by Roderick Conway Morris

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Luciano Benetton (right) and his head of publicity the photographer Oliviero Toscani

The Best Possible Taste

By Roderick Conway Morris
TREVISO, Italy 15 February 1992


The Benettons are such stuff as the Italian economic miracle was made of: a knitting shop founded in the early '60s in a barn in the country 20 miles north of Venice, they now have 6,500 shops in 92 countries and an annual turnover of £1 billion. Their new publicity campaign - in particular, a photograph of Aids victim David Kirby at the moment of his death, surrounded by his grieving family - has earned them the opprobrium usually reserved in Britain for people who club baby seals to death. All of which has come as relief to the Italian press, whose reserves of energy have been eroded by the regular six-monthly task of finding Outraged of Orvietos and domestic public figures for and against Benetton's latest offering, and have seized on the opportunity to relax and simply report the heated reactions from London.

Treviso is the place where charter flights for Venice land, or where you get redirected to when Venice airport is fog-bound. Luciano Benetton was born there in 1935, and a sister and two brothers followed. Their father died when Luciano was 14, and he had to go out to work in a clothes shop to support the family. He and his sister decided to make and sell their own woollens. Luciano went to Rome some thirty years ago, then, he said, 'the only international city in Italy', and drew particular inspiration from the Roman Jewish boutiques that were far-sighted enough to see jumpers as a fashionable product. Luciano hot-footed it back to the provinces to begin the campaign for world-wide knitwear domination.

The four Benettons are still based where they started 25 years ago, in the featureless agricultural flatlands of Ponzano, a few miles outside Treviso. Their headquarters now include the 17th-century Venetian villa next door, bought in 1969. Meanwhile, metallic tent-like pavilions designed by Afra Scarpa have sprouted amidst the fields. One contains a mildly nightmarish indoor street of a dozen Benetton shops, large and small - prospective shop-owners have to choose from these models - displaying next year's pullovers, trousers and jackets, with a star-spangled artificial sky overhead. At the touch of a button the shop's shutters descend, and part of the street's floor rises up to form a catwalk. At the touch of another, the stars vanish and coloured lights burst forth to disco music. Nearby, dotted around the countryside are the factories which produce 90 percent of Benetton's clothes and a gigantic automated warehouse from which a staff of 20 dispatch 15,000 boxes a day. It is all very high tech. But the Benettons speak Veneto dialect at home and to their local staff.

Luciano Benetton, the public voice of the four Benetton siblings seemed, when I met him this week in his office in the recently, rather severely restored villa, an unlikely candidate for the role he is being cast in as the world's most heartless exploiter of human suffering. White-haired, casually dressed a la Benetton, in a sweater and open-necked shirt, and wearing tortoise-shell-rimmed glasses, he was very pleasant and mild-mannered, though somewhat reserved, with something of the air of an East Coast college professor.

He is no stranger to controversial publicity campaigns, multi-coloured condoms, lavatory rolls and blood-smeared newborn babies have seen to that. When his eighty-year-old mother was cornered by a journalist on her way out of church and asked about a picture of a priest kissing a nun, even she found herself recruited to the chorus of disapproval.

Was he taken aback by the vehemence of the condemnation of the latest campaign in England? 'Certainly, it was expected to cause a reaction, but the extent was unforseen.' He sees the scene in the Aids picture as a touching tribute to family solidarity, not unreasonably, given the consent of Kirby and his family, and also as a legitimate opportunity to publicise the issue. (The Kirby's comments suggest that they feel they are, if anything, using Benetton in this respect.) 'We didn't know whether it would give offence or whether it would be a photo that made people think, but in a positive way. I believe that discussion of certain issues is positive; getting more discussion makes certain problems better known, and perhaps leads to some solutions.'

Yet was not the main aim to sell more pullovers? 'Yes,' said Benetton', but it has always been the aim to sell the products in a pleasant way - we have always looked to create something extra in our work ...' In the earliest days of the sixties when jumpers came in relentlessly dull monochromes, Benetton brought some colour into our lives. 'That was an added value. Consumers were pleased to have this extra, it made them feel richer. And now, a publicity campaign that makes people talk might be an opportunity to create added value for the company'.

The style of advertising they have adopted is partly directed by a belief that people are tired of conventional techniques, especially celebrities endorsing products, the false mystique of a glamorous lifestyle, and that they now prefer something more thought-provoking. It is also consciously directed at the young, who have been raised on a diet of juxtaposed, random images, and, said Benetton, have fewer prejudices and taboos in this area. But above all, the ads are inspired by the need to find a set of bold, uncomplicated images - they carry no caption other than 'United Colors of Benetton' - that can be used in nearly a hundred countries around the world. The company produces 5,000 different products every year. 'Because our collection is so big and our market so large, we would never be able to promote a single product that would suit everyone. It's a very varied market - in one place it's hot, in another cold, some areas are richer, some poorer'.

Curiously, considering the rumpus that Benetton are able to create with every new campaign, Luciano Benetton seems rather sceptical about the power of advertising, not believing, he said, 'that people wouldn't buy a good product because the advertising was bad, or a bad product because the advertising was good'.

In the end, the problem with trying to delve beneath the surface at Benetton is that there is nothing more there than meets the eye. Luciano Benetton himself seems decent, honest and truthful enough, even if his thinking is not exactly profound. Successful industry, like successful chemistry, is based on the discovery of formulas that work, and their repeated application. The Benettons make striking, colourful clothes, and have succeeded in making their name known, even to the people that don't buy them, through striking, colourful adverts. It is the Benettons' ambition to double their turnover by 1995, just as they have done every five years since they began, and they will probably manage it - even if the metropolitan opinion-makers do boycott their wares.

First published: Spectator