Diesel’s new Denim Lab lets designers experiment with new technologies
After nearly 40 years in business, Diesel is dedicating a space in its Barcelona headquarters to driving innovation in denim.
The Denim Lab, which occupies a full floor within the company’s offices, is an incubator for capsule collections made in collaboration with guest designers, who spend a few months working with Diesel’s team. Of the 20 overall designers, six work within the Denim Lab full time, creating a line of limited-edition jeans.
The format of the Lab allows the team to test out new technologies and strategies for designing denim, including laser-cutting, dyeing techniques and fabric blending, like mixing lamé and leather into denim fibers. The next collection out of the Lab, created with designer Faustine Steinmetz, uses a new technique for weaving denim, developed by Diesel and Steinmetz, that thins out the fabric to the point that it’s almost clear, creating a ragged effect.
“We love vintage denim, but there are ways to push denim forward,” said Nicola Formichetti, Diesel’s artistic director. “We’ve been working with new technology and incorporating new ideas, so this lab in our studio is a way to show people what we’re doing and collaborate on a global level with other designers.”
Images from Diesel’s Denim Lab campaign
In his four years at Diesel, Formichetti has sought out a separate outlet for experimental denim that would operate alongside the brand’s typical offerings of jeans, which run anywhere between $198 and $978 a pair. Elsewhere in fashion, messing with classic denim has drawn ire from customers: Topshop’s clear plastic jeans were panned online; a $425 pair of jeans covered in fake mud from Japanese denim brand PRPS and carried by Nordstrom put the retailer at the center of social media backlash.
Thanks to innovation in new fabric, however, experiments in the making of denim have been taking place in a less aesthetically offensive degree. Last week, Nike applied for a patent for “architecturally reinforced denim,” a type of denim fabric that will allow for stretch and moisture management. That’s big for the space of new-age, smarter denim, but Nike’s not the first player. Vans created a line of technical denim, designed with skaters in mind. Diesel debuted an early iteration of its innovative denim design in 2014, with Jogg Jeans: a pair of jeans that look and feel like denim, but offer more stretch and comfort.
Diesel, a privately held company still fully owned by founder Renzo Rosso, started in 1978 as a high-end Italian denim brand. Since, it has built out its collection to include outerwear, leather goods and knits, and has added Diesel Black Gold, an upscale contemporary luxury collection. Diesel doesn’t disclose revenue, but Rosso’s holding company, Only The Brave — which has stakes in other brands like Maison Margiela, Marni and Viktor & Rolf — reported $1.7 billion in sales in 2015. Diesel accounts for 60 percent of Only The Brave’s business.
According to Formichetti, the Denim Lab only represents a small part of Diesel’s overall collection, but he sees it a way to serve a customer who is increasingly demanding newness.
“When we experiment with fabrics and proportions, we sell out,” he said. “Our customers are hungry for new things, and a portion dedicated to the future and experimentation, I think that’s cool.”
Bringing in emerging designers to work in Diesel’s headquarters also brings a new perspective to the brand’s offerings.
“A lot of customers aren’t really responding to the whole ‘big designer at the brand’ who’s responsible for the entire look and feel,” said Tony King, CEO of luxury agency King + Partners. “And when you share the design reigns with someone else, it’s open and democratic, and that makes it feel more interesting.”
Diesel isn’t the only brand looking outside itself to inject newness into an aging brand. Across the board in luxury and fashion, designer brands are latching onto collaborations as a way to drive traffic and draw attention from new customers. Relying on this format to drive buzz can weaken a brand; to Formichetti, they’re a point of differentiation.
“If you mix different tastes and styles, you get something special,” said Formichetti. “There are so many products out there today and it’s just about commodity, and I think people are a little bit tired of that. We are attracted to things that are unique and different, and that’s what collaborations offer. It’s a must for a brand today to move forward.”