Amid the flurry of product launches and new designers debuting their wares during fashion month comes a back-to-the-future reissue from one of Europe’s most controversial fashion brands.
United Colours of Benetton, the Italian brand that rose to fame in the 1980s and 1990s with its brightly coloured clothing, paving the way for the subsequent fast-fashion revolution, has done a deal with UK department store Selfridges.
The joint venture will see a reissue of Benetton’s most iconic lines, harking back to the days when the family-owned company was selling its brightly coloured jumpers in more than 100 countries, and its shock advertising campaigns — whose memorable images included a priest and a nun kissing, and a baby still attached to the umbilical cord — made it a household name.
Benetton’s reissue — a unisex collection of T-shirts, logo-embroidered baseball caps and branded nylon bumbags — coincides with a trend for 1980s and 1990s fashion nostalgia.
Dior has brought back its saddle bag, introduced in 1999 by the house’s then-creative director John Galliano, and seen on the arm of everyone from Paris Hilton to Beyoncé. Fendi’s “Baguette” handbag, which had a co-starring role alongside Sarah Jessica Parker in Sex and the City, was feted again at the Roman house’s show in Milan this week. Meanwhile, Prada has just brought back Linea Rossa, its sportswear line. The rain hats featured in Linea Rossa’s advertising campaign recall Liam Gallagher, circa 1995.
But for Benetton there is an extra edge to the back-to-the future vibe. Not only are the designs returning, but also the brand’s historic creators. Luciano Benetton, the eldest of the four Benetton siblings, has returned to oversee commercial operations, including product and shops. Also back at the group is his sister Giuliana, 81, the creative talent behind its first woollen sweaters, and photographer Oliviero Toscani, 76, the mastermind of the brand’s advertising campaigns.
Mr Benetton, now 83, sat down with the Financial Times in late July to talk about the philanthropy that has occupied his time since he stepped down from running the brand in 2003 — and about his decision to return.
“We are restarting with a new team and new product,” he said, in a room hung with tapestries of world maps at a desk in the family’s headquarters outside Treviso.
“I think that whether the sales are via online or in the shop, the important thing is to have a good product: people aren’t stupid,” he said. “If you have a good product, people will come.”
He returns to the group at a time of major challenges, both from newer competitors such as Zara, H&M and Uniqlo, and the explosion of ecommerce. According to the last figures available, Benetton group’s revenues fell 15.4 per cent to €1.37bn in 2016, down from €1.62bn in 2014.
The plan for Mr Benetton, though, is not to follow the lead for “throwaway” fashion, but instead to go back to Benetton’s original premise of mid-priced clothes for the long term. He and his siblings Gilberto, Giuliana and Carlo founded the group in 1965, seeing an opportunity to sell cheerful, brightly coloured clothes.
“If I buy a shirt last season and I am then told it is no longer fashion in one season, I feel like I have been robbed in my own home. I cannot accept this. I want something that lasts,” he said.
Facing the challenge of ecommerce, he said he considered that the premise of the past still applied. “The most important thing is to have a relationship with the public,” he said, whether through shops or online.
But the social media age presents a new challenge, too. Since Mr Benetton stepped back into the company he founded, the Benetton family has been caught up in a public backlash over another of their businesses. A bridge that partly collapsed over Genoa in mid-August, killing more than 40 people, was part of a highway concession owned by a company partly owned by the Benettons.
The family made an official statement about the bridge tragedy “expressing their profound sadness and concrete proximity to those struck by the terrible events”. But the disaster has threatened to turn a family known for philanthropy — over the years the Benettons have supported sports centres, building restoration and travelling art exhibitions that reflect their brand’s core values of social justice and sustainability — into pariahs.
Claudia D’Arpizio, partner at consultants Bain & Co, argues that the transparency of social media has made consumers increasingly unforgiving. Perceived ethical lapses will have “a big impact if not immediately on sales then on engagement and loyalty,” she says.
In the case of Benetton’s relaunch, it is the consumers who will decide.
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