TREVISO, Italy — There’s not much looking back for Luciano Benetton — on the contrary, he’s always focused on the future, with an unflagging yearning for discovery.
Speaking with the entrepreneur ahead of his trip to New York, where he is to receive a Doctor of Fine Arts Honorary Degree from the Fashion Institute of Technology on Thursday, his remarks reflect the reasons for the recognition. These list Benetton’s “contribution to innovation in industry, his bold ideas and his lifelong quest for unity, civility and respect among all people,” and FIT president Joyce F. Brown noted that the entrepreneur is “a stellar example” to students of the institute given how “creativity and innovation are central” to its curriculum and community, as well as “a commitment to diversity.”
It is apparent during an interview with him that inclusivity and understanding drive Benetton, who met WWD in Treviso, about five miles from the fashion group’s headquarters, at the Gallerie delle Prigioni. The site is a former Habsburg prison, which has just been restored by Fondazione Benetton with the help of the entrepreneur’s go-to architect Tobia Scarpa.
Housing Benetton’s contemporary art project Imago Mundi, the museum was unveiled in April, and is only the latest restoration that he has funded. Speaking in a level voice and choosing his words carefully, Benetton recalls how at first he thought he would just secure the former prison’s building, saving it from decay. The idea of a museum came later because the cells were confined, and newly created corridors helped overcome these limitations, which are now seen as “characteristic.” On the top level, the spaces that housed the chapel, the former infirmary and the refectory are more expansive and allow to stage exhibitions.
Imago Mundi, which contains works in the 3.9-inch-by-4.7-inch format by artists around the world and now totals around 25,000 pieces, has traveled globally. It is not only an art collection, but also a path to knowledge for Benetton. “I want to be useful, I hope I am doing something for young artists in countries where there are no auctions, museums or galleries,” said the business titan, framed by his mane of white hair and wearing his staple off-white pants, a checked brown jacket and an azure button-down shirt, which sets off his alert light blue eyes. “Discovery is very interesting for me and it does not mean I am an art expert — nor do I want that responsibility. And I have proof of the fact that I am not. Art experts and collectors don’t like [Imago Mundi], I have been told. I know for sure. But I discover a lot more with [Imago Mundi] than with one or more artists from the past. For example, you think China is one, but if you go deeper, you see it counts 56 minorities, with 56 borders, different religions and lifestyles. There is little and superficial talk about this. The Kurds are four populations in four countries, with different languages, and there are no prospects of a reunion. With the collection we can discuss this and ideally unite them.”
Imago Mundi, he claimed, helps create a catalogue of artists, and is “satisfying, offering an additional alternative to understanding the history of Kurdistan, for example, a country that does not exist. It’s important for school kids to come and visit, and sooner or later they will talk about these problems.”
Showing his pragmatic side, he said that he was never “a traditional collector.” That would not have interested him. “There are already champions that do that, with extraordinary collections. If you start late, you spend a lot of money and you do something that has already been seen.” Incidentally, among the visits to museums earmarked for New York, he said he was planning to check out “Canova’s George Washington” at the Frick Museum.
Benetton, who just turned 83, has been back in the news because in January he once again took the reins of the family-owned company as executive president, with the goal to turn around the fashion group that turned his name into a global brand after years of declining sales. Benetton had retired in April 2012, passing the baton to his son Alessandro, who then exited the company after two years.
During his retirement Benetton tirelessly traveled around the world, as he did when he was in charge of the company — ahead of the curve in opening stores globally, in countries such as Iran and India, for example. But what always interested him were the “human relations” that these trips entailed.
He further built relations through the many projects conceived for the region where the company is based, such as the restoration of the Saint Theonistus Church, or establishing La Ghirada, a major sports center in Treviso that is open to the public. “I am told that 1,300 people go there each day,” said Benetton, marveling a bit at the figure. “To give back is not a big effort. If you have the means, if you are successful, you must think of the future of the city, of the territory. I want it to be more beautiful and cleaner, more modern and contemporary. Public initiatives dwindle, there are not enough means. I think it’s not enough to gift the city with a restoration or a kindergarten, for example. For the latter to be successful and beautiful, you must manage it and its programs, keep up the maintenance, it can’t become a luxury. So we need to finance the management yearly, the city can’t do it — it makes sense for a private entity to be in charge of it. We opened one in Ponzano [where the company is headquartered] 11 years ago, restored it last year and it’s as if it were new, with 100 children booked one or two years in advance.”
