Diesel Black Gold: A Radical Renaissance
Andreas Melbostad sits on an overstuffed couch, the ice in his Diet Coke melting as he explains in detail why a biker jacket will always look good. “It is a very functional piece and it’s loaded with cultural and subcultural references,” he says. “A biker jacket evokes James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, Marlon Brando in The Wild One, ’50s rockers and greasers, punk rock bands like The Clash and The Ramones. There are so many important references that lend an emotional connection to the biker jacket.” Melbostad knows a lot about biker jackets. Bomber jackets, too.
In fact, he is happy to speak at length on just about any iconic piece of menswear, from five-pocket jeans to field jackets to motorcycle boots. As creative director of Diesel Black Gold, the high-fashion younger sibling to the famed Italian denim brand, Melbostad has an enduring affection for these rock-and-roll staples. It is visible throughout the clothes he designs, collections that combine the rebelliousness and sex appeal of Diesel with a minimalist, Scandinavian restraint. Bald and soft-featured, dressed in dark selvedge jeans, a black buttondown shirt and black low-top sneakers (a black leather biker jacket is tucked away nearby), Melbostad has a lowkey presentation that belies his rising prominence in the fashion world. Since taking charge of the fledgling Diesel Black Gold label in 2013, he has proved himself a smart, capable designer. He has also shown that Diesel, a brand whose association with jeans is as deep as Prada’s with leather or Brunello Cucinelli’s with cashmere, aims to become a serious player in the world of high fashion, too.
The story of Diesel – and, by extension, of Diesel Black Gold – is a story of 1960s insurrection, reckless ambition and exceptional creativity. It’s also a story, of course, about jeans. It begins 60 years ago in the Italian countryside near Padua, where Renzo Rosso, the brand’s flamboyant and outspoken founder, was born. Growing up poor (the village, as Rosso likes to say, had one car and one television), he idolized the American soldiers he saw passing through. He was captivated by their cars, their clothes, their food and their quintessential Americanness. “I dreamed of America as it was on TV,” writes Rosso in his new book, Radical Renaissance 60. “Denim was freedom, rebellion, comfort, blue sky and green gardens. For me, denim was the biggest dream.” He began making jeans on his mother’s sewing machine as a teenager, and by the mid-’80s he had created the small denim brand he would soon turn into a global fashion phenomenon.
How did it happen? Throughout his career, Rosso has distinguished himself by taking crazy ideas and making them work. The most successful of these bold notions was distressed denim. It’s funny to think that prior to 1985 the world was a place where new jeans looked new, old jeans looked old, and never the twain should meet. In 1984, if you wanted a pair of jeans that looked as though you’d lived in them for years, you’d have to actually live in them for years – imagine that! Rosso changed everything by taking new jeans and, with the addition of carefully placed abrasions, rips, patches and fading – using methods he both invented and perfected – turning them into something completely different. Artfully deconstructed, the jeans offered the comfort of high quality denim with a heavy dose of punk rock attitude, a mix that’s as desirable today as it was when they first appeared. “Every man has a significant denim component in his weekend wardrobe and Diesel is a unique denim company,” says Larry Rosen, chairman and CEO of Harry Rosen, describing the brand’s enduring appeal. “It really stands alone as being the great denim expert for the guy who wants that urban-modern attitude in dressing for the weekend.”
In the decades since Diesel emerged as a globally renowned label, its product line has expanded greatly, encompassing everything from T-shirts to outerwear to watches. But the company’s reputation is still very much based around deconstructed denim, something it does better than anyone else. “We don’t buy a lot of ripped and distressed jeans from others because nothing else seems as authentic,” says Shannon Stewart, the assistant general merchandise manager for Harry Rosen, standing in front of a selection of Diesel jeans at the Bloor Street West store. “To actually make it look like you’ve been wearing these for 10 years is a difficult thing to do but they pull it off in a way that doesn’t look contrived.”
In recent years Diesel has added high-tech fabrics to its lineup, creating jeans that not only look lived in but are actually designed to be lived in. Stewart pulls a pair from a rack and holds them up. They’re a deep indigo blue, faded down the thighs as if from years of wear, ripped here and there and firmly sewn back together. These, she explains, are Jogg Jeans,and they just might change your life. Made from a revolutionary stretch denim, they are as comfortable as sweatpants, with all of the style of designer jeans. “They’re a huge seller,” Stewart says. “Once you put a pair of these on and realize how incredible they feel, you’re hooked.”
Diesel has been undergoing something of a renaissance in the past few years as Rosso hands the creative reins to a new generation of talented young designers and expands the reach of his brand ever farther. With Melbostad in the lead role, Diesel Black Gold takes the iconic look and feel of the Diesel brand and scales it up for the runway, resulting in collections of jeans, knitwear and leather jackets that combine Diesel’s rock-and-roll edginess with a more 21st-century sensibility.
“It’s really about taking a designer approach – a more minimalist, advanced, contemporary feel – and the Diesel DNA, and mixing them together,” says Charles Lapointe, Harry Rosen’s buyer for Diesel Black Gold. He appreciates the brand for its ability to make high fashion approachable for guys who love classic masculine pieces but aren’t necessarily ready to drop $3,000 on a leather jacket. “For someone who wants to have the latest trends, at a price point that’s affordable, it’s really where this customer wants to go,” he explains.
A waiter brings Melbostad a fresh drink, which will mostly go untouched as the designer segues from vintage biker style to his studio’s overflowing bookshelves. “I buy a lot of books,” he says, with an embarrassed chuckle. “They can be photography, they can be related to music or countercultural movements, pure fashion, books that refer to military uniforms... It’s a really important archive for me.” For Spring/Summer 2017, Melbostad was inspired by one book in particular, famed photographer Irving Penn’s project Small Trades. In the early 1950s, Penn visited Paris, London and New York to capture images of working men and women – carpenters, bakers, fire fighters – in their uniforms. He shot his subjects on a neutral background, treating them just as he would the couture-clad models he photographed for Vogue.
“I was drawn to the grace and dignity expressed in the photos,” says Melbostad. “I found a lot of nobility in each character captured, and inspiration in how their work uniforms expressed their individuality.” Melbostad also saw potential in the pure functionality of the clothes themselves. “I think that goes very much back to this attitude of denim and leather that Diesel is famous for,” he says. “When you look at their pride and investment in their trades and how that is expressed in what they wear, how the function of it has been enhanced over time… that’s a very direct connection to the world of denim.” These working men in their hickory-striped dungarees and sturdy leather jackets, it follows, are the forebears of modern menswear, at least as far as a man’s casual wardrobe is concerned. “And that sort of authenticity is a very important thing,” says Melbostad.
While we may not always think about it, in a time and place where most of us work with our minds instead of our hands, wearing pieces infused with this history allows urban men to access a bit of the gravitas, purposefulness and masculinity of a bygone age. Melbostad designs for a creative class, and as such his clothes don’t need to keep us warm in a bomber’s freezing cockpit or shield us from the heat of a blast furnace. Instead his work gives the modern man something he needs even more: a form of expression.