By  on June 6, 2011

PONZANO, Italy — With a new creative director in place, Alessandro Benetton, executive vice president of Benetton Group, is mapping out a new phase for the 46-year-old fashion company.

Former Levi’s vice president of global merchandising and design You Nguyen has been tapped to take on the role of top designer and chief merchandising officer and help shape the “Benetton of the future.”

“You is cosmopolitan, he’s open to the world and new ideas: he was born in Vietnam, grew up in France and the U.S., and has an interesting professional path,” said Benetton during an exclusive interview at the sprawling 16th century Villa Minelli, which houses the company’s headquarters. “I was surprised by and drawn to his passion for and knowledge of the brand, he has many ideas for the future, to expand and evolve Benetton while respecting its history. The brand has always had a personality, but we need to be more clear in presenting it.”

“‘It’s a new chapter, but the book is the same,’” Nguyen recalled Benetton saying during their first meeting. “He said, ‘Just remember you cannot move forward without understanding the context of the past, the values are constant but make them relevant for the future.’”

The designer remembered how he was “exposed in the late Eighties and early Nineties to Benetton’s exuberance of color, aesthetics of ads and stores.”

Although Benetton said the company has weathered a slow economy and increasing competition with “improved product and stores, attention to details and constant dialogue with consumers around the world,” the Italian retailer and manufacturer went through a challenging period in the ever-crowded market of the early Aughts.

“Fast fashion threw everyone a curve ball at whatever level. It took everyone by surprise, and changed how people shopped — even the thought of a designer such as Karl Lagerfeld doing a collaboration [with H&M] was crazy, and it changed the rules of the game,” said Nguyen, acknowledging Benetton “stayed quiet for a while.”

The designer said the brand was “always at the back of my mind and I thought to myself, ‘Wouldn’t it be great, to dig back in those values and beliefs, start from there and take it into the future?’ I fundamentally believe in Benetton’s values and aesthetics. I mean, look where we are [pointing to the stunning frescoed walls] and my aim is to elevate the design part of it.”

Nguyen said Benetton stands not for fashion per se, but for “classic, timely and timeless pieces.” He believes the message “never went away, but was diluted,” so his goal is to “take away what was cluttered, to simplify, not add.”

He dismissed the thought of trying to catch up with fast fashion. “We don’t need to go there, consumers expect different things [from different brands],” he said.

For Nguyen, Benetton is “grounded in design, art and architecture,” and his role is to “take the company back to design.” He mentioned the group’s many collaborations with architects, from Afra and Tobia Scarpa, who restored the headquarters and built the industrial buildings in nearby Castrette, to Tadao Ando, who designed and restored the building in Treviso housing Benetton’s communication hub Fabrica, and with photographer Oliviero Toscani, whose edgy, and even shocking, ad campaigns contributed to Benetton’s global brand awareness.

“All of the company’s efforts were design-driven, with a very definite language and discipline,” said Nguyen, whose first United Colors of Benetton collection will bow for spring 2012. “This is not only about doing sweaters in 26 colors, anyone can do that, it’s a more thought-out process, with the discipline of a painter.”

Nguyen, who has moved to nearby Treviso to be based at the company’s headquarters since Benetton’s “history is tied to that of the Veneto region,” will work with an extended team of 200 designers in total, of which 75 in product design and store and visual merchandising. “I’m still assessing the team, but we are in good shape. I sense talent and they share the desire and passion to do the right thing. I need to point to a direction and they will get us there.” Asked if it was a very diverse group of people, he said, “it’s not a matter of being international, but the depth of experience, and dynamics, is what counts.”

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