The death of Karl Lagerfeld obviously took center stage in Milan on Tuesday and Jean-Charles de Castelbajac paid tribute to the designer before the start of his first runway show for United Colors of Benetton that evening. Calling Lagerfeld “Maestro” from backstage through a microphone to guests seated in the darkened room, he said the designer had been “a huge inspiration to all” and that he “will always stay in our heart. Merci Karl.”

The mood changed once the lights went up, in sync with the name of the show, “Rainbow Machine.” In a preview with WWD a day earlier, de Castelbajac and executive president Luciano Benetton said the turnaround of the brand passed through moving away from low-cost production, bringing manufacturing back closer to home in Europe, and through colors — “which can make miracles,” according to Benetton.

Staying true to this strategy, the company placed the industrial-looking catwalk around a stage where Benetton workers sewed, ironed, took measurements and appeared to busily apply themselves to the collection. There was even a real, working knitting machine. As for colors — bingo. The coed collection was a feast of primary colors — yellow, red, blue and the brand’s staple green and white label was expanded, shown oversize as a decoration on the clothes.

Puffers were super puffy, as were the boots — a wink to the Eighties, a successful decade for the brand — and came in rainbow stripes. Denim was spun both ways — with a masculine edge seen in workwear, roomy calf-length pants, or more feminine, as in a cute pleated minidress over a garment-dyed knit top or a fringed, belted trench.

The fun element was turned up a notch with Disney motifs — a Mickey Mouse hand whimsically peeping out of a side pocket and the lovable character popping up on a T-shirt or a cap, flanked by Charlie Brown and other Peanuts characters.

A sweater was peppered with colorful cartoon-like sheep — a nod to the brand’s wool tradition — and striped rainbow leggings were worn under a patchwork sweater mixing stylized cats, the brand’s original knit stitch logo, and graphic letterings. De Castelbajac also revisited the label’s storied rugby shirts with a more modern fit.

De Castelbajac referenced his own work, with his signature “Teddy Bear” coat reworked with a cluster of red, white, green and yellow sheep.

The claim on one of the T-shirts read “time to be brave.” Benetton, who turns 84 in May, has indeed been brave, coming back to the company last year to steer it back into relevance, taking control and tapping de Castelbajac to redefine the brand’s identity. Whether a runway show will become a tradition for the company, the first one showed that significant steps are being taken to change the course of the brand.

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