Nicola Formichetti is half-Italian, half-Japanese. He spent a chunk of his twenties in London – “I went to study architecture and sort of got lost in the London world,” he says – and then the past few years based in New York. That’s an odd mix – but, oddly enough, it’s perfect for Diesel, the Vicenza-based blue-jean behemoth with an annual turnover that exceeds £1 billion.
Last year, Formichetti became the brand’s artistic director – the first ever, besides the label’s founder, Renzo Rosso. This summer, he staged his first-ever Diesel catwalk show – a year to the day he joined. Of course, it wasn’t coincidental. Neither was Formichetti’s choice of Venice as locale for the show, close to Diesel’s headquarters and reinforcing the brand’s Italian roots. Kind of. Although Formichetti showed sweatshirting separates embalmed with the slogan “Venice”, they reminded you of Venice Beach rather than the watery Renaissance tourist trap. Likewise the street-cast models, who veered more to London punk than permatanned Italiano sexpots. And the balaclavas sprouting pastel fun-fur mohicans were kind of Japanese kawaii. There’s that mix again, and that was kind of the point. “I didn’t know Diesel was Italian!” declares Formichetti, incredulously. “For a long time. I thought it was American! But I want to kind of keep it like that, keep it global.”
Sprawled across a sofa backstage, several hours before the Diesel show is due to begin, Formichetti seems at home – much as he is in Tokyo, or New York, or London (he still visits them all frequently). He wasn’t quite so at home in Paris, where he headed the house of Mugler from 2010 until his move to Diesel. He doesn’t have much to say about that. “Maybe it was too early, for me,” he reasons, diplomatically. He wasn’t keen on taking catwalk bows, which he always did alongside his collaborators, Romain Kremer and Sébastien Peigne. At Diesel, however, it’s his show. “I didn’t find it difficult – for me it was challenging. I love challenging new things, new experiences. You make mistakes and you’re always learning things,” says Formichetti. “The difficult thing was how other people felt about it. Now I don’t really care. I feel much more confident. You make lots of mistakes, but keep going. I love what I do. So I’ll keep doing it.”
The question mark over Formichetti’s work at both Mugler and Diesel stems from a simple starting point: he isn’t a designer. At least, not on his CV. Formichetti started out working on London-based style titles during the time he should have been studying architecture. He began on Dazed & Confused – where he put Gareth Pugh’s Central Saint Martins graduation collection on the cover – before progressing to a clutch of freelance work, including styling a fledgling pop star named Lady Gaga. “The whole Gaga thing pushed me into the limelight,” he allows, slightly modestly. Formichetti’s name has been propelled to a level of prominence that allowed him to open a pop-up shop – simply titled Nicola’s – in New York’s SoHo in 2011, simultaneously launching an almost-eponymous line titled Nicopanda. It features a panda bearing a Formichetti-ish face emblazoned across T-shirts and caps. He also works as creative fashion director of mass-market retailer Uniqlo, alongside his Diesel gig.
Back on the subject of Gaga, though, Formichetti says, somewhat surprisingly, “I wasn’t her stylist.” He isn’t selling himself short – just allowing for the fact that the symbiosis between himself and Gaga extended to more than clothes. “For me that was a very special time, that just fitted. The whole Nick thing [Knight – who created the album art for Born This Way, as well as the video for the title track], the tour. A golden year. Pop stardom. We were coming up with all the other stuff, too. I didn’t want to call myself a stylist. It felt like a little gang of creators just doing their thing.”
The gang mentality is important for Formichetti. “I always bring my key collaborators, like Nick [Knight], Alister Mackie [the Diesel show’s stylist] and Sam Gainsbury [of the fashion production company Gainsbury & Whiting], into my world. Collaboration for me is key. I don’t want to do anything alone. It’s much more fun working with friends that you love. It’s a really simple idea – I just want to have fun, do better and do interesting things.”
