Nicola Formichetti’s Diesel: The new artistic director talks fashion fantasy, social media and denim revolution

Nicola Formichetti Diesel Interview
Nicola Formichetti Diesel Interview

See the Diesel Tribute Capsule collection »

When I arrive at Nicola Formichetti’s New York studio, located on a quiet street in the no man’s land between Tribeca and Chinatown, I’m greeted by a chaotic production scene and a whole lot of very stylish, very busy-looking Chinese people. Photographers are zigzagging around the space, women with clipboards are running after them, everyone’s iPhones are out and ablaze. Apparently, Chinese pop star Momo Wu (and her extensive entourage) is here filming a segment with Formichetti, whom I spot patiently posing for pictures while being shouted at in Mandarin. I’m quickly ushered into the metallic calm of a waiting elevator and whisked up to the designer’s fourth-floor loft.

When the elevator doors open, I find myself face to face with a different kind of frenzy. Compared to the clean-lined studio downstairs, which calls to mind a Tokyo gallery with its minimal decor and silver sculptures on display, Formichetti’s private space is an unexpected explosion of youthful exuberance and unadulterated kawaii. Seeing this wonderland of tropical plants, fuzzy shag rugs and colourful plush toys, I can’t help but smile, despite the sensory overload. I don’t know what I expected of the radical former Mugler designer’s New York pad (a sinister-looking crown on the mantel perhaps? A lace and latex settee?), but a rainbow-coloured cartoon fantasy was not it.

When Formichetti appears a few minutes later, he is equal parts bemused and bewildered. “It’s crazy down there!” he proclaims. “Did you see all those people? I must have had 10 cameras facing me!” Momo Wu has come to woo him, he explains as he collapses onto a pink and purple sofa upholstered in a whimsical Japanese fruit and flower print. He settles in between a stuffed Tarepanda doll and a Rilakkuma pillow. “She wants to work with me,” he shrugs. “Apparently, she’s
the Lady Gaga of China.”

Formichetti may be best known as the former stylist (and still bestie) of Lady Gaga, but these days he’s got more on his mind than meat gowns, feather headdresses and bubble-machine minis. As fashion director at Uniqlo and recently appointed artistic director at Diesel, it seems the boundary-pushing designer is going back to basics. “I’m very interested in the fantasy side of fashion, but at the same time I’ve always been into street culture,” he says. “Diesel is in between »

Nicola Formichetti Diesel Interview
Diesel Reboot flash t-shirt

To kick off his tenure at the Italian denim company, Formichetti is launching a limited-edition capsule collection this season. “I was talking to [co-founder] Renzo Rosso about the amazing 35-year history of Diesel, and I decided to do a little special something before I started my first collection,” he says. “It’s kind of like my gesture, a tribute to the history and legacy. It’s not a marketing thing. It’s pure love.” For the first of three capsule collections currently in the works, the starting point was denim in all its distressed glory (each collection will focus on one of Diesel’s three brand pillars: denim, leather and army surplus). From jean shirtdresses with mix-and-match buttons to a range of badass studded vests, the collection pulls much of its inspiration from the brand’s extensive archives. “I went to all the factories and studios, and I found these amazing old patchworks lying around—handmade and super-limited,” says Formichetti. “They have a big museum with all the old collections. There’s so much amazing stuff there, it’s going to be the starting point for all my collections.”

But, as important as heritage, history and tradition are to the brand, Diesel has been and always will be defined by a bold spirit and a forward-thinking attitude. In the ’90s, Diesel was the first fashion brand to embrace the internet, launching e-commerce at a time when most people were still struggling to define “downloading.” And in Formichetti, Rosso seems to have found a creative non-conformist in his own image. Outrageous designs aside, Formichetti is also an admitted social media addict. In fact, in the weeks leading up to our interview, scheduling became a challenge due to an impromptu digital cleanse on his part. He broke his fast by announcing a then top-secret denim project on Twitter…weeks ahead of schedule (the online equivalent of a post-cleanse binge). But Twitter isn’t his favourite social media drug. “For me, Tumblr is the most creative social media. We talk to each other through photos—it’s such a beautiful experience,” he says. “I do all my research on Tumblr. I don’t even use Google anymore, just Tumblr. It’s a better search engine for visuals.” Which might explain why it has played such an important role in his inaugural campaign for Diesel.

Dubbed #DieselReboot, the Tumblr-based project is described as the “inception stage of a full-blown reinvention.” Denim devotees are encouraged to share their inspirations on the site and help steer the brand’s creative direction. In essence, it is a giant fashion mood board, which is precisely what Formichetti had in mind. “I love mood boards. It’s a starting point for everything. I’m not very good at writing or talking about things, so I’m always making mood boards,” he says. “This is what I’m feeling today,” he adds, gesturing toward two giant pin boards covered in printouts of everything from ice cream cones to Mexican wrestling masks. Tomorrow he’ll transfer these boards downstairs and start again with a clean slate. “I have millions of these,” he says. “I keep an archive of my old ones and sometimes I go back to them. They’re like my sketchbooks.”

Clearly, for Formichetti, true creativity is equal parts reinvention and preservation, and the best ideas happen somewhere in that ambiguous space where the past and the future intersect. “Now is really the perfect time for Diesel to stop and breathe and reboot again, but I don’t want to restart the whole thing,” he says. “I love everything they’ve done. I just want to tell the story in a modern way.” We’d call that a reboot worth Tumbling about.