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Jonny Hewlett

Italian denim giant Diesel is the talk of young fashion indies thanks to its revitalised, ‘sexy’ collections. Its UK managing director explains how he’s reignited the brand’s popularity

A huge family tree stands in the reception area of Diesel’s London head office, with tiny photos of its staff hanging from the branches and information on the reverse detailing their job functions. Topping the tree is UK managing director Jonny Hewlett, who says he needs to check the back of the photo to make sure he knows what he’s doing.

He may be teasing, but Hewlett is certainly doing something right - the Italian brand’s UK indie stockists are raving about Diesel’s spring 11 collection. Mark Bage, owner of premium indie Sarah Coggles in York, has increased his buy for next season.

“We’ve been increasing our orders season on season and womenswear, in particular, has picked up a lot. It’s sexy and has started to sell well,” says Bage, who adds that all fashion brands are “cyclical” and it’s now Diesel’s turn to have its moment again. “Diesel has persevered with fashion-led product and [the strategy] has now come good because it has connected with a younger generation, while G-Star’s customers have grown up [with the brand]. G-Star is also overly distributed, whereas Diesel has kept its distribution a bit sharper.”

Appliance of science

A sharp and scientific strategy comes naturally to Hewlett, whose career prior to joining Diesel was spent at the fine fragrances division of consumer goods business Procter & Gamble.

Since his arrival, Diesel has cut down on its wholesale accounts slightly, from 340 doors in autumn 09 to 332 in spring 10. “Because of opening with [young fashion chain] Republic [which has 105 stores] there might be a perception that we have significantly increased our number of doors,” says Hewlett.

“The success of our business will come from organic growth rather than over-distribution. What the last two years have taught us is that there is no fixed distribution and the number of distribution points has gone down. When USC is one of your biggest partners and it downsizes [following a pre-pack administration at the end of 2008], you’re in trouble. We need the right representation in each city.” Diesel currently has about 150 stockists in the UK.

Pricing, too, has been addressed since autumn 09. While the entry price point has been anchored around the £85 mark for the past few seasons, Diesel has improved the quality of the lower-priced jeans. “The look, treatment and wash which would have been priced at well over the £100 mark is now available on sub-£100 jeans,” says Hewlett.

“But it’s about getting value at different brackets. When a customer is standing in front of a £130 pair of jeans, can she see the value of it against an £85 pair or against a pair from a rival brand?” Given that the £200 Livy jean is Diesel’s best-selling women’s style, it’s safe to say she can.

However, it’s not all about the science; Hewlett’s love affair with his stockists comes down to improved product too. He says his customers have responded well to the wider choice in Diesel’s collections over the past few seasons. The spring 10 and autumn 10 ranges grew by 20% compared with 2009 and spring 11’s global collection is bigger still at about 16,000 pieces.

In menswear, Hewlett is backing “dirty washes”, black denim and skinny and carrot silhouettes as strong sellers, with key pieces in the spring 11 collection including a coal-washed and distressed Krooley jean for £84 and a black treated leather jacket at £192, both at wholesale.

Slim silhouettes will be key in womenswear and “we’ll be bringing back a boyfriend fit,” says Hewlett.

Standout pieces include super-stretch black skinny jeans at £36 and a pleated black treated denim jacket (pictured right) at £190 wholesale.

Even though Diesel doesn’t produce separate collections for independent and multiple retailers, Hewlett says an individual approach to each customer is part of the reason for the brand’s success with stockists. “Our job is to help our customers navigate through the collection. We have to ask ourselves, why do [East Anglia menswear indie] Dogfish’s customers buy Diesel from Dogfish and not somewhere else? Is it their service? Is it the product they choose?”

Ultimate goal

This individual approach is paying off. In Drapers’ 2009 end-of-year Indicator polls, Diesel menswear was the fourth best-selling young fashion brand of the year. Its womenswear business has moved from not featuring at all in the best-selling young fashion brand of the week category in January to taking fifth spot in the April and May polls.

In fact, the womenswear business is an area that Hewlett will be focusing on to take Diesel “back to where it should be”. The business is currently split two thirds men’s, one third womenswear, but Hewlett admits the balance needs to shift in order to achieve his ultimate goal of becoming “a top 10 global lifestyle [brand]”.

“We’re seeing encouraging signs in our womenswear business but there is still an enormous amount of work to be done,” he says.

Diesel is certainly heading in the right direction. Bage’s words back up the potential of its womenswear business and Hewlett says the brand as a whole is growing in a shrinking market. According to market research firm Kantar Worldpanel Fashion, men’s branded denim sales fell 9% to £117m in the 24 weeks to April 25 compared with the same period last year, while branded women’s jeans sales fell 19% to £35.5m. Total men’s jeans sales were flat year on year at £308m, while women’s jeans sales fell 18% to £309m in the same period.

Says Hewlett: “Our forward order and replenishment business has grown significantly in 2010 compared with 2009. These year-on-year increases confirm we’re growing back share because the market isn’t growing.”

Diesel’s decision to return to streetwear trade show Bread & Butter in Berlin in January after an eight-year hiatus was another smart move, in that it allowed the brand to better position itself in the young fashion market.

At the time, Hewlett admitted that the launch marked a “renewed” focus on the young fashion market, which the brand later backed up with its ‘Be Stupid’ marketing campaign. This featured a series of global outdoor advertising posters conveying the message that ‘Smart may have the brains, but stupid has the balls’ (parts of the campaign were banned by the Advertising Standards Authority as Drapers went to press).

“The Be Stupid campaign is aimed at the youth market and it will last for the whole of 2010, whereas we used to change [our campaigns] all the time,” Hewlett explains, adding that part of his strategy has been to unify the brand under every function. “We’ve made some strong organisational choices, with one overall commercial director in Colin Naylor and one head of marketing in Scott Morrison.”

Sounds like one big happy family.

CV

2008 Managing director UK, Diesel

2004 Managing director France, fine fragrances,Procter & Gamble 2002. Trade marketing director Europe, fine fragrances, Procter & Gamble

1997 Trade marketing manager Europe, fine fragrances, Procter & Gamble

1995 Key account manager UK, health and beauty care, Procter & Gamble

1992 Sales executive, health and beauty care,Procter & Gamble

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