Luca Benini

Despite the lockdown enforced in Italy in early March, Luca Benini continued to go every morning to the Slam Jam headquarters in Ferrara. “I’m alone in the office, it seems like when I come on Sunday during normal periods,” he said during a phone interview on Monday. “This means it’s always a weekend here, right?”

Benini, who founded Slam Jam in 1989 as the first Italian company distributing cool American streetwear brands in the country, is considered one of the gurus of streetwear, and someone is clearly aware of the influence subcultures have on the fashion industry. Benini is also the man behind some of the sector’s successful collaborations, including those between Napapijri and Martine Rose, Oakley and Samuel Ross, as well as the partnership with Nike Inc. for the launch of a special edition of the Blazer style.

Distributing almost 30 labels — spanning from Carhartt WIP, Vismim and Alpha Industries to Stussy, Converse and Telfar — Slam Jam also operates a successful e-commerce site, as well as multibrand stores in Ferrara, inside the headquarters, and one in Milan.

While fully aware of the crisis, he also sees it as “an opportunity to redefine priorities,” he said. “I think this emergency is pushing us to reflect and further improve our way of communicating with our audience and at the same time to give the priority to what really matters, rather than just to profits.”

Here, Benini discusses with WWD how Slam Jam is adapting to the moment, what the future might be and why knowing your client and staying connected to your audience will be even more essential going forward.

WWD: What do you think is going to happen when the lockdown is over?

Luca Benini: It’s really hard now to imagine how it will be. I keep trying to depict how it’s going to be, but it’s really hard. What’s going to be people’s mood starting from May 4 [the day the lockdown is expected to be lifted in Italy]? How will people react? This is something that never happened before. People might feel negative or positive. It seems they will be able to leave their houses, but with many restrictions. Speaking for myself, if I have to go out with a face mask and gloves, I prefer to stay home [he joked.] What I can hope is that, since our offering targets young generations, they might be more willing to go out and connect with brands, compared to people in their sixties, for example.

WWD: In theory, the spring sales campaign would be supposed to start soon.…What do you expect? 

L.B.: What we know for sure is that it will be a new sales campaign, but we still don’t know if it starts in June or July. We are structuring to do everything digitally, however, we hope to meet some clients in Milan at Spazio Maiocchi or in the other Italian cities where we have showrooms. For sure, we won’t do Paris. In the past two months, we have to revise strategies every two weeks with clients and suppliers.

WWD: Did you have cancellations for the fall orders?

L.B.: Yes, we had some cancellations, but we also decided to cancel some orders and produce less since unfortunately we expect that some clients won’t be able to pick up and pay the orders they made for the fall collections. However, we still think that we might have extra products in stock, which won’t be collected. Especially because I think the virus will be still here in the fall, that there won’t be a vaccine and that there won’t be medicines to cure it. This means it’s not going to be an easy fall season for the industry.

WWD: Going back to the upcoming spring sales campaign, how will you handle it digitally?

L.B.: We area creating e-commerce for the business-to-business. The platform we use for our e-commerce is being adapted for buyers and retailers. It’s going to be an easy and efficient platform featuring all the technological tools required. This is a project that we already wanted to develop and the virus just accelerated the process. In addition, our sales team will remain at the disposal of our clients to offer a full, customized service.

WWD: In your roster, you have major, established brands, but also independent labels, such as Magliano or Telfar, for example. Do you think that in general small firms will be the most severely impacted by the crisis?

L.B.: For sure, it’s going to be a bit easier for big brands, such as Prada or Saint Laurent, to return to make certain numbers, even if I think that they, too, won’t be back to the pre-coronavirus profits before three or four years. For emerging labels, the situation is extremely hard. For sure, those who are not backed by a big company or are not financially supported will be highly penalized. In my case, as a retailer, I’m OK with asking big companies for discounts, but I don’t feel like doing that with independent, smaller brands. In addition, even if nobody says this expressly, it’s clear that stores now want to work with solid, established companies, rather than with smaller brands that can give fewer guarantees.

WWD: Talking with designers, companies and showrooms, it seems that everybody is ready to reduce the number of collections presented every year, slowing down a bit. Do you agree?

L.B.: I think it is logical to reduce the number of collections. It’s a consequence of the fact that consuming will reduce. And also, since everybody talks about sustainability, the first way of being sustainable is to stop producing more than what the market wants. Overproduction is certainly not sustainable and companies produce between 30 and 40 percent more than what the market can absorb.

WWD: For your business segment, capsules have been key in the past few years. What’s going to happen to them?

L.B.: As the whole industry, capsules will sell less, but I don’t think they will be particularly penalized. Look at the special products online that are not purchased by people who need a pair of shoes to go out, but by consumers who buy for other reasons. Same for collaborations…they will continue to exist, even if they might slow down a bit.

WWD: The overall sentiment in the industry is that when they return to shop, consumers will look for products with a higher value…

L.B.: I think that those products that have a higher value might be more appealing for consumers now…actually, I hope this is happening. At the same time, I think that prices got too high and are not sustainable anymore. I think that retail prices will be adjusted downward, in particular because while in the past luxury brands were targeting more mature customers, they are now appealing for a much younger audience. I see so many kids who are obsessed with [certain] brands but who cannot afford them. Does this make sense for labels? Does it make sense to be so expensive that your public cannot afford to buy your products?

WWD: The last time we talked, you were thinking that it was time for Slam Jam to reconsider its business, especially because you felt a bit skeptical about the future of distribution. What’s your feeling now?

L.B.: I really don’t know. At this point it might happen that what we considered an endangered business will definitely disappear or on the contrary, will return to be highly relevant and fundamental. What is sure is that right now either you have a direct-to-consumer approach or you have to rely on someone else if you want to sell out of your country with all the restrictions we have and will probably have for a while. For example, we were negotiating the transformation of some of our contracts from distribution to a new form with some partners, but they decided to postpone this. I think that the next two or three years will be tough for those who don’t have tight relationships with clients.

WWD: What about your retail business?

L.B.: Luckily, we have a solid online business with big potential. I think it’s going to be really hard to survive for those who are not online. If now you want to have a store, I think it’s better to have a small store that serves as a meeting point rather than huge spaces. It’s going to be hard for department stores, which were already suffering before the coronavirus, to cope with the restrictions when they reopen. We are quite concerned about them.

WWD: Do you expect many multibrand stores to shut down?

L.B.: Many might close, especially those who are family-run or those that don’t have a real strategy. This virus is having the effects of an earthquake: if you didn’t build your house with earthquake-proof standards or if you didn’t batten down the hatches, your house will collapse.

WWD: Spazio Maiocchi in Milan is definitely a meeting point for your community. How are you keeping it alive?

L.B.: We have imagined different ways to remain connected with our audience. For example, for Spazio Maiocchi, we created digital billboards curated by Kaleidoscope [the magazine of contemporary art and visual culture] and by June we will launch a new project, a sort of virtual cinema room. The goal is to translate the vibe and the contents we can develop in the physical space into the digital reality. In addition, we will soon return to give physical access by appointments only to the exhibitions and cultural activities. For example, from a digital point of view, we are discovering many options, especially in a direct-to-consumer perspective. For example, we found a new way to use our music archive digitally. All these initiatives definitely help us to preserve not only our business role, but also our cultural role with our users in the world.

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