Benetton

MILAN — Jean-Charles de Castelbajac may very well be the only designer that dressed a saint. Pope John Paul II in 1997 wore a rainbow-striped cassock for World Youth Day designed by de Castelbajac, who also created equally colorful liturgical vestments and T-shirts for 5,500 members of the Catholic church and young kids attending the event.

“That experience changed my life — color as the cement of faith, of hope and democracy,” said de Castelbajac on Monday at the United Colors of Benetton showroom in Milan, ahead of the brand’s first runway show to be held in the city this evening, which he called “Rainbow Machine.”

“I chose this name because I never saw such collective strength, or the equal to Benetton’s expertise and power to create color,” said the designer who, together with executive president Luciano Benetton, is set on bringing back color to the brand — and returning it to its original success.

“Colors can make miracles,” said Benetton, with a twinkle in his light blue eyes and a tongue-in-cheek reference to the religious theme.

In October, de Castelbajac was named Benetton’s first artistic director. De Castelbajac, who is in charge of the men’s and women’s collections for the brand, launched his brand Ko & Co. with his mother Jeanne-Blanche de Castelbajac in 1968 in Limoges, France. The designer inspired trends such as the “antifashion” 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 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.

To be sure, there is an obvious chemistry and understanding between the razor-sharp Benetton, looking fit and dapper at 83, and the exuberant and charming de Castelbajac. They share not only a passion for fashion, but also for the arts and photography. They pose for WWD’s photographer in front of vintage Oliviero Toscani black-and-white images that de Castelbajac revisited with graffitilike brushes of strong colors, adding a modern touch to the images. “I was allowed to touch them,” chuckled the designer, wearing a red and black checked shirt featuring an oversized version of Benetton’s staple green label on the side.

A selection of Toscani’s photos will be part of the set of the runway show, which will see 40 models and 58 looks. The electro-industrial soundtrack was created for the occasion by leading sound designer Michel Gaubert.

“We are the three musketeers,” said de Castelbajac of himself, Benetton and Toscani.

The designer and Benetton repeatedly credit “team work” for the efforts to revamp the company, as the group’s workers will be invited to the show, which is expected to draw 560 guests. “It’s the celebration of Benetton’s industrial dimension, and it pays homage to the people who are the cornerstones of the company,” said Benetton, who returned to helm his family-owned firm in January last year.

The entrepreneur appears to take everything in stride. Asked if he was excited or nervous about the show, he calmly said it was “fun,” and, responding to whether this was a one-off event, said it was a strong moment of communication, to meet people and to present the latest ideas. “We are not sure yet about the future,” he demurred. The only other Benetton show was held in Paris in 2006 to mark the company’s 40th anniversary.

Benetton is bringing back production to Europe to have “more control over quality,” and to speed up the processes, compared with manufacturing in Asia, for example. Knitwear will be produced in the group’s plants in Croatia and Serbia, just beyond Ponzano Veneto, near Treviso, where the company is headquartered, and Tunisia also offers “a beautiful textile tradition,” he said. “Consumers are requesting less quantity and more quality,” he contended.

While accessibility is a priority for Benetton and de Castelbajac, the brand will move away from the crowded fast-fashion and mass-market arena. “It makes no sense to compete in the low-cost business, and there is really nothing between that and high fashion,” said the Italian entrepreneur.

“Everyone has access to see beautiful clothes, but not everybody can afford them,” said de Castelbajac. “We want to change that and Benetton has the legitimacy to do so.”

“Yes, with a beautiful product produced industrially,” concurred Benetton.

Benetton expects 2019 revenues to be in line with last year’s sales of 1.3 billion euros and to see real growth in 2020.

In the face of currency fluctuations and socio-political instability, Benetton is monitoring the European market, which is the group’s main one, but he said he did “not feel the pressure.” He cited India and the Americas as relevant regions for the business.

He revealed “ambitious digital projects” with the brand’s own e-commerce and communication. This is also part of the company reaching out to different generations. “We want to be more central in the world of consumers that like fashion,” said Benetton.

“We are putting our energies in re-creating the relationship with the public,” said de Castelbajac. “There is nobody like us, we are like [Marcel] Proust’s [memory-laden] madeleines.”

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