Back to the Colors at 83 – Happy Birthday Luciano Benetton!

Benetton Group co-founder Luciano Benetton celebrated his 83rd birthday on Sunday, a few weeks after reinstating himself as executive chairman of his brand. A signal of hope in fashion-wise overburdened times.

(Source: Forbes.com)

This is a brief personal brand report on Benetton, covering four decades with the brand. It is the story of a rise, a fall and the resurrection of a rainbow.

United Colors, the Look of a Generation

When I was a teenager in Berlin in the early 1980s, the United Colors of Benetton were simply part of our lives. In affluent circles, the company supplied the wardrobe basics along with Lacoste. Rich friends were occasionally also outfitted with polo shirts or colorful striped jumpers by Giorgio Armani, the ones with the embroidered ‘GA’ eagle on the chest that gained cult status. They also wore Vanilia or Jet-Set trousers, Edwin jeans and preferably brightly colored Santini e Dominici shoes.

Unfortunately, my own shopping took place in somewhat lower price ranges. I liked Benetton, Marc O’Polo and Esprit, but the basics awkwardly came from Woolworth or C&A (to us just ‘Cheap & Awful’ in those days).

(Photo: Benetton Group 1992, David Kirby)

No More Than a Fading Rainbow

At 16, I began buying my wardrobe for myself and mostly turned to second-hand clothing, preferably shirts and jackets of the 40s and 60s. Vintage is it what they call it nowadays and it’s hyped and overpriced. But in West-Berlin of the 80s, a kilo of second-hand clothing only set you back five Deutschmark. And from the 90s onward, only one color was worn in Berlin anyway: black.

So Benetton lost its appeal and relevance for me as I passed by their stores without notice. The brand’s sociocritical campaigns of the 90s didn’t manage to draw me (or many others) back in. At best, Benetton was discussed by our parental generation for breaking a few taboos. But the actual target group was no longer captured as fans of the brand.

(Photo: Benetton Group 1994, Oliviero Toscani)

Then H&M and Zara came along, and GAP, Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, later joined by brands like Desigual and Superdry. And, in the meantime, the major sportswear brands had also turned into socially accepted casual wear.

Return of the Colors, With Flowers!

Benetton, to me, had gradually ceased to be wearable. Small children, at best, seemed to wear their sweaters and polo shirts. I have to confess that, for two decades or so, I’ve actually wondered why there were still Benetton stores around. The so famously united colours had gradually faded, the critical campaigns were long over, and the stores had turned bland.

Rumour has it that Benetton lost up to $200 million last year, after $100 in 2016. High time for a change: since January 2018, company founder Luciano Benetton is back in operational business.

He was reinstated as head of his company 53 years after launching the brand in 1965. Along with him, he also brought back his former campaign guru and photographer, Oliviero Toscani (76), and together they announce nothing short of a revolution for this spring.

The website has returned to its United Colors again, adding some united flowers into the mix. And finally you can see and feel the difference to Uniqlo and other contemporary brands with clarity again: youth is having fun!

May the venerable managers also keep having some with their life’s work. I’d say, they have certainly earned a bright bouquet for their courage.


About the Author:

Alexander von Keyserlingk just bought a bright red Benetton sweater for his 15-year-old daughter; the brand was entirely unknown to her. Feel free to get in touch with Alexander via e-mail or visit his LinkedIn profile. Read more of his work here.

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