How we met; Luciano Benetton & Oliviero Toscani

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The Independent Culture
Luciano Benetton was born near Venice in 1935 and left school at 14 to support his family. While working as a shop assistant he began to stock jumpers made by his sister, Giuliana. The jumper business took off and in 1965 he and his two brothers and sister founded Benetton; it now has an annual turnover of pounds 1,400m. His four grown-up children all work for the family company

Oliviero Toscani was born in Milan in 1942. He worked as a fashion photographer for magazines such as 'Vogue' and 'Elle' before moving into advertising. His provocative photographs for Benetton - including those of a newborn baby and of a man dying of Aids - have earned him both awards and condemnation. He lives with his wife and three children on a farm in Tuscany

LUCIANO BENETTON: Naturally, I knew of Oliviero's work before our mutual friend Elio Fiorucci organised a meeting. He had been saying for ages that Toscani was just the sort of creative photographer who would suit Benetton's image. Our first meeting, over lunch, coincided with an important phase in the development of the company - the decision to advertise. We began making jumpers at home in the early Sixties and when the project took off we founded Benetton Brothers in 1965. All our efforts were concentrated on getting the product right and meeting demand, and we had never needed to advertise. But I could see that as we started exporting, communication would be vital.

I guess my first impressions of Oliviero were of a person who was very forthright, and who expressed himself clearly, but who was ready to take responsibility for his actions in the widest sense. There was a feeling there between us, and a couple of months later I phoned Oliviero and suggested we work together. I didn't have any particular suggestions or restrictions to guide him, except that the campaign had to be different - very different - and it had to be international. I had figured that the traditional system of advertising with a different campaign for each country wasn't the way ahead. I also wanted to make people aware of the spirit of our company.

I remember Oliviero's first campaign. It was for the line of children's clothes, and instead of using kids he used teddy bears. I realised early on that he had extraordinary vision. He was not tied to traditional ways of doing things - he was original. As well as having that vision, he was a professional, extremely demanding of himself and of others.

I have always given Oliviero lots of freedom - in fact I don't think I have ever said no to him - and he hasn't disappointed me. We don't need to discuss every stage of a project, because I trust him and we understand one another. We have deliberately sought ideas that would be provocative, that would go beyond the normal scope of just "selling the product". Though we always try not to offend people, the purpose of our campaigns has at times been misunderstood.

I was pleasantly surprised to see how quickly and easily the relationship between Oliviero and our family firm developed. There's no need for complicated mechanisms. Oliviero has a very different personality from me. I am reserved and reflective, while he is volatile and vocal, but I think we complement one another. I am a man of few words, so I love it when you can understand a person, when there is a complicity. Often, between Oliviero and myself, a word or glance is all that's needed. Oliviero is curious, mercurial, and hungry for new experiences, and so am I.

OLIVIERO TOSCANI: We first met at the Tower of Pisa restaurant in Milan with the fashion magnate Elio Fiorucci. I can't remember much about it except that the restaurant did good steaks. It wasn't one of those moments when you realise this is an encounter that will radically change your life. I realised that Luciano Benetton was still essentially a teenager - and he is to this day, despite his grey hair. I think that may be part of the secret of his success. He is a teenager in the sense that he doesn't have the cynicism that comes as we grow up: he is rash, he has the courage to try new things and see whether they work. I thought, "Here I can learn something, do something new." Then he phoned me one night a couple of months later, at my farm in the Maremma area of Tuscany, just as I was delivering a foal of one of the Appaloosa mares I breed, and asked if I was interested in working with him.

I soon realised that Luciano was very different from other managers in the fashion world. I could call him up whenever I pleased, without having to go through a wall of secretaries. There were no tiers of fawning, meddling middle-managers or advertising execs who would castrate my work. We communicate directly. There is a sort of ping-pong between us, we like to toss ideas back and forth.

We don't spend lots of time together, but we do talk on the phone. When we do we don't necessarily talk about work. Luciano is a great listener and he is also hugely curious about life. If on a Sunday I have a big idea about work I will phone him at home, but I'm more likely to ring him about the Grand Prix. Luciano is passionate about motor racing.

One incident that says a lot about Luciano was in the early days when I had to take some publicity snaps of him. I told him to get up on the balcony at the headquarters at Villa Milani, a restored 16th-century villa, but it still looked pretty dull, so I asked him to put on a green-and- white striped Benetton rugby jersey. He warned me that getting hold of one shirt was harder than ordering 100,000, and there was quite a wait. But what really amazed me was that after the shirt had arrived, and I had taken the pictures, he folded it neatly, put it in the bag, and sent it back to the factory. He is someone who has worked damn hard for everything he has got, and he is very careful.

In a world where everything is delegated to technology, computers and market research, Luciano still has his instinct and is not afraid to follow it. We are similar in that respect. I don't mind if people think I am uncultured, petty, and have bad taste; I would rather be myself than a beautiful copy of someone else. I have said before that Luciano is like a Renaissance prince bestowing patronage - he is my Lorenzo de Medici. Proof of that is his creation of Fabbrica, the Benetton-financed laboratory of visual culture and arts, at the company headquarters in Treviso, near Venice.

There is something magic in our relationship and, being superstitious, I worry that if I try to analyse that magic it will disappear in a puff of smoke.

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