In his first year as managing director of Diesel UK, Riccardo Bellini has brought himself up to speed with the fast-moving British market.
Now he hopes to set the pace with the launch of the brand’s premium Black Gold line.
If you are looking at Riccardo Bellini’s CV and thinking there is something missing (a few years of pre-university study, work or travel unaccounted for perhaps?), there isn’t. The Italian executive who was brought in to head up Diesel’s UK operation at the start of last year is indeed just 35 years old.
Not that he looks any older, of course. It just comes as a surprise that he was headhunted at such a tender age to take on the Italian fashion brand’s UK operation, which employs 500 staff, runs 13 standalone stores, nine concessions, two outlet stores and 300 wholesale accounts.
It apparently surprises some customers too. In Bellini’s first 12 months in the job, he’s spent a lot of time visiting stockists, and jokes that when he walks into some stores they often look over his shoulder expecting someone of more advanced years to be standing behind him.
But what he may lack in age, he more than makes up for in enthusiasm and commitment. “I just love it”, he says of the role he took over in January 2007 from Cristiano Quieti. “People kept saying I should expect a down after the initial high in the first year, but it hasn’t come. I’m still so excited.”
The fact that he’s so passionate about Diesel, fashion and retail, and in particular the UK market, is surprising as when the head-hunters came knocking, Bellini had never worked in fashion (though he had dealt with licensing fashion brands for fragrance and skincare at Procter & Gamble) and was all set to relocate to the Far East with P&G. He only went to the interview, he claims, because Diesel founder Renzo Rosso was one of his business icons.
“I was approached and I went to the interview because I wanted to meet Renzo and not with a real intention of taking the job,” he says. “But all that I heard about Diesel, the humour, the creativity, was real. I was about to move to Singapore but I stopped everything and moved to London instead. I felt at home here from day one.”
Rosso’s constant evolution of the brand he founded in 1978 has led to him being dubbed “The Madonna of Fashion”, and he was once honoured by Bellini’s alma mater, the prestigious Bocconi University in Milan, which named Diesel its Best Italian Company of the Year in 1996. Rosso’s latest initiative is the introduction of a new premium fashion line called Black Gold, which sits above its mainline and beneath its Denim Gallery luxury collection.
It comprises 200 pieces for men and 250 pieces for women, that are priced about 30% above the main collection, starting at £16 for men’s T-shirts, £48 for women’s dresses and £44 for knitwear, moving up to £184 and £192 for men’s and women’s leather jackets respectively.
What sets Black Gold apart from the main Diesel collection is the choice of fabrics and the details, which should appeal to an older, more affluent target market. Denims come with discreet branding and details such as leather trims and studded-edged pockets. For women the carrot-shaped silhouette is key, with dresses and long-line hoodies in soft silk jersey and technical print T-shirts. Bellini seems particularly taken with one smoke-print fabric which features on dresses and T-shirts, and which is so complex it takes eight hours to print one metre. Leather has been vacuum-packed to give an aged finish, while on some styles studs underneath the outer layer of fabric add further texture.
“We have a very loyal customer, who is more mature and growing with us. They want fashionable pieces, fine materials, surprising washes with a strong Diesel personality and always with a casual twist. It’s the alternative to established luxury,” says Bellini.
The very name Black Gold is key to its positioning. Diesel itself was so named because at the time the company was founded, in the 1970s, the world was in the middle of an oil crisis and diesel was the great “alternative energy”, a concept that appealed to Rosso. When searching for a name for this new line he settled upon Black Gold, the nickname for oil – “the most precious, rare source of energy”, explains a smiling Bellini.
To protect the line’s premium positioning, distribution will be strictly controlled. About 25 accounts will be opened for the first autumn 08 collection, including Harvey Nichols, Harrods, Selfridges, Diesel’s two flagship stores on King’s Road and Bond Street and select independents, moving up to about 80 accounts over the next two years.
One of the first outlets to sign up for Black Gold was independent designer mini-chain Cruise. Its buying and merchandising director Martyn Lacey described Black Gold as a “major move on” for Diesel. “In previous seasons the premium pieces always looked as if they’d been randomly pulled from the mainline,” he says. “Black Gold is very contemporary, very clean and I really liked the abstract prints and the leather pieces.”
