Italy has a proven track record of producing family-run businesses that grow to become successful in their respected niche by championing well-made goods with a distinctive style. However, most firms rarely stray into new industries, preferring at most to buy a supplier or direct competitor. One interesting exception is Benetton, a clothier started in the 1960s by four siblings that today has become one of the world’s most well-known brands.
In the past few decades it has diversified through the family holding company Edizione. Today its portfolio includes property, restaurants and a road-toll operator. It employs 86,000 people and has a turnover of more than €12bn. In line with the brand’s commitment to raising awareness on issues such as racism and Aids, it started Fabrica – a communications agency that doubles as a creative think tank.
“The Benetton family is a unique case in Italy. They stepped out of their comfort zone to diversify. They took branding to a sophisticated level, away from fashion and trends, with emphasis on social issues,” says Stefania Saviolo, a professor of management at Bocconi University in Milan.
Famous in the 1980s for its jumpers and shock advertising orchestrated by photographer Oliviero Toscani, the retailer has struggled on the high street in recent years due to the rise of fast fashion behemoths that have taken aim at its colourful global village image and, more importantly, eaten into its market share.
Under Benetton Group chairman Alessandro Benetton, who leads the family’s second generation, the company is retooling its clothing operations. It counts 6,500 stores in 120 countries with €2bn in revenue but remains dependent on Italy for a sizeable chunk of sales. However, it recently beat Zara as India’s top fashion shop. Today its team of managers are eager to experiment across the various business units.
While Benetton’s clothing competitors obsess over supply-chain issues and the bottom line, the Italian brand has poured money into creative projects via Fabrica, its in-house research centre. Set up 20 years ago in a 17th-century villa that was enlarged by Japanese architect Tadao Ando, the facility is part-school, part-design studio. Each year students in their early twenties apply for one-year, all-expenses-paid scholarships to pursue personal projects in departments that range from interactive media to journalism.
In an open-plan office lined with exposed concrete you can find the editorial team of Colors magazine, a quarterly publication that has a single theme in each issue. “We like the narrative thread, with pieces read in sequence from front to back,” says Patrick Waterhouse, the magazine’s editor-in-chief. A native of England, his team is unmistakably Benetton in its rainbow makeup, with writers, editors and illustrators from the Netherlands, Brazil and China.
The design department is equally global in feel and output. When Monocle visits, head of design Sam Baron and his students are showing off a recent collaboration born out of a field trip to visit Beirut craftsmen and which led to commissioned lamps, vases and other pieces for a Lebanese gallery. “Here they learn by doing, using pencil and pen and working with artisans,” says Baron. “It can be a glassblower from Veneto or an expert in Beirut who is skilled with brass.”
His crop of young creatives from France to Japan also come up with products destined for Benetton stores and Fabrica Features – the retail outlet for the design studio’s output. The Fabrica line includes stationery, glassware and ceramics and operates stores in Bologna and Lisbon.
At Milan’s main train station, Autogrill has inaugurated a new food retail concept, Bistrot. To ensure ingredients are up to snuff the company works with the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo – an institution set up by Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini. Shoppers can load up on craft beer from Piedmont or sip a Lombard red at the wine bar and nibble on traditional street food that includes mondeghili (Milanese fried meatballs). Commuters returning home can pick up freshly cooked bread from the bakery to save a trip to the supermarket, while the work-minded have outlets for laptops and comfy armchairs at their disposal. Interior-wise, there are lots of wood finishes, exposed ducts and an open kitchen to distract delayed travellers.