At 50, Benetton wants its mojo back

An Iranian woman shopping for clothes at a Benetton store in the capital, Teheran.
An Iranian woman shopping for clothes at a Benetton store in the capital, Teheran. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Nobody talked about "It bags" when I was in secondary school in the 1990s, but everyone knew that status could be conferred through accessories.

The rules about backpacks were particularly strict: They should be worn like a holster with both straps over the same shoulder and, above all, they had to be emblazoned with the Benetton logo.

Benetton has just turned 50 and - following years of declining sales - it is using the landmark to try to recapture its mojo.

As well as releasing four capsule clothing collections, including designs from the company's archive, it is launching a five-year Benetton Women Empowerment Programme, with the lofty ambition of improving female lives globally.

All in all, says Mr John Mollanger, the brand's chief product officer, it is about "being ourselves again, focusing on our knitwear expertise, innovation and social commitment". Reviving the magic will not be easy in an age when nuanced brands - Cos' Scandinavian chic, Uniqlo's Japanese-influenced tech basics - rule the high street, with every conceivable style and price range of clothing available at the touch of a smartphone.

And when £300 (S$646) Michael Kors handbags are a fixture of fashion-aware teenage girls' Instagram feeds, it is hard to believe that an inexpensive Benetton tote could ever have been a fast track to high-school canteen prestige.

But in its heyday in the 1980s and 1990s, Benetton's offering was unique: Its colourful, mid-priced basics made competitors - C&A, BHS, Marks & Spencer and Next - seem grey by comparison.

Ms Caryn Franklin, former presenter and fashion editor of i-D magazine, says its Italianness was part of the pull: "When we started the Clothes Show in 1986, most people didn't know the names of British designers.

"But they had heard of Italian designers such as Cerrutti and Armani, partly because they had been popularised in songs. Buying into a little bit of that heritage was a huge attraction for some."

Campaigns in the 1980s featured non-professional models of diverse races "at a time when most high-street fashion imagery featured white models often caked in make-up with big Barbie-doll hair," says Ms Carole White, co-founder of Premier Model Management.

By the 1990s, the campaigns were more outrageous: a bloodied newborn baby, complete with umbilical cord; a man surrounded by his grief-stricken family, dying of Aids.

Benetton's rebooted vision for this year is safe. While one can imagine its 1990s logo sweatshirts being worn with a knowing wink by the Wavey Garms generation, the company's re-released archive pieces are trend- and irony-free.

The print advertisements tip a hat to diversity - one model is 72 years old - but are primarily brightly lit pictures of women beaming in knitwear. Clearly, the campaign is aiming to seamlessly knit the brand's jumpers with its initiative to improve women's lives.

However, even this seemingly blameless aim - which begins with a €2 million (S$3.05 million) "sustainable livelihood" programme aimed to help workers in the ready-made garments sector - has a deeper meaning in an age when consumers are so well-versed in the dangers of the clothing industry.

Benetton was one of the companies slammed by campaigners after the Rana Plaza tragedy in 2013, in which the collapse of the eight-storey garment factory in Bangladesh led to the deaths of more than 1,000 people inside.

Mr Mollanger knows well that much has changed since Benetton was king of the high street.

When the company launched in the 1960s, he says, "colourful knitwear was a statement in itself in a sea of grey and navy".

"Today, it would be arrogant to say that being colourful is enough. We need to clarify and amplify what we stand for."

THE GUARDIAN

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 12, 2015, with the headline 'At 50, Benetton wants its mojo back'. Print Edition | Subscribe