Ten Instantly: Andreas Melbostad Of Diesel Black Gold
Norwegian-born Andreas Melbostad is the creative director and calm centre of Diesel Black Gold. In the midst of an increasingly frenetic industry, he exudes a steady composure, even as, four years since joining the label and a move to Milan later, the designer finds himself presiding over one of the most exciting propositions on the season’s schedule. Maybe it’s a Norwegian thing.
Diesel Black Gold’s offices are nestled in among Renzo Rosso’s famed Diesel compound, a 90,000-square- metre plot of land in the Italian countryside that houses the fashion empire’s headquarters. A short drive from Venice airport, the town itself, Breganze (a particularly satisfying word to hear out of the mouth of an Italian), sits upon a backdrop of the Dolomite mountains, which provide a really quite spectacular view. There’s something utopian about the vast building. It’s a bit eco-retreat. Or university campus. Bond lair?
From here, Diesel manages just short of 20 subsidiary brands, the company’s namesake and of course, Diesel Black Gold. It is a slightly disconcerting location for an empire that has an annual turnover of more than €1 billion. It feels a bit of a way from civilisation. But it makes sense. For employees, it’s a community. There’s a gym, a kindergarten, tennis courts. And a restaurant that does a rather nice bowl of pasta.
Diesel Black Gold resides within in its own wing of the compound, a fact that everybody is keen to stress – the young brand now being a fashion player in its own right. To use a slightly overwrought term, it came to life as Diesel’s “little sister” – launched to satisfy the need for a more refined offering – but retaining that hard-edged, utilitarian spirit that was in Rosso’s initial Diesel DNA.
It is a long corridor of activity. The team, of about 50 in total, are preparing for the next womenswear show in September, alongside overlapping pre-collections for both men and women (Melbostad is also the head of that equally successful menswear collection). They work on both genders at the same time. In one room they are busy working on denim, sifting through huge piles of samples; in another, there’s a semi- naked model waiting to be fitted.
Diesel Black Gold’s womenswear collection is facing its second season in Milan, shifting from New York for AW16. That collection, shown in a warehouse on the outskirts of the Italian city, has proved popular with the fashion press. So popular that it has, to coin a term, PR’d itself. When I meet the communications team in charge of such matters, I interrupt a conversation about samples – how to get them here, there and everywhere. Every magazine wants them. It’s a good position to be in.
When Melbostad arrives, we head to an upstairs boardroom to talk. He tells me that he’s satisfied with his decision to switch the show to Milan. Yes, it was partly about logistics – an Italian brand showing in Italy made sense. But it was more about visibility. “It turns out that the whole world comes to Milano, but they don’t come to New York,” he says. “But really, it felt like bringing it to Milan is an opportunity to add another voice to the city – it stood out more, people have more time for us there.”
But I wonder, too, if Milan says something more about fashion than New York, where the schedule is predominately populated, bar a few exceptions, by either American heritage brands or sportswear. Milan, on the other hand, has an intrinsic link with luxury, a history of cloth and fabric. In Milan, Diesel Black Gold sits alongside Prada, Gucci, Jil Sander. Does moving to Milan make it more exclusive? Does it help it separate from Diesel itself?
“I hadn’t really thought about that,” he says. “But possibly. I think on some level, when I worked on the women’s collection for fall, I added a new injection of richness to it, sequins and velvet and all these things. Maybe subconsciously we added a little bit of that because of Milano.”
His first show in Milan seemed to be, more than ever, a statement of Melbostad’s intent. His designs have always erred on utilitarian – plenty of pockets, a strong workwear influence, a play between hard and soft. Everyday garments elevated. But this time, there was an added sense of luxury – tactile embellishments, intricately quilted fabrics, a touch of velvet. There was even something feminine about it, the kick-flare skirts, high waistlines, schoolgirl pleats and pinafores.
Not that Melbostad has ever been one of those “Well, this is the new concept for spring” kind of designers. No, his collections instead emerge from a continual obsession with perfecting, then subtly warping, the day-to-day wardrobe, rather than rewriting the rulebook completely. Collections are an evolution of the last. Which today, in an increasingly ideas-saturated world, is a refreshing way of working.
