BENETTON’S THINK TANK
Byline: Samantha Conti
TREVISO, Italy — Majestic columns that support nothing but air, a ladder that stretches high into to northeastern Italian sky, the polished remains of a 17th-century villa.
Like a futuristic ruin in a lush field, the new headquarters of Benetton’s Fabrica recall the past and hint at what’s to come.
Eight years after its conception, the structure that houses Benetton’s in-house communications think tank is finally complete, and chief executive Luciano Benetton hopes the new space, designed by the award-winning Japanese architect Tadao Ando, will both nurture — and provoke — creative thought.
The 118,400-square-foot-space that blends concrete, bleached wood, antique bricks and marble, houses film, video and music labs, art, photography and design studios, publishing operations and the editorial offices of Colors magazine. Each year Benetton sponsors 30 students from around the world to take part in an intensive, 12-month program at Fabrica, which means “workshop” in Latin.
“This is my way of guaranteeing the future of Benetton, ensuring that there will always be a fountainhead of fresh ideas and new ways to communicate,” said Benetton during the recent inauguration of Fabrica in the flat green countryside near here. “It was an idea I had together with Oliviero Toscani, a way to leave a legacy for future generations.”
It’s unclear what that legacy will be, now that Toscani, the rabble-rousing photographer behind Benetton’s controversial ad campaigns, is gone. Benetton and Toscani, who had worked together for 18 years, parted ways earlier this year, saying only that they both felt the need to “renew” themselves.
The images they produced together are already a part of advertising history: dying AIDS patients, close-ups of handcuffed wrists, a nun and a priest kissing, a black woman nursing a white baby, horses mating, oil-soaked birds.
Benetton came under fire most recently for the campaign that sympathized with death row inmates. That campaign caused Sears, Roebuck & Co. to drop the Benetton USA line, a business that was expected to generate $100 million in sales at Sears in its first year. The campaign also forced Benetton to issue a formal apology to murder victims’ families.
But Benetton defended the company’s in-your-face advertising and suggested that it wasn’t necessarily going to disappear just because Toscani was gone.
“I had so much fun with the controversial campaigns,” Benetton told WWD during the opening ceremony. “I loved the fact that people took such strong sides over the campaign. That was the point of the whole thing.”
Benetton also downplayed the Sears deal: “The royalties we were getting from that agreement were not significant,” he said, adding that Benetton’s American sales have so far grown 20 to 30 percent compared with 1999. Benetton has about 7,000 stores in 200 countries, and about 200 stores in the U.S.
He wouldn’t go into the reasons behind Toscani’s departure, preferring to talk about the good old days.
“We were always in an experimental phase, Benetton and Toscani were growing together. At a certain point, though, we all needed to be brave, to say goodbye, and to recognize that we all had to explore new opportunities,” Benetton said.
And while Benetton declined to talk about the nature of future ad campaigns, he said there would be no radical changes in them.
“Some things will change, but we don’t plan to turn everything on its head. It wouldn’t make sense. I know all this sounds vague — like the words of an Italian politician,” said Benetton, who served as a Republican Party senator in the early Nineties. “But that’s all I can say right now.”
Benetton is excited about the company’s new campaign photographer, James Mollison, who happens to be a Fabrica graduate.
“We really wanted to work with someone young, and not someone whose style is so characterized and whose ideas are so specific,” Benetton said.
A 27-year-old British photographer, Mollison has worked with Toscani in the past, although not on the ad campaigns. With help from Fabrica, he has already published two books, “Lavoratori,” portraits of immigrant factory workers in Italy, and “Kosovars,” another book of portraits, which came out this year.
“I know this is a risk and Toscani’s shoes will be difficult to fill,” said Mollison. “But I’m thinking of this as a learning process and right now I’m focusing on shooting the clothes.”
He added that he wouldn’t try to mimic Toscani: “You can’t copy Oliviero; there’s only one of him.”
Benetton spends 4 percent of its sales on advertising, which includes print and billboard campaigns, the Fabrica operation, Colors magazine, catalogs and the press office. Last year, Benetton’s communications budget was $80 million. As reported, sales this year are expected to be more than $1.8 billion.
The company spent more than $12 million on the Fabrica space, which was conceived as “a nexus of past and present, nature and technology,” by Ando, who said he was honored to be working in the homeland of the 16th century Italian architect and neo-classical master Andrea Palladio.
“It was important for me to preserve the landscape of the past in this project,” said Ando during the ceremony. “It would have been easy for me to tear everything down, but I didn’t want to do that.”
Ando began work in 1992, restoring the villa, which is the core of the building. He did extensive research on the materials that were used 400 years ago and even relaid the floorboards in Palladian style.
He branched out from there, creating halls and pathways lined with offices and leading to a sunken, elliptical piazza — excavated about 86 feet deep — and surrounded by more sprawling offices, workshops and exhibition spaces, many of them with glass walls. He said his goal was to create an atmosphere of space and lightness, to carve out “places for communication, between people and history, people and nature. As for the piazza, I wanted people to be engulfed in the building.”
Outside the villa, Ando designed the row of freestanding columns alongside a sprawling Zen pool — only about three inches deep — with a pebble floor. During the opening, some Fabrica students planted their percussion instruments in the water, and played African tribal music.
After starting the project in 1992, when Benetton happened to meet Ando at the Seville Expo — where he designed the Japanese pavilion — work was until 1994. Between 1994 and 1999, much of the work was suspended because of bureaucratic setbacks with the local and regional councils. Fabrica began operating and training students in 1994 in unfinished parts of the building.
While the Fabrica project may be finished, Ando won’t be saying goodbye to Italy so soon. He has just been commissioned by Giorgio Armani to restructure the designer’s new Milan headquarters in a former Nestle factory in the city’s canal district.