MAROSTICA — An hour southwest of Venice, behind an inconspicuous gate at the end of a long conifer-lined path, stands a rustic hut. It's fashion entrepreneur Renzo Rosso"s weekend house, which he calls "Diesel Farm."
Rosso sits making a call at a large table in the main room, which is decorated with hunting trophies. On the table are red wine, olive oil, Parmesan and cherries. When he hangs up, there is disappointment on his face.
"I had an audience with the Pope at the Vatican tomorrow, but it's being re-scheduled," he says. But the letdown is not enough to seriously affect Rosso's mood, and he's soon smiling again and talking about what he likes best: business and his success.
It's as if the 59-year-old were looking down over his empire. The headquarters of his company, Diesel, is not far away, in Breganze. Five hundred people work there, and it is complete with a kindergarten, a cafeteria and a fitness studio, the wall of which displays a modified company motto that reads "For a Successful Body." The company motto is "For Successful Living," and since the spring of 2013, artistic director Nicola Formichetti has been flying in every two weeks to make sure the brand retains optimum coolness.
Rosso's appearance bears witness to the successes he has achieved since he founded the company in 1978. He's wearing Diesel jeans, with the fringed seams turned outward, and a dark blue pullover from Maison Martin Margiela. He bought the avant-garde brand in 2002, the first of many acquisitions.
Rosso's holding company OTB (short for "Only the Brave") today has shares in Viktor & Rolf and Marni, and produces and distributes the collections of labels such as Vivienne Westwood and Dsquared2. On the middle and ring fingers of his left hand, Rosso has Rs tattooed — one for Renzo, the other for Rosso. He has three other hidden tattoos: the Diesel Indian, the OTB logo, and four stylized basting-thread stitches, the Margiela brand logo.
He bought his 247-acre farm to prevent the terrain from being sold to different owners and divided. On its four hills, 12 employees cultivate grapes, fruit and olives. Along with oil and grappa, he produces wine, 5,000 bottles each every year of Chardonnay Bianco di Rosso, a Pinot Noir called Nero di Rosso, and a Cabernet Sauvignon called Rosso di Rosso.
The farm is located 984 feet above sea level, and a sea wind blows in from Venice. To the north are the Dolomite Mountains. These factors, Rosso explains, create a special climate. Four-fifths of the grapes are cut back at the beginning of May so that all of the sun and soil's energy flows into the remaining fruit.
A labor of love
The whole farm is in the process of making the transition to organic cultivation methods. "It's the future," Rosso says. "Organic is good for your body. That is the true luxury of the future."
In the case of the wine, that luxury costs 90 euros a bottle. But Rosso says profit is incidental. "It's about the pleasure. We make less than a million euros with it," he says. Compared to the billion in earnings that his parent company generates every year, it truly is a negligible figure. Rosso spent 5 million euros two years ago on the renovation of the Rialto Bridge in Venice.
The farm, where he spends his free time, reminds him of his simple background. He says being there is like returning to his roots. Rosso's father was a farmer as is his older brother. Rosso grew up on a farm near Brugine, about 25 miles west of Venice. He now lives with his second wife and the three youngest of his six children in Bassano del Grappa, just a few kilometers away from Diesel Farm. He uses a helicopter to go back and forth, just as he will use it when he eventually goes to meet with the Pope. There's a heliport right behind his farmhouse.
He refers to the farm as his island. But he says it's inaccurate to view his property up here as a little castle on the hill. After all, a road runs through here that people can use to walk, hike or jog. As far as he's concerned, they can ride their motorcycle on it too, and he considers this approach a mark of his social commitment.
"Yes, I do a lot of social things, really a lot," he says. People often address him on the street, he says. "Young people like me. They see me as a simple person who started with nothing and won respect through work."
His latest entrepreneurial project takes him away from fashion and is to some extent an extension of what’" happening here on the farm. In Germany, 8% of farms use organic cultivation methods, but in Italy only 2.5% do, he explains. So it's a growth market. Which is why he recently bought the Italian organic supermarket chain NaturaSì.
"I want to make products that are good for peoples' health," he says. But the words get progressively harder to hear because of the sudden racket behind the house. His helicopter has just landed. "May I go?" Rosso asks before jumping up and heading towards it.
It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.
PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.
Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.
Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.
Share capital of one billion
The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).
The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.
Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.
While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.
The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down
Raising Initial Coin Offering
Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.
For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."
What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".
Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.
Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.
Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.
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