Refreshing, too, is the fact that Melbostad has managed to keep a deliberately low profile. More often than not, he lets the clothes do the talking. Take, for example, his social media. He’s a self-confessed lurker (“For me, it’s more to check up on what people I know are up to”). Before I met him for the first time, back in London, I was told that he wasn’t so comfortable about being interviewed. On the contrary, he’s open, animated. The sort of person you wouldn’t mind getting stuck in a lift with.
We begin by talking about the creative process behind each collection, which starts life not in the Italian countryside, but across the world in New York. He has called the city home for more than 10 years, and it is in his apartment that he works when he is there. It’s just being redone and is, by all accounts, very nice. There’s talk of it featuring on the interiors pages of international newspapers when it’s finished.
“Yeah, I work from home,” he says. “So I can roll out of bed and start working in the morning if I need to.” In New York the collections find form. “That’s really where I do the research, where I do sketches. For me, it’s almost like a protective creative space.”
From there, he brings the ideas back to Breganze, where he meets with the Diesel Black Gold teams and then Rosso himself. There’s a discussion of business, of merchandising, an editing down of the collection. Does he enjoy that business side? “Yes – I really like those conversations – I would love to take all the ideas that we want in the collection and bring it to the market in a successful way, so I think, if we do a good job with it, then it’s really constructive, really positive.”
Travel is a big part of Melbostad’s life. Granted, it is not unusual for designers to city hop, but he’s managed to call every big fashion capital home at one point or another. He enjoys that – the movement from place to place. At Diesel Black Gold, he splits his time almost equally between New York and Italy. “It’s stimulating to be in different environments. New York, for me, represents one part of the job. Here represents a completely different part,” he says. “I think I would, at this point, find it very difficult to be in this building every day.”
Melbostad was born in the Norwegian town of Bærum, a suburb of Oslo that sits somewhere between the forest and the sea. Growing up there, he was fascinated by fashion, but there was little access to it. He describes it as a “starvation” – “Whenever I could get my hands on international fashion here, it would be a major thing for me,” he says. “There was this tiny store, a bit of a punkish store, where I would buy things from London – such as BOY, that kind of thing.”
And it was London that Melbostad first escaped to, choosing to study his master’s at the Royal College of Art. Whereas Norway had been somewhat restraining – creepers, Doc Martens and a leather jacket were the extent of fashion experimentation – London opened him up. “I think just the approach of the college was so different. Everybody had such an individual take on fashion – it blew my mind to see how every student really represented a very different point of view.”
London during the 1990s also showed him something else: what it meant to have a good time. “Going out in London was really something else, like a completely different world to what I had experienced before, in terms of how people dressed and lived their lives,” he says. “We used to go to Freedom – is that what it’s called?” Yep, I tell him. It’s still there. “It used to attract a cool crowd.”
It was during this time that Melbostad met Alber Elbaz, long before the Moroccan designer was a household name. He was at the college scouting for young talent to steal away to Paris to work alongside him at Guy Laroche, or as it was called then, Alber Elbaz for Guy Laroche. Melbostad agreed, and after he finished his master’s it was off to the French capital. Later, he would move to jobs at Yves Saint Laurent and Nina Ricci.
“I have very fond memories of Paris, but it was very tough to get into,” Melbostad says. “You have to imagine, this was before Galliano and McQueen arrived, so Paris was extremely… uninteresting, very old- fashioned, very conservative. And the city had the same flavour, so it was sort of tough to break into.”
It was moving to New York that re- stimulated Melbostad’s own creativity. He went there to work for Calvin Klein, who has been a symbol to Melbostad while he was growing up. “Calvin was really an icon. In Norway you would see the Calvin advertising and it would make this very big, modern statement.”
But it was the city that Melbostad really enjoyed. Unlike the then-stuffy salons of Avenue Montaigne in Paris, New York had
a different feel. “It’s a little bit of a cliché, but it was a land of opportunity,” he tells me. “There was much less hierarchy. You would instantly be super-responsible, which was tough but exciting. You’d work night and day, but it was just a great opportunity to do something.”