Another plus for Lacey is that the tight distribution and discreet branding offers independents something different from mainline Diesel outlets such as House of Fraser and USC. He adds: “Our customers would not go for a big, brand-emblazoned product. It needs to be an understated, contemporary product, which Black Gold is.”
Next on Lacey’s wish list is Black Gold footwear and accessories, which Diesel says are in the pipeline, and a separate premium denim offer. Lacey bought coated black and snow-wash Black Gold jeans and complemented them with an abstract print cropped jean from the mainline, but he would have preferred to buy solely from a premium line.
Despite believing that Diesel still has more work to do on Black Gold (he sees womenswear as stronger than menswear), Lacey expects impressive sell-through. “I don’t think people will recognise it as Diesel, and the pricing is fantastic.”
As well as the Black Gold launch, there is much else about the UK fashion retail market that excites Bellini. Motivated by the challenging trading climate, he is impressed with the “professionalism” of UK independents, particularly in the face of such aggressive high street competition.
“With UK independents there are some great examples of people who continually develop new concepts. The [competition from] the high street is making the market much more interesting for me,” Bellini says. “The whole high-end to low-end shopping thing has become quite cool, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Even brands now have to offer a ‘high-low’ option.”
The speed of the UK market, which is much quicker than on the continent, also encourages creativity, Bellini believes. “The dynamism impresses me. What you do today is outdated next year. This change is consistent and continuous,” he says.
Bellini has spent much of his own time researching the habits of UK shoppers, and can often be found working in one of Diesel’s stores at the weekend as part of his ongoing quest to gain greater customer insight.
Bellini believes that internet shopping has changed customer behaviour in a bricks-and-mortar environment too, with instant gratification high on shoppers’ agendas, especially among younger customers. “The customer now wants to find what they want easily, check out fast and get good customer service,” he says. “If they can’t find the piece they want or they have to queue to try it on or pay for it, they’re out. Today, simple is cool.”
Diesel has just put its full collection online. It is too early to gauge the success of this, but the brand has a history of embracing technology in a way that both enhances and simplifies the customer experience. “Diesel has always been a pioneer, and we were one of the first fashion companies with a website,” says Bellini. “In June at Pitti Uomo in Florence, we held a fashion show that included a multimedia presentation with holographic images. It was a mind-blowing digital experience.”
If the first year in the job has been about building his team (a key appointment in July was former House of Fraser menswear buyer Pablo Sueiras as head of Diesel’s UK retail operations) and immersing himself in the brand and the UK market, next year will be about development. Bellini plans to refurbish Diesel’s stores and concessions and will focus on helping its independent suppliers achieve greater success with the brand.
“We’re going to put the customer at the centre of the operation, understand them better, help them to be more successful, invest in their stores, train them and help them show the same love of this brand that we have.”
1990 Bocconi University, Milan, studied business administration
1995 Procter & Gamble, various roles in Prestige Products (fragrance and skincare) including four years spent in finance and eight in marketing
2007 Diesel, managing director UK
Who is your fashion mentor?
I would say Diesel founder Renzo Rosso, for his ability to consistently reinvent the brand and the company, to innovate and move forward, including what he has achieved with denim, to his alternative approach to casualwear, advertising and more recently, his creation of a premium lifestyle brand. He is an inspiring man to work for, and yes, he is the guy that brought me into this great industry.
What is your favourite fashion store?
I am fascinated by all of the UK retail environment for its incredibly diverse offer and its dynamism. If I had to pick one store, I would say Dover Street Market for its unique product and conceptual innovation. I also love the little markets in London.
What has been the best-selling product you have ever worked on during your career?
It’s difficult to say. My last job was at Procter & Gamble, where I was lucky enough to work on many beauty categories and successful global brands.
What have been the best and worst moments of your first year in the Diesel job?
The best was the reopening of the London King’s Road store in August last year. The worst was the fire at King’s Road in April, which forced the store’s temporary closure, and seeing people in the store crying when they saw the damage. There has only ever been two fires at Diesel and I got one in my first few months with the company. Another good moment was at the Black Gold presentation a month ago; when I saw the vision it gave me shivers.”
What would be your dream job (apart from your current position)?
To be head of the most alternative and creative agency in the world, but unfortunately it doesn’t exist yet.
1978: Founded in Molvena, northern Italy
4,000: Number of employees wordwide
3,000: Number of products produced each season
£789 million: Diesel’s global sales
350: Standalone stores worldwide
4,500: Wholesale accounts worldwide