MILAN — United Colors of Benetton’s move revealed on Monday to tap Jean-Charles de Castelbajac as its first artistic director may signal a strategic change for the Italian fashion group — or a way to seek to recover the fashion brand’s identity by harking back to its heyday in the Eighties.
“The choice of a ‘real’ designer may telegraph Benetton’s decision to exit the realm of fast fashion, which has become a crowded and competitive territory and not very profitable unless one has a superlative distribution in all countries around the world, and the group’s efforts to try and rise a little at a more premium brand level,” said Paola Cillo, associate professor and vice director, department of management and technology at Bocconi University and coordinator of luxury business management full-time MBA at SDA Bocconi school of management.
Cillo did not attribute Benetton’s choice of de Castelbajac to nostalgia, but rather to the company’s and the designer’s common affinity to colors and wool.
De Castelbajac, who will be in charge of both the men’s and women’s collections for the brand, first launched his brand Ko & Co with his mother Jeanne-Blanche de Castelbajac in 1968 in Limoges, France. The designer inspired trends such as the “anti-fashion” movement and the alternative use of objects such as rags and sponges to decorate garments. In 1974, he cofounded Iceberg, and in 1978, he launched the Jean-Charles de Castelbajac brand, which he left in 2016. Over the years, the designer has also collaborated with Max Mara, Ellesse, Courrèges, Rossignol and Le Coq Sportif. Blending punk and pop references, his style dovetails with Benetton’s use of strong colors and a whimsical and irreverent touch.
This is a new role and one of the first major steps for the label following the return of Luciano Benetton as chairman of the group in January. On Monday, de Castelbajac said the designer’s “experience, charisma and ability to forecast tomorrow’s social and fashion trends will constitute a great asset for our brand.”
Surely, de Castelbajac is not lacking in energy. “There is everything at Benetton, it’s magic, a real treasure,” he said in an interview. “Working at the plant I see it. This is a fantastic challenge. It’s the most beautiful adventure of my life.” Asked what he thought the brand was missing, he said, “its DNA had been forgotten, the knitwear, the colors, the pop. They were good collections, but lacked a touch of imagination and fantasy, they shouldn’t be basic collections.”
De Castelbajac goes way back with Luciano Benetton, and with Oliviero Toscani, whom the entrepreneur has also asked to return and help with the turnaround. “Our lives were always interconnected,” said de Casatelbajac, who remembered how Benetton agreed to pose wearing an Iceberg pullover for an ad campaign, despite the fact that his company was already well-established and both were “doing rainbow colors” and treading a similar path. That same campaign also saw Andy Warhol and Franco Moschino pose for Iceberg and Toscani. “I would ask those I admired,” noted de Castelbajac. Benetton, he said, “had a sense of humor and the right spirit to accept” to model for the brand. “There were always common grounds and the passion for knitwear is very particular. We share that.”
He realizes “the world has changed with the Internet, and it asks us to respond to give things that touch a generation of Millennials. It’s very interesting today. We are men of experience but also of curiosity. Today I share my curiosity with the team, with those that are 30, 90 or 50. We can create good quality, functional and creative fashion, for anyone. It’s fascinating, nobody does this, it’s either sports or mass market,” he contended. “Thanks to social networks, fashion today is visible to everyone, but it remains affordable only to a few. Together, United Colors of Benetton and I will seek to create tomorrow’s wardrobe, bringing beauty and style to everyday life, at prices that everyone can afford.”
“Is it best not to change a winning team?” wondered Davide Dallomo, founder and president of the creative talent and management agency Lagente. “Today we find ourselves facing a very different world, and not only in terms of fashion; perhaps this move could be risky, as today there are mega players such as Zara, H&M and Uniqlo [that] did not exist in the Eighties and which have changed or, at the very least, conditioned fashion today. [For example, the concept of drops which was unfathomable not so long ago.]” That said, Dallomo believes “creativity is a concept that remains somehow timeless.” If de Castelbajac and Benetton “will succeed in modernizing creativity making it contemporary, the project will surely be interesting.”
Asked what steps he would take in this case, Dallomo would “flank the artistic director, whoever it is, with adequate resources for communications and image strategies, combined with a solid creative team that can translate the vision of the artistic direction with an equally valid merchandising team. It’s not a problem of names, but rather one of research and content. Let’s invest on content.”
Alessandro Maria Ferreri, ceo and owner of The Style Gate consulting firm, who has worked for the likes of Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s in the Middle East, the Al Tayer Group, Harvey Nichols and Furla, among others, underscored his concerns over the financial situation of the group, which he pegged at “an erosion of 300 million euros over the past three years,” and said the arrival of a designer is “simpatico,” but expressed his need for more information on how Benetton intends to relaunch the brand. He had no reservations about de Castelbajac, comparing him to Sonia Rykiel, Jean Paul Gaultier and Valentino Garavani, saying “he was a wizard with knitwear, blending it with nylon in 1970, he was projected into the future with visionary materials, he added patches 20 years before Alessandro Michele. He is a master in terms of techniques. And not everyone knows that he was artistic director of TV series ‘Charlie’s Angels’ dressing Farrah Fawcett for 10 years — an ante litteram stylist, he has an incredible eye for color. He is a great collector of modern art and he is a pillar of the fashion world. There is no doubt he will be positive for Benetton.”
Communications consultant Marina Piano said surely de Castelbajac is very much “in line” with Benetton and sees the two as a good fit. De Castelbajac’s pop background is welcome at this time “as are his connections with Toscani and Warhol.”
A market source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said all this “may very well be, but in a world of young creative talents and with Benetton’s customer base quite young, with the brand and the product that need to be rejuvenated, couldn’t a street designer maybe be a better fit? That said, at the time of Benetton’s glory days, de Castelbajac was it, that was his own glorious moment and, in any case, there is merit in choosing a skilled designer.”
Luciano Benetton, one of the firm’s founders with his siblings Giuliana, Gilberto and the late Carlo, is behind Toscani’s own return to the brand. The two men famously collaborated for years on controversial ad campaigns in the Eighties and Nineties, and Toscani photographed a new communication campaign for the brand that bowed in December.
Luciano Benetton had retired in April 2012, passing the baton to his son Alessandro, who exited the company after two years. The senior Benetton decided to become newly involved in United Colors of Benetton after years of declining sales, with the goal of turning around the fashion group that made his name into a global brand.
In addition to a long career that spans from design to painting, advertising and street art, de Castelbajac and Luciano Benetton also share a passion for blending fashion with art. The French designer befriended and worked with artists such as Andy Warhol, Miquel Barceló, Keith Haring, Jean Michel Basquiat, M.I.A and Lady Gaga. His creations have been displayed at New York’s Institute of Fashion and Technology, London’s Victoria & Albert Museum and the Galliera Museum in Paris. In 2018, he was guest artistic director at the Paris Biennale.
The Italian entrepreneur has tirelessly traveled around the world with his collection called Imago Mundi, which contains works in a 3.9-inch-by-4.7-inch format by artists around the world and now totals around 25,000 pieces.