It was in New York, too, after Calvin, that he became creative director at Phi, a sexy, pared-back brand that emerged during the noughties. It shut down in the noughties, too, but it was enough time to catch Rosso’s eye. In 2012, Melbostad took over from Sophia Kokosalaki as creative director of Diesel Black Gold. It was at a point where Diesel as a company was pressing refresh.
“When I first met Renzo, I was very taken by his passion for this project.” Melbostad pauses. “He just made me feel like nothing is going to stop him, he’s just going to want to do it and he’s very passionate and driven. He’s a man who isn’t hindered by anything.”
The early collections were first steps, – not so much an overhaul, but a redefining of the house’s codes. Melbostad has always been fascinated by what he calls the “emotion of everyday items, those that everybody lives in, wears and loves”. He could talk for hours about the biker jacket – he has just bought another edition of Rin Tanaka’s My Freedamn!, a catalogue of rare American vintage clothes. Books are another obsession. He loves an Amazon delivery. “It’s like a present in the post.”
His own fascination matches, in many ways, Rosso’s personal style. It’s an instinctual, rather than intellectual approach to clothing. In the compound sits a huge archive of Diesel’s previous denims and leathers, as well as an array of vintage pieces collected over the past 20 years. Melbostad is often found rifling through it at the beginning of a collection.
“With Diesel, there are certain building blocks that I’m very fond of,” Melbostad says. “I love the spirit, I love the jeans, the leather, the military references, the workwear references. It’s a palette of things that Renzo built that I can always return to. There was an intuitive foundation to work with.”
His references to Rosso are unsurprising. The fashion magnate’s presence is unavoidable when you walk through the office. In the central courtyard stand several large stones placed in the shape of Rosso’s zodiac sign (Virgo). His signature is on the doormat. A two-floored office that protrudes slightly from the building gives an almost 360-degree view of the space.
How difficult, then, has it been to separate Diesel Black Gold from its father company? “I think it’s definitely a big challenge,” Melbostad says. “Diesel is a very big, heavy name, which is an advantage on the one hand, because it means you have certain reference points that are already established in everybody’s mind, but it’s also a disadvantage when you try to upgrade the product.”
But that hasn’t been his only challenge. There’s also a feeling that Diesel has long been weighted towards men. How best to femme up the brand’s masculine DNA?
“I’ve kept lot of menswear influences. Also, she’s dressed in a way that brings a lot of toughness to her, or strength to her,” says Melbostad. “I think guys have a wardrobe that gives a lot of strength, whereas womenswear can often expose you, make you vulnerable.”
It puts him in a line with his most admired designers that have all, in very different ways, transformed what femininity means – the powerful female body of Azzedine Alaïa, Helmut Lang’s genderless minimalism, the amplified forms of Rei Kawakubo. Or even Jean Paul Gaultier’s amped-up vision of womanhood. “I was obsessed with Gaultier when I was young – he’s always done a fantastic job playing with iconic pieces. He always played on a bomber jacket, biker jacket – it evolved through the years.”
In Melbostad’s work, his play on femininity comes through in his “hybrids” – familiar pieces slotted together to make something new, but still recognisable. For autumn, adjustable utility straps (like those you would find on dungarees) sat on girlish pleated dresses; perfect leather jackets were layered with huge, sleeping bag-style ponchos; and bulky outerwear was made delicate with a covering of sequins. The result is a play between hard and soft, masculine and feminine.
Perhaps this balance has become Melbostad’s signature. I ask if he’s achieved what he has wanted to so far. Is he satisfied? “We made a nice foundation,” he says. “I think, now in the industry, people know us, and they kind of know what to expect. I think people are still discovering us, and we still have new people coming to the brand and looking at it for the first time.”
When I ask him what’s next, his answer is refreshingly simple. There isn’t talk of collaborations or openings or parties. “No, we are focusing on the collections, focusing on proving ourselves within the system.” He pauses. “And doing it in a very smart way.”
Taken from Issue 57 of 10 Magazine, TRUE RANDOM AUTHENTIC, on newsstands now…