Fiona Russell Powell untangles the wonderful world of Benetton
Arena Homme + Spring 1994
Late winter afternoon.
It's cold and grey, much like the city we are in: Birmingham. I am
here for the opening of the first Benetton megastore,
selling underwear, cosmetics, shoes and accessories as well as their
Sisley line and the bog-standard Benetton junipers. The store is buzzing
because somewhere in the invited throng is the company's much-photographed
head, Luciano Benetton. He has flown in for the event - a rare visit
to Britain (though I suspect the chance of a quick drive to Oxford afterwards
to look over his Formula One racing team may have been a deciding factor).
The food is unusually good, the guests are uniformly well-dressed and
the waiters (and the chefs peeking front the top of the stairs) are uncommonly
The party is beginning to break tip and Signor Benetton and I adjourn
to the staff quarters upstairs, where we settle, all five of its - two
bits for the company and his translator, as S Benetton says his English
is not good enough for "Communicating complicated concepts".
(I suspect it's a matter of won't rather than can't: after all, his 650
company employees back at HQ in Italy are offered free English lessons.)
I learn quickly that Luciano Benetton is adept at talking at length while
saying little, throwing out the Benetton party line with wordy embellishments
straight out of the company's meaty press packs. All of which is hardly
surprising because, as well as being one of Italy's most successful businessmen,
or "industrialists" as he prefers to be called, Luciano Benetton
is also a senior politician sitting on the Republican (left-wing) side
of the Italian Senate. He was elected by the people of Trevino, his home
town, most of whom are employed by or connected to the Benetton company
in some way, a place where the local basketball, volleyball and rugby
teams are sponsored by Benetton and where the company bas built a modern
sports centre providing free facilities for the local citizens.
An amiable but shrewd 58-year-old, Benetton comes across as a "man
of the people", albeit with a slight statesman-like air; he is approachable
though protected by a metaphorical pane of glass. Attractive, in the
mould of an elegant intellectual and with a commanding presence, he's
not the sort you ask about his love life, though we know he is separated
from the mother of his four children and must qualify for the title of
Most Eligible Industrialist of the Year. With his curly collar-length
grey hair and expensive designer glasses, he is the Bamber Gascoigne
of up-market, middle-of-the-road chainstore fashion.
But why describe him when he's been plastered butt-naked over the hoardings
of Britain, promoting the return of cast-offs to Benetton outlets to
be boxed and shipped off for redistribution among the world's refugees?
The "c" word crops up constantly when dealing with the Benetton
camp, though mine is controversy and theirs is communication. For instance,
the first subject I want to tackle is Benetton's "Fabrica" project,
an Institute for the Arts which will invite students from all over the
globe to pursue (and make available) their talent on a scholarship basis.
Scheduled to open in September near Treviso, it is housed in a grand
Venetian villa which has been restructured and enlarged by Tadeo Ando,
the celebrated Japanese architect. And guess who bas been asked to fill
the post of 'principal at the school (which no doubt will espouse the
Benetton "philosophy" of world peace, racial harmony, tolerance,
and the right to individual personal freedom)? Fidel Castro, whom Signor
Benetton describes as a "nice man" (they met last year when
a Benetton outlet was opened in Havana, Cuba).
“ We got on well. We both pretty much agreed that Communism in Cuba is
over, it hasn't worked, and be would probably admit himself that he's
become a bit of a liability to Cuba now. Castro has great communication
skills and I decided why not use these skills? So I invited him to preside
over Fabrica. You talk about his past terrorist activities and yet isn't
it better to give him a chance to do some good? If Castro is running
a school in Italy, lie unit be doing; anything bad in Cuba."
Talking about controversy, let's discuss time famous Benetton ads, from
the widely-condemned dying with AIDS advert, to the bloody newborn baby,
to the black Queen, to the mercenary holding a human thighbone, to the
human-branded HIV+ ads. He tells me, "You should address your questions
and comments to Toscani [Oliviero Toscani, Benetton's art director],
it is his vision, not mine." Come, come - this simply won't wash.
But he refuses to be drawn.
Later, however, Benetton's British PR, Marysia Woroniecka, talks about
the difficulties of handling the Benetton account during the time when
no British advertising agency would touch Benetton business and magazines
like Vogue, Elle and Marie- Claire refused to accept the artwork. Did
she have any qualms about handling the account?
" No, well, I'd been handling the account for three-and-a-half years previously
anyway... Personally, I felt comfortable about the image and could support
it because a senior executive at Benetton in New York was personally
involved in that his lover had just died of AIDS and he wholeheartedly
supported the image. Also, we had lots of letters from David Kirby's
[the dying man, family and friends and his hospital staff saying they
supported the campaign completely. David Kirby was an AIDS activist and
the photographer who took the image that Toscani used, Therese Frare,
was documenting Kirby's life and his disease. She expressed a reluctance
to photograph his death, and he said, 'If you don't photograph me then,
at the moment of my death, and people don't get to see it, then the test
of my life has no meaning.'"
Surprisingly, she reveals that it was actually the newborn baby Benetton
ad which generated the most fierce public response in Britain: "People
phoned and threatened to bomb Benetton shops, windows were smashed and
I fielded, er, dealt with, a lot of irate people and quite a few sad
calls from women who'd just had miscarriages and things like that. It
got quite scary and we used a PO Box for out offices for a while. Another
image which seemed to infuriate a lot of people was the black Queen ad
from last summer. There was one man who used to drive around in a white
Rolls Royce with big tins of black paint and he painted in all the windows
of the Benetton outlets and hung a sign on the doors which said, 'If
you can afford to black out the Queen then I can afford to black out
back in Birmingham, Luciano Benetton is still maintaining his detached
air on this issue, but offers to expound on the theme of
art director Oliviero Toscani's genius when I refuse to let the subject
drop. Signor B gushes: "Toscani told me 'Benetton's become my voice',
he has complete freedom, it's the most freedom Toscani's ever been
to the Hotel Continental in Treviso, 40 miles from Venice. Ah, Northern
Heaven and Hell rolled into one where every woman you
pass is beautiful and sports a fur coat; the land of homogenized "good
taste", where they worship the colour brown in all its shades, so
long as it comes in mink, crocodile or silk.