Diesel is Formichetti’s key collaborator – the workload is demanding, with Formichetti overseeing every aspect of the brand. “I’ve done so many different things before. I’ve learnt a lot of things. Finally I feel I’ve found a place where I can do all the different things that I love. Designing, visuals, stores – creating experiences. I love it. I feel so tired! But so great.” Until this year, however, he held off on showcasing actual clothing designs. “I wanted it to be right. I wanted to make sure I had the right design team, the right production, stores – all those things, all ready,” he says. This collection is therefore Formichetti’s first fashion foray for Diesel, bar a clutch of handmade pieces he called Tribute, which featured in a Nick Knight campaign shot on an iPhone, both Knight and Formichetti’s favourite way to create imagery. “It’s exciting – to see an advertisement being shot on an iPhone. It’s pretty powerful as a message,” says Formichetti, evidently as excited by the medium as by the message. “I’m so grateful I have a brand that says yes to that.”
The brand say yes to Formichetti a lot – as do those all-important collaborators. Knight was also roped in to create video backdrop for the show itself: “For each section of the collection he has created a visual for me, and also for the finale,” says Formichetti. “This will all link to the campaign that we’re going to shoot in a few days time – the same clothes, the same casting. It’s our new departure.” Indeed, mere days after the blockbuster Venice presentation, Knight shot pieces from Formichetti’s debut show on the same models, plus a flexing frieze of computer-manipulated bronzed beefcake, part-Michelangelo part-Michael Lucas. Well, Diesel is Italian after all.
Diesel is also streetwear, not high fashion. That’s something that excites Formichetti. “We’re just doing phantom things in high fashion only for specific people to wear once, or for a fashion show. I love that now I get to see people on the street wearing my designs. As a creator, a designer, it gives me such a high. That’s why I do this,” says he. “For the show, all the kids love it. They want to steal the stuff! I never had that before. At Mugler – they were like, ‘Yeah, it’s nice, but’ It was more of a show thing. Here they want to wear it!”
What they actually want to wear, for 2014, is an update of the Diesel stalwarts. Formichetti, in his plugged-in digital language, calls it a Reboot, and what it entails is a re-examination of the fundamental building blocks of the brand. “You don’t remember Diesel as a garment thing,” Formichetti states. “You remember the campaigns, the years, the feel.” Perhaps that’s why his Diesel show whirled past in hyper-speed, a blur of denim, leather, khaki and colourful, spray-painted, studded and embellished pieces. “I’m taking all the archive pieces I love and shaping them, reworking them, modernising them.”
For Formichetti, those are the four key elements in the Diesel story. “Okay, denim is the most important thing. When you see the denim floor in the office – I call them scientists, there’s incredible stuff they can do. Every day constantly creating new treatments, types of stuff. Denim – we’re the best. There’s a big thing on leather – rebellious, rock thing. The third is utility, military-inspired clothing. The fourth is sports, pop, colourful, 1990s kind of thing. These are the four most important elements.” If that sounds basic – street, rather than fashion – that’s the point. There’s nothing phantom about Formichetti’s Diesel. “It has to be believable. For a show, I want to push it a bit – because it’s a show. But always the reminder of the street. But now, the street is digital – Italy, Japan, it’s all connected. These elements are very global. They’ll always be in trend, they’ll always be valid.”
And although Formichetti is focused on Diesel, there’s always room for pop culture. He leans forward conspiratorially to declare that, “Tonight Brooke Candy’s performing. She’s someone to watch. I just did a video with her with Steven Klein. She’s performing her new song, Opulence. I’m feeling that excitement from when I first met Gaga. I’m feeling that from her. It’s really exciting.” Then, he back-pedals a bit. “I’m never going to do the same thing that I did with Gaga – I’m not saying I’m going to do that again, but she’s really cool.”
Ultimately, that’s what Diesel’s appointment of Formichetti is all about: cool. Tapping into it, sure, and shifting garments based on it. But also redefining it, helping to define the moment – just as Formichetti did, to a somewhat-incredulous degree, with Lady Gaga. “I’m really sad now that I’m not doing it,” admits Formchetti. “I wish I could keep doing that. But I had to do my own thing.” And that’s precisely what Diesel is.
By Alexander Fury