It's a high-fashion magazine that's free, and it's called Free. It launched in Japan [and is published in Japanese], and we're working with an incredible distributor, a big bookstore called Tsutaya. Normally when you think of a free magazine, it's like a supplement or whatever. It's very low quality. But what we've done is we've created a really high level of content, and we distribute it specifically to customers that we want to go after, which is [consumers age 18-40] who love fashion. It's very targeted. Now, I want to introduce a Free magazine for younger girls or a Free magazine that's more specific to art or a Free magazine for cars. I'm developing a new concept for a different kind of genre.

Do you think you'll launch international editions?
I want to do one in English very soon. We already have an offer [to launch an edition] in China. And, of course, you can see everything online on the Free magazine website, so I'm playing with the idea of the physical and the digital based on that.

Have you found that younger consumers still actually want to read magazines in their printed form?
Well, especially in Asia—Japan and China, the two markets I know well—they're still obsessed with paper magazines, especially the young generation. It's working amazingly well in Japan and hopefully in China, too. Other places, I don't know. Hopefully. [Laughs.]

Before you started working with Diesel or Mugler, you became really well known for styling Lady Gaga early in her career. What was that like? Are you still collaborating with other artists?
Gaga introduced me to the music world and the entertainment world, and for me, it was very new, so I kind of treated it as if I was doing a collection or as if I was doing a magazine shoot. And I think we created some of the most amazing stuff I've done, like the beautiful music videos and some of the crazy looks. I did that for four or five years, and then it was time to move on and concentrate on my own stuff with Mugler and Diesel.

Now that I have a little bit more time, I'm working with this young rapper called Brooke Candy. I really believe in her. She's going to release an album this summer, and I'm doing all her visuals, and Sia is the executive music producer. So she's not going to go wrong. [Laughs.] She's got a great look and great music. I mean, what else do you need?

Six years ago, it was a big deal for you as a high-fashion designer to be working with Gaga, but now it seems like every designer is forming similar relationships with up-and-coming talent.
It's crazy. You know, when I first started working with Gaga, everyone used to go against me, saying, "You work in high fashion, you shouldn't work with a musician." Back then, you could name only a few [artists] that were really collaborating with fashion designers, like Madonna with [Jean Paul] Gaultier and Bjork with [Alexander] McQueen. So when I first started borrowing clothes for Gaga, people said no. They were like, "Oh, I'm so sorry, we don't think she's right," or, "She's a bit crazy looking." So I made stuff, and we had young designers make stuff for us, and there were a few designers that were really into her from the beginning, like Alexander McQueen and Miuccia Prada. And that was how many years ago? Now, it's like [as a performer] you have to have a designer making stuff for you for the red carpet. And I love it. We're all one giant industry working on entertainment and fashion and technology.

Do you have any plans to work with any other musicians or celebrities for Diesel?
Yeah, last year we worked with Beyoncé on her tour. I made some crazy denim outfits for her. That was amazing. We also do specific tour outfits and red carpet [outfits]. That is my passion, so I want to go big on it this year. I'm still thinking about who else to collaborate with.

Are you still involved with Uniqlo?
Yeah, Uniqlo has been so supportive of me for eight years now. I'm still consulting with them. I love them. It's crazy to say, but I've been doing this for a long time now and I feel like finally I get to really enjoy what I'm doing for all the different projects. I mean, it's hard still because of the travel, but if you do something that you love, I think you get over that. I don't care if I don't sleep much. It's like going to a great party and partying all night because you love it with your friends. I'm still young, 37. I can go for another three years, five years, I don't know, 10 years! [Laughs.]

On top of everything else you're doing, you also have your own fashion line, Nicopanda.
Yeah, that's my baby! I suppose Diesel's like my day job and then Nicopanda's my weekend job. [Laughs.] But it's something I started with my brother in Japan. We started as a very small T-shirt thing, and last season we launched a full-fledged collection during New York Fashion Week and it's now the second season. I mean, it's crazy. It's doing so well because the price point is incredible; I just wanted to have clothes that my fans could buy so I kept [the prices] very, very reasonable. And it's unisex, so boys and girls wearing the same thing, which is very fun. It's my Japanese side that I'm exploring. It's very "kawaii" street wear. [Laughs.]

What's next for you?
The other exciting thing I'm doing is I was invited to be one of the ambassadors for the new Pepsi Challenge. They chose different people from different areas of the industry. I'm like the ambassador of design, and Usher is the ambassador for music, and there's also Serena Williams, the tennis player, and this young soccer player James Rodriguez, and my favorite, favorite social media person, this French guy called Jerome Jarré. So every month we'll give challenges to people and they'll get to win experiences and rewards, and for every #PepsiChallenge hashtag, Pepsi is going to donate $1 to a charity. It's great. I mean, it's crazy—I did a TV commercial with all these people in it, and I'm like oh my God, I'm going to be on TV! [Laughs.]

Going from being a stylist behind the scenes to someone who's starring in TV ads has to be a pretty big transition.
It's different. Like four or five years ago, I was so comfortable being backstage, behind the stage, doing my thing. In a way, the whole Gaga thing and Mugler kind of pushed me in front. I was shocked at the very beginning because I'm like, who are these people commenting on what I do? I wasn't really ready to be in front of people because I never planned to be a designer like this, or someone that people know. But then I slowly started seeing reactions from the few fans that I had, who told me that I was giving a positive message and inspiration to these young people, and that felt good, and I just want to keep doing that. So now, especially with Pepsi, I get to reach a much, much bigger audience on a global level. And I'm very grateful for that.