I have been flown here courtesy of Benetton, to inspect their HQ and
tour their state-of-the-art factory a few miles away. They seem keen
to impress and, indeed, I am impressed. Benetton provides the sort of
work environment which would make you want to get out of bed in the morning.
The headquarters is run by a high percentage of beautiful and intelligent
women who stand out from the rest by wearing fake fur coats. Lunch is
prepared by gourmet cooks and served in a ritzy restored outbuilding,
part of a restored seventeenth-century villa (Benetton has a charity
foundation which restores dilapidated villas throughout the Venice area)
where every design detail is considered - from the saucepans to the water
jugs to the coat racks, upon which it is unlikely a Benetton jacket will
be hung as no Benetton employee gets a discount - they have to buy their
Benetton clothes full price at the local boutique with the rest of the
punters. This dining area looks like Heals crossbred with Tom Dixon;
the creative brains responsible are the husband and wife architectural
partnership of Tobia and Afra Scarpa who have worked on all Benetton
building projects (with the exception of "Fabrica") since the
company was formed in the mid-Sixties.
Dotted around the landscaped Benetton compound, like a pretty village,
are clusters of little houses which are really offices (including those
of the other two Benetton brothers), covered in tinted metal roof tiles
(developed by the Scarpas and patented by Benetton, of course) which
change colour according to the light. There is an underground car park
for 600 cars.
Down the drive, to the left of the newly extend-ed and renovated factory
hangar (where Guiliana Benetton - Luciano's sister, responsible over-all
for design, and specifically knitwear - is based), is an expanse of lawn
which covers a surreal underground model Benetton street of sample boutiques,
each kitted out in a different shop style - all of them available from
Benetton once the outlet's owner has decided whether he wants to sell
Mature Benetton Man (dark brown oak), Benetteen (pale ash) or Benettot
(gay pink vinyl tiles) to mention just three of the choices.
The mock shop shelves are stuffed with Benetton gear and fully dressed
dummies lurk behind the counters. Even the "street" is non-conformist;
it's made of crushed velvet, sorry, crushed quartz. It can be mechanically
raised to meet pavement level or rise above it to become a catwalk, the
shop windows screened with sliding curtains, the ceiling opened to reveal
racks of spotlights. But my favourite trick is the arched ceiling "at
rest", peppered with a massive array of tiny lights like the sky
on a starry night. And a wall of water, which stops long enough to let
you cross a non-slip bridge.
Benetton's tiara is the new textile plant, of which they are rightly
is the first plant of its kind in the world,
designed and built using revolutionary techniques developed by the
Scarpas and Benetton's labs. There are three buildings, the piéce
de resistance being the structure - a cable-bridge suspension concept
where no support system is needed inside the building, the entire edifice
being held in place by what looks like a ship's mast on the roof with
steel cables stretching from either side to the roof edges.
At 40,000 square feet, it took eight months to erect and is used for
storing and cutting cloth. The second building is full of enormous piles
of white jumpers which are thrown into giant dyeing machines and coloured
according to season, then dried. The clack of row upon row of knitting
machines for other knitwear (the white jumpers are sent from another
factory in Tuscany and are made on Guiliana's famous machine, designed
by herself, where the yarn goes in one end and an untouched-by-human-hands
sweater comes out at the other end) echoes rhythmically throughout the
The third factory is where the boxed clothes (there is no surplus stock,
everything is made to order) arrive via underground tunnel for distribution,
where 600 daily deliveries are made world-wide. That's about 15,000 boxes.
Only six people are needed per shift as everything is fully automated.
Eight huge robots collect the boxes as they trundle in on conveyor belts
and then load them into the appropriate chute for whichever geographical
area the produce is destined for and, finally, the boxes slide out directly
into waiting freight trains. The nerve centre, i.e. the computer for
this prototype system, is also in the underground section and it controls
all of the lighting and heating (fibre optic cables) for the complex.
It is a spectacular achievement, but appropriate for the world's largest
consumer of wool. In fact, I'd expect no less from Benetton.
HQ for late lunch with another Benetton lovely, a brainy beauty who
is the Director
for International Image (a rather pretentious title
for Big Cheese in Press Office). She tells me she was formerly head of
European News at ITN and later at Sky, which shows that Benetton only
poach the best. I ask her about the news that Luciano Benetton has decided
only the day before to step down from his seat in the Senate and not
stand at the upcoming general election. My charming factory guide had
told me that he was "essentially an entrepreneur who was frustrated
by the bureaucracy of Italian politics".
My dining companion agrees, adding over the grilled endive that he probably
quit because "it takes them a whole day to decide what stationery
to use". Toscani, the "creative genius", cannot be dismissed
so easily, and debate over the ads rages through the soup, the pasta
and the rare fillet steak. This is the main area of contention for me
and I have discussed it with every single Benettonite I have met. It
is strange because Luciano's loyal disciples always have answers for
everything and they are always the same answers. Not that I doubt he
is a humanitarian who has done a great deal of good for his local community
- but all the same, I left Treviso and Benetton feeling that I'd just
spent a day with the Jehovah's Witnesses of Jumpers. By the way, they
do a wonderful cappuccino.