Fondazione Benetton is also mindful of the environment and set up the Premio Carlo Scarpa in 1990 with the goal to enhance the “care of places.” Architect Carlo Scarpa was the father of Tobia Scarpa, and he and his wife Afra restored Villa Minelli, the 16th-century complex that houses the group’s headquarters, and the group’s complex at Castrette di Villorba. The choice of restoring the villa was “more complicated” than erecting a new one, but “gave more satisfaction and a sense of collaboration with the history of the territory and the city,” observed Benetton.
He also worked with famed Japanese architect Tadao Ando on the headquarters of think tank Fabrica, the 17th-century Villa Pastega Manera, which was significantly expanded with modern annexes. Benetton admitted he “fell in love” early on with architecture and design and was even more pleased about receiving the honorary FIT degree because it made him feel “part of the category.”
Benetton — whose fortune Forbes estimates at $3.4 billion, making him the 11th richest man in Italy (below Leonardo Del Vecchio, Giorgio Armani and Renzo Rosso in fashion) — channeled his innovative streak and imagination into the company he founded in 1965 with his siblings Gilberto, Giuliana and Carlo, which grew into an international powerhouse in the Eighties and Nineties, leveraging a streamlined organization and manufacturing pipeline. “I directly experience things, all the problems that must be faced and that need to be discussed. We were the first to delegate, we were growing so quickly, it was simple, we had no time or means to have many factories or machines and tried to get help from others,” said Benetton, downplaying his nose for modernism. “It would take one year at least to set up a plant, with the necessary approvals, projects, investments and equipment. We had that experience with the first plant set up in 1965 in Ponzano, where now there are commercial offices — but even back then with air conditioning. The world changes and so does the hierarchy of problems and the speed. We must be very timely now.”
Benetton Group is one of the core holdings of Edizione Srl, one of the largest Italian holding companies with revenues totaling 11.7 billion euros and equity investments mainly in sectors ranging from infrastructure and mobility services, highway and commercial catering, food and beverage to textiles and clothing, real estate and agriculture, and stakes in giant insurance company Assicurazioni Generali SpA and global merchant bank Mediobanca SpA, among others.
He returns to the fashion group at a time when it faces major challenges, with newer competitors such as Zara, H&M, Uniqlo and more, as well as the explosion of e-commerce. As per the latest figures available, the Benetton group’s revenues fell 15.4 percent to 1.37 billion euros in 2016, down from 1.62 billion euros in 2014. In 2011, the year before the group’s delisting from the Milan Stock Exchange, revenues totaled around 2 billion euros.
“There have been great changes in the past few years, from the 2009 economic crisis more or less, and the markets split into the luxury range or competition through affordable products. We were always convinced we needed to be [price] competitive, while offering products with excellent quality and useful, not dispensable fashion. I don’t even understand why it should be any different. It should be the modern and winning concept, to give people what they need to work and go to school, with a pleasant color palette encouraging the purchase. Stores, luminous windows, have a relevant role in this,” he said.
Benetton knows the group’s reversal of fortune will take time and hard work, but he has decided to rely on “experienced collaborators, experts in raw materials, style, advertising, communication – people that have given a lot and that can still give a lot. This is my task, to try and improve the situation with injections of common sense.” Case in point is Oliviero Toscani, who is back after 17 years and who developed a new communication campaign that bowed in December. The two men famously collaborated for years on controversial ad campaigns in the Eighties and Nineties, which ranged from the portrayal of people on death row to a priest kissing a nun.
“In terms of style we never imagined to suggest fashion trends, but rather colors, and we have a range that is unparalleled. The market has not changed that much, the online channel is very important, crucial, but I hope it’s not totally winning,” said Benetton. “I still like the stores, the windows for any product. I hope they remain relevant and successful. We are looking at online distribution, too, but the percentage is still not decisive. We have a network of clients, the owners of stores, investors who are important and we’ve collaborated with them for a long time,” explained Benetton. “We have added injections of new colors, new ideas, we are changing the offer and type of service, speeding up lead time from factory to the store, more in line with the market needs.”
Sustainability, a trendy topic, for Benetton means buying one product that lasts twice as long, rather than buying two that are quickly thrown away. “It’s only logical. When we were young, in average situations, we had two, three sweaters, a couple of drawers, a place for a coat. I maybe wear a tie once a year now, so I just distributed my ties to my grandchildren and nephews, seven boys and 20, 25 ties each. Then I did it with my T-shirts, I had 200…”
In conclusion, Benetton admitted he had achieved even more than he expected, but confessed he had one wish. “If there is one thing I would like, I would say that my aspiration or desire was for Benetton to be a model of participation to society and the territory.”