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.