Established in 1989 as a company distributing cool American streetwear brands in Italy, Slam Jam is now a key international player in promoting the style and identity of metropolitan subcultures. Ahead of the inauguration of Slam Jam’s takeover of the Marino Marini museum in Florence, where the company will unveil art projects and products developed in collaboration with Nike, Stussy and Carhartt WIP, founder Luca Benini sat down with WWD to discuss the past, present and future of his unconventional fashion empire.
WWD: At Pitti, you and Slam Jam are celebrating 30 years in the fashion business. How did everything start?
Luca Benini: It’s hard for me to talk about these things because there has never been a real growth strategy. It was just natural. I have no idea who really inspired me. I grew up in a small village of 1,000 inhabitants in the countryside and my father was a mason. The only thing quite famous we have in my area is the garlic of Voghiera. Growing up as an Italian boy in a world where social media didn’t exist, I started nurturing my imagination looking at those who were doing great and innovative things in my country. There were, for example, the Genius Group guided by Adriano Goldschmied, and obviously Fiorucci, but between the end of the Seventies and the early Eighties, we also had the boom of luxury fashion with iconic designers, such as Gianfranco Ferré, Giorgio Armani and Gianni Versace. In addition, music also played a pivotal role in my personal development. I always knew for certain that I wanted to make music. For me, music has been the equivalent of the torch on the helmet of miners — just essential.
WWD: What really helped you to find your own way in fashion?
L.B.: In the early Eighties, the idea of Made in Italy fashion was totally anchored to clothes, just products. I quickly understood that I was more interested in an idea of fashion more connected with social mores and culture. I had the feeling that clothes were just part of something bigger. In the late Eighties, I started looking at the U.S. as an incredible source of ideas, music, art, culture and attitude. And there, I actually found my dimension in the early Nineties. And there I got in touch with those brands, in particular Stussy and Carhartt WIP, which I started distributing in Italy, creating Slam Jam.
WWD: Along with being the point of reference for cool American brands in Italy, you are considered an international guru of collaborations. How did this happen?
L.B.: I don’t really know. In the late Nineties, 20 years ago, my collaborators were pushing me to do my own label. But first of all I’m not a creator. I’m a DJ who can select products. I strongly believe in the importance of teaming with excellences to create excellent items. For example, if I want a super-cool chukka shoe, I would never create a footwear brand but I would knock at Clarks’ door to create the hippest desert boot. You see, I’m not a creator, I can recognize the potentials of certain products and I can make people get together. Already back in the late Nineties, I realized this — I wanted to collaborate with companies, not establish my own brand. And now collaborations definitely play a key role in the fashion system. What’s the future of this? I think that there will always be brands, which are ready to give and receive. Maybe people won’t call them collaborations anymore, but companies will continue working together.
WWD: What do you see in the future of Slam Jam?
L.B.: For the past 30 years, Slam Jam has been taking care of distributing brands. I have to be honest, being distributors we are positioned at that level of the supply chain where we can be considered those affecting final prices. I don’t know if our role will make sense in the long term. Actually, I would like my company to focus on two things: retail — we launched our first web site 20 years ago and five years ago we actually started investing on e-commerce — and production. We don’t handle manufacturing at Slam Jam, however I am fully experiencing this business with MMW, the company I founded in partnership with Alyx’s designer Matthew Williams. We actually handle everything for the brand [Alyx], from production to marketing. In general, if I think about the future of my company, I see myself as a father that at a certain point wants his children to stand on their own two feet. I really hope that Slam Jam will continue to exist even without myself.
WWD: Are you considering opening the capital to potential investors?
L.B.: It’s not a no or a yes. I’m not really considering this but never say never. What I really know is that this company is built on coherency and honesty, which have to remain values at the core of Slam Jam, now and forever.
WWD: In terms of retail expansion, where do you see the biggest potential?
L.B.: I don’t think that the way to make our multibrand retail business grow should be to open stores abroad. It’s true that this March we are going to open a pop-up shop in Tokyo, which is definitely instrumental to bring visibility to the brand. But our two main focuses are online on one hand — the sales on our web site account for around 70 percent of our retail business — and Italy on the other hand. We have two multibrand stores, one in Ferrara inside the headquarters and one in Milan. I think this last, where we sell from Jil Sander to Stussy, is too small to fully showcase our vision so one of the long-term main goals is to move into a bigger space.