Luciano Benetton: Party time in Paris for the fashion guru still United in controversy

A day in the life of the Chairman, Benetton Group
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The Independent Online


Billionaire fashion magnates apparently don't need alarm clocks. Especially Italian ones that have defied far greater conventions, such as the notion that prisoners on Death Row are there to be executed; or that pictures of newborn babies still trailing their umbilical cords shouldn't be plastered all over billboards.

The man fighting through his own fog of a late night just as the Parisian sun is tackling the early autumn mist is, of course, Luciano Benetton. The $10bn patriarch of the United Colors of Benetton brand; Italy's answer to Sir Philip Green, if you like, except that Mr Benetton started his company from scratch.

Forty years ago, to be precise, which is why he is waking up in a luxury hotel room on Paris's elegant Place des Vosges, wondering why he stayed out so late last night. Granted the French capital might not seem the obvious location for an Italian clothing company to celebrate four decades of existence, but then again, Benetton hardly fancies itself as an ordinary clothing company.


And so, the 71-year-old chairman of Benetton Group arrives at its headquarters, at the top of its store on Boulevard Haussmann, already behind schedule for what has been decreed a day of revelry. "When things in the past started to go really well and the business started to take off, I said to myself, 'Right, when I'm 40, I quit.' But here I am, celebrating the 40th anniversary of the business not my own 40th anniversary."

He is late because the warm-up party to thank Benetton's commercial partners, all 800 of its oldest distributors and franchisees, went on into the small hours. Which bodes well for tonight's bash for the extended Benetton family (he started the business with his sister, Giuliana, and his two brothers, Gilberto and Carlo), their friends and the united colors [sic] of the global press - an intimate affair of some 1,400-odd. The festivities will kick off at 6.30pm, at the company's first-ever catwalk show intended to celebrate its vision of creating a utopian rainbow at the end of a storm.

His choice of suit, dark navy with a white shirt, seems at odds with the colourful showroom from where this most unlikely looking of fashion supremos holds court with the lucky few journalists to have been granted an audience. The questions roll into one: "Why Paris? How much longer will you stay at the helm? Can Benetton still pack a punch against the Zaras of this world?" And even, "Does the Italian textile industry, that great icon of protectionist Europe, have a future?"

As do his answers: "Paris is a symbol of fashion - together with Italy of course!" Then, "Maximum one year." And: "We watch the world change but at the same time we are very careful not to lose our own personality." The thorny issue of Italian protectionism demands more thought, although given that Benetton was ahead of its time in outsourcing production in the early Eighties it is clear where the pro-Brussels, one-time Italian senator stands. "Defensive actions are rearguard battles; European companies have to understand that and act accordingly. Remedies [to halt the deluge of cheap Chinese imports] are all understandable for now, but I really, really think that the time has come to truly tackle these issues because there is no reason to be too protectionist in this particular industry."

His logic applies to industries outside clothing too because the Benetton empire stretches way beyond brightly coloured V-necks. The family snapped up chunks of Italy during the privatisations of the past decade. Autostrade, the country's largest operator of toll motorways; Autogrill, the global catering group; most of Telecom Italia; and swaths of land in Argentina, which all form just part of its business interests. The Italian government's protectionist mindset is impeding Mr Benetton's plans to merge Autostrade with Spain's Abertis, to create a European highways giant, but he is hopeful that Brussels will intervene.


Yet more journalists to see, this time his compatriots. He explains that the reason Benetton is not celebrating in Treviso, the site of its 17th-century frescoed base, is because the Pompidou Centre wanted to organise an exhibition about the group's design institute, Fabrica, which it set up in 1994. After the group split from Oliviero Toscani (he of the priest kissing a nun and the dying Aids victim images - not to mention that "We, on Death Row" campaign that went down so badly in the US) in 2000, Fabrica took up the mantle of Benetton's advertising campaigns, setting a tone that was less offensive but no less culturally aware. Its cinema arm has bankrolled many acclaimed films, including No Man's Land, which depicted the absurdity of the Bosnian war.


Mr Benetton, who only got into clothing because a yellow sweater that his sister knitted him proved a hit, grabs a couple of hours of downtime. He has friends to catch up with after all.


As four models, their faces daubed with fluorescent facepaints, sit smoking outside a side door of the Pompidou Centre, Mr Benetton is making his grand entrance into the Fabrica exhibition for a preview. He has swapped his navy suit for a charcoal grey, presumably to contrast better with the utopian rainbow that is about to make its way down the catwalk. He walks down the musical stairway that is the first exhibit; each step sounds a note played on the South African marimba, where he is mobbed by the Italian media. Japanese and Chinese journalists also snap away.


Benetton may not have hosted a fashion show before but it certainly knows the etiquette: the 1,000 or so guests, who include the rock star Patti Smith and the film director Spike Lee, who worked on the Death Row campaign, are kept waiting for 45 minutes. And then, to an explosion of Madonna, the models burst forth.

The designs are not destined for the shops, but instead are intended to celebrate the brand's past and future. A riot of knitted colour makes its way down the catwalk. Multi-hued models are festooned in striped sweater dresses, swirling skirts and voluminous ponchos. Knitted dreads poke out underneath tea-cosy Rasta hats; pom-poms adorn models dripping wool from every limb. The audience laps it up and when the Benetton siblings step on to the catwalk to a cover of "Dream On", by Depeche Mode, they get a standing ovation.


From the fifth floor of the Pompidou Centre, the Eiffel Tower is at its twinkling best. The Prosecco is flowing and waiters are handing round autumnal nibbles before the gala dinner. Amid the crush of the family's fans, there is one man who is notable by his absence. Mr Toscani appears to be paying the price for the campaign that cost Benetton its dreams of conquering the US.

Seated instead at Mr Benetton's table, number 40, is Flavio Briatore, who ran Benetton's Formula One team; Spike Lee; Marco Mueller, the Venice film festival boss who runs Fabrica's cinema arm; and the film star Maria Grazia Cucinotta. Plenty more Italian talent is dotted around the room. Like Marco Tronchetti Provera, the head of Pirelli who has just been ousted as chairman of Telecom Italia, who is with his wife, Afef Jnifen.

But it is perhaps the young scions' table that attracts the most interest. Alessando Benetton, the clothing brand's 42-year-old vice-chairman who will eventually succeed his father, is seated with John "Jaki" Elkann, the grandson of the late Gianni Agnelli and heir to the Fiat car maker, and Marina Berlusconi, the former prime minister's eldest daughter who heads the family's media empire. Jay McInerney, the US author, is there with his fiancée Anne Hearst, the publishing heiress.

They keep a low profile, however, leaving others to sing for their supper. Literally in the case of Patti Smith, Dee Dee Bridgewater and, to the delight of all present, Youssou N'Dour, the Senegalese singer who ends his day's celebrations singing along to "Seven Seconds", which N'Dour dedicates to the "children of the world". A fitting tribute for a company that likes to think it has spawned a multiethnic tribe.