At 18 years old, like many gay teenagers, Nicola Formichetti couldn't afford a pair of Diesel jeans. He was in London, where he dropped out of architecture school after just five days -- the whole thing had been a ruse to get him out of his parents' house anyway -- and he'd go to the Covent Garden store to gawk at the salesclerks.
At Diesel, they had big shellacked mohawks, pierced noses, tattoos. They weren't interchangeable cogs, but "characters," Formichetti recalls. The store had a club-like aura. DJs would play music there. The experience wasn't merely transactional, it was cultural, and Formichetti remembers thinking that Diesel was somehow beyond the realm of just fashion, that it was, somehow, something... more.
In April of 2013 Formichetti was named artistic director of the Italian brand, known for its urban denim. The announcement raised eyebrows among the fashion set. This was the man who famously dressed Lady Gaga in raw flank steak for the 2010 MTV Music Awards (a dress that has its own Wikipedia page) and had her emerge from a translucent egg made by Hussein Chalayan at the Grammys in 2011. In 2010 the stylist was charged with reviving the Mugler label, which specialized in ready-to-wear for intergalactic glamazons in the 1980s. With an outre pedigree like that, what would he do to the workaday jean?
Formichetti is boyishly handsome, with a round, open face, dark eyes, and a mischievous smile. He has short but unruly hair and talks with a sort of clipped upspeak that's familiar to girls two decades his junior. His accent is a little muddy, a result of having been raised in Tokyo and Italy before moving to England in his late teens. He wears the decidedly anti-fashion uniform of downtown New York: slim faded jeans, a loose T-shirt, and a fraying denim jacket -- all in varying shades of black. His disposition is as laid-back as his attire.
If Anna Wintour and Karl Lagerfeld represent fashion's polished and glossy old guard, Formichetti represents the approachable, accessible new generation.
Formichetti benefits from a right-time-right-place, flaneur-to-riches story typical of the fashion industry. After partaking in the London's local club scene for a few years, he helped a friend open the boutique A Pineal Eye, which became a go-to spot for stylists to scout up-and-coming designers. It was there that Formichetti was discovered by editors from the hip monthly Dazed & Confused and given his own column featuring merchandise from the store. A year later, he landed a full-time job at the magazine, going on to become creative director and attracting a range of consulting gigs for brands as diverse as Missoni, Nike, and Dolce & Gabbana.
"I made a mess," he says of those early years. "I had no idea what was going on. Of course you have to make mistakes; that's how you learn. But I was so passionate."
In the beginning, Formichetti preferred the outlandish and eccentric, a mix of streetwear and designer goods that's commonplace today. "I was into fantasy clothing," he says. "I didn't care if you could wear it out. For me, it had to look great for performances." But his taste changed, simplified, and he began to see the power in less blatant acts of provocation, much like Diesel itself.
In the 1990s, it was the first brand to take the humble blue jean and add a touch of European elan, but without ignoring its intrinsic grittiness. "Denim has always been associated with this idea of rebels, of youth, of doing something different," says Formichetti. "It's still considered rebellious. Like, if you were to wear jeans on the red carpet."
Renzo Rosso, the man behind Diesel, is a bit of a renegade himself, and took an interest in Formichetti after visiting a pop-up shop he hosted for Mugler in 2011. "I sensed I'd found a kindred spirit," he says. "The presentation and every single item in the store was unbelievable. I spent four hours there and was mesmerized." As Formichetti tells it, Rosso, who is the president of OTB Group, the parent company which owns Diesel (as well as niche brands such as Marni and Maison Martin Margiela), approached him with an offer to take over Diesel as artistic director after his tenure at Mugler came to a close. "I thought, Why not? A challenge!" Formichetti says, somewhat casually, given the stakes: In 2012 the OTB Group earned $1.8 billion.
Formichetti has spent the past year shuttling between his home in New York and the company's headquarters in Breganze, Italy, just outside of Venice. There he's been preparing for his first formal showing, in April. "I want Renzo to give me a shot of the brand's DNA," he says, seemingly unfazed by the idea of heading up such a large operation without any formal design training. "I don't know many designer designers," he says. "A jacket is a jacket. It's about silhouette, fabrics, the proportions. It's how you put these things together and show them to the world. That's how I do it. That's how my designer friends do it. I mean, I can draw, I can sew... but it's what you say, isn't it? I could've said I was a designer from the beginning."
He's right. People don't respond to the perfect armhole or the cut of the shoulder anymore. In an age where pixels on a screen reign supreme, influence is about how much you can grow your Web presence. Formichetti is followed by around 133,000 people on Facebook, 98,000 on Instagram, 197,000 on Twitter, plus his avid devotees on Tumblr. He has undeniable digital cachet and is part of a generation deeply embedded into various social media outlets. He credits Lady Gaga for sparking his interest in using them as a tool to communicate with fans, but his enthusiasm for the medium is apparent, and needed in the fashion industry, which has been reluctant to change. "A lot of people say they're digital, but most of it just looks like old people trying to be digital," he says.
With his first big show looming, Formichetti's mind is on the actual product. If he has trouble describing what to expect in concrete terms ("It's going to be cool. It's going to be stuff that people want to wear. It's very today. Actually, it's not today, it's quite timeless"), his upbeat attitude indicates that things are running smoothly. In fact, Formichetti started to leak his designs via a capsule collection called #DieselTribute that launched in November, complete with an online media blitz that was disseminated through Tumblr and shot by famed photographer Nick Knight using only an iPhone and a photo editing app.
He couldn't wait for the big reveal, he said. And though this may be an unorthodox way to unveil a partnership of this magnitude -- from a massive corporate entity like Diesel -- neither Rosso nor Formichetti seem bound to tradition. Indeed, they seem like a mischievous duo who just want to kick up some dust, and have a damn good time doing it.