Adding colour to the world

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By It?s been a classic rags-to-riches story for clothing czar Luciano Benetton, says Arundhati Basu
  • Published 20.11.04

Luciano Benetton is on a not-so-secret mission to India. In the next year, the clothing tycoon wants to open six Benetton mega-stores in India?s top metros and he?s putting together the plans for the big push forward. ?India is very important in our global scheme,? he says.

What?s a Benetton mega-store? These sprawling retail spaces usually have a mix of clothing and accessories ? in short, the entire range of Benetton products. ?They are the stores of the future where the whole family can shop,? says Luciano, chairman of the world- famous retail chain.

Benetton has already visited India five or six times in a bid to build his retail empire in the country. While menswear and childrenswear is selling briskly, the women?s lines are moving more slowly. ?Indian clients like our international mix. As for womenswear, we?re still in the process of evolving,? he says.

Life for the Venetian tycoon has been a rags-to-Benetton story. As a young boy, he hawked newspapers to help his family make ends meet. Now he is the proud owner of a two-billion Euro global clothing chain. Sixty-nine-year-old Benetton says life for him has been a dream so far. A dream which has taken him across the globe from Paris to Dubai and from Milan to India.

Benetton has always been a strong adherent of globalism. The company has a one-size-fits-all strategy for its globe-straddling selling efforts. It?s always used the same advertising campaigns in different parts of the globe. And it sells the same clothes ? whether it?s in India, Italy or Ireland. ?Fashion is global,? he says uncompromisingly. ?So what you get here is the same as what you?d see abroad. However, there is definitely the temperature factor influencing the use of certain fabrics.? he avers. Inevitably, more cotton and lycra apparel is sold here.

Voluble though he is while talking about fashion, the silver-haired style icon dodges questions about his past. Any attempts to dig into his earlier life is stonewalled with noncommittal replies: ?What I have been through as a child was a way of understanding life at a young age. Something which I feel every young person should go through.?

The Benetton success story began in the 1950s with a teenage Luciano delivering his teenage sister Giuliana?s handknit sweaters on his bicycle. Once, he was flooded with compliments about a lemon-yellow sweater she?d made for him. So, he sold his accordion and bought her a knitting machine. Soon he quit his job in a clothing shop in the Italian village of Ponzano to start a business with her. They were later joined by their two younger brothers, Gilberto and Carlo.

The siblings opened their first factory in 1965. This was, in a sense, the defining moment of his life. Luciano reminisces: ?When I was growing up, there was an enthusiasm to be a somebody. Society was not well-to-do as this was the time when World War II had just ended.?

In 1969, they opened their first store in Belluno and the year after, they moved to Paris. Today Luciano is the chairman and creative mind of the Benetton Group and Giuliana controls the design staff and the collections. Gilberto is in charge of the company accounts and Carlo of production. Their stores are opening all the time and there are now around 5,000 in 120 countries.

The whole family is in the business together and so far, there haven?t been any conflicts. ?We have a strong equilibrium as we started working in this direction when we were very young,? says Luciano.

Post-war, the Benettons were one of the new clans who cracked the circle of elite Italian business families long dominated by the Agnellis, who owned Fiat. Over the years, they established themselves as members of that elite and then as leaders, proving that family firms can break out of their home markets by becoming one of Italy?s most recognised global brands. The Benettons dared to change with the times, diversifying into profitable roadside restaurants and other ventures while other clans stood still. ?Diversification and internationalisation have always been our philosophy,? says Luciano.

In the beginning, the Benetton business was confined to sweaters in classic colours. The seas of gray T-shirts and V-neck sweaters in brightly-lit Benetton stores have long been staples of the urban wardrobe. Luciano decided to change things: he attracted the attention of the younger generation by creating sweaters in bright, fun shades. And Benetton made a transition into a friendly, Latin, colourful brand. ?One colour can make all the difference. Right now, Europe?s in love with saffron which is a very Indian colour,? says Luciano.

He came up with the slogan, ?United Colors of Benetton? after an United Nations official visiting Toscani?s (then a Benetton photographer) studio during a shoot. He saw a group of models and exclaimed, ?This is fantastic, it?s the United Colors in here!?

The Benetton head further set the provocative tone for which the brand would become famous by posing in the buff for a 1993 worldwide campaign poster that said: ?I want my clothes back?. At one time, even more visible than Benetton?s trademark knitwear, were its highly provocative advertising campaigns focusing on issues like war, racism, AIDs and child labour.

In response to the criticism that came Benetton?s way, Luciano says: ?Communication requires creativity. It always needs a new way of expressing itself. If you want applause from everyone, then you have to create something very basic or banal.?

Certainly, Luciano has stirred controversy at times. He was once attacked by Argentine Nobel Prize winner Adolfo Perez Esquivel over the eviction of Mapuche Indians from land owned by the Benettons in Argentina. Esquivel accused him of behaving ?with the same mentality as the conquistadors? and added, ?You don?t need weapons to achieve your objectives. But you kill in the same way, using money.?

In his reply, in an open letter published in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, Benetton said: ?We have simply followed the economic rules we believe in.?

Benetton has tried his hand at Italian politics, even serving as a Senator, a period which was fraught with difficulties, about which he said: ?When a foreign friend protested that he didn?t understand Italian politics I told him ? neither do we!?