A young Italian goes in search of 'colors no one has ever seen'
LUCIANO BENETTON (°1935)
In 1934 Leone Benetton married Rosa Carniato, his great love. A year later, their first child, Luciano, was born. Leone earned his living renting cars. But times were bad. War was in the air. The two dreamed of a large family and a better income.
In 1936 Mussolini and his troops invaded Ethiopia. Italians who wanted to go higher could try their luck in what was then Abyssinia. Leone was 25, young, strong and willing to take risks.
He sold his business and bought a truck with which he wanted to make a fortune from the capital Addis Ababa. He would drive the truck himself until he made enough money to buy a second one. He would then rent it out to raise money for a third party.
Benetton trucks would connect the capitals of East Africa. That was the plan. In the beginning everything went well. Leone had attached a picture of a woman and child to his dashboard to remind him of who he was working for.
He transported sacks of cement and building materials and lived in the slums of the city, where life was cheap. He saved the food from his mouth to be able to invest every penny.
One morning he was confined to his bed with a fever. Due to the poor sanitation, the malaria in the slums had spread quickly. Leone was also killed by it.
After a six-week stay in a hospital, he had recovered enough to find his truck. But thieves had taken advantage of his long absence to get away with the truck.
He would also later never tell Rosa how someone feels when he sees his dream evaporate.
What really broke his heart was the thought that the thieves were in possession of the photo of his wife and child. At the beginning of 1939 he returned home totally penniless, but what was worse, the malaria had damaged his kidneys beyond repair. His days were numbered.
World War II broke out. Leone Benetton was not yet 30 and his life was basically ruined.
"At such a point, residents of the region of Venice show two characteristics: the ability to get something good even out of a mess and to persevere undisturbed in the face of unimaginable misery," his eldest son Luciano would later write. .
Leone borrowed his sister's bicycle and rented it out. The need for cheap and easy transport was great during the war. The idea caught on. Soldiers from the neighbourhood, in particular, took advantage of the opportunity.
In no time, the critically ill man was able to open a rental business with thirty bicycles in the neighboring town of Treviso. In 1942 he employed three men who repaired bicycles and patched up old bicycles so that they could be sold again.
With his savings, Leone bought plots of land that had become dirt cheap due to the war conditions.
Leone had a thing for clothes. Even when there was hardly any money left, he chose the best for his children. "You are dressed like rich people's children," the neighbors said. By mid-1945 Leone's forces were exhausted.
When he died in July, he left Rosa with four children: Luciano (10), Giuliana (8), Gilberto (4) and Carlo (2). Luciano Benetton later: 'From that moment on I couldn't be a boy anymore.'
The outflanking movements of Nazis, Allies, Fascists and Partisans had paralyzed the town of Treviso during the last year of the war, causing the bicycle rental business to die as well. Mother Benetton had no more income, she got rid of the plots of land.
Italy was one of the poorest countries in Europe at the end of 1945.
Before and after school, Luciano peddled bread for a baker, early in the morning he sold newspapers at the station and whenever he could he walked from door to door with soap.
Luciano: 'I dreamed of food at night.' Giuliana had previously done all kinds of knitting for the little ones, now she could work on a neighbor's knitting machine during her free hours.
She left school when she was 11 to spend all day working in a knitting workshop. From left to right: Giuliana (13), Carlo (6), working.
So great was the poverty of Mother Benetton, Gilberto (9) and Luciano (15) in 1950 that Luciano at the age of fourteen felt outside their house in Treviso that he could no longer afford to go to school. He started working in the warehouse of a department store.
In 1952 he found a job in a clothing store. There was no difference between the clothes of young and old in those days. Young people often carried the worn-out belongings of their parents. The merchandise was not on display in the store. Everything was stored behind the counter in cupboards.
"The clothes were handed over by the clerk after strict checks, as if you were at a pharmacist checking a prescription," Luciano wrote in his memoir.
Sometimes he made himself a colorful tie or a frivolous shirt. 'You are a servant here and not a circus clown,' the owner had told him then. But selling was in his blood and his father had given him a weakness for clothes.
The economy picked up, prosperity increased and many customers, especially young people, were looking for clothes that did not exist. In the evening, when his day's work was done, Luciano collected his sister from the studio where she worked.
One day they were walking home and Luciano said, 'Why do we have to work for others? Why don't we start our own business? You produce, I sell.' That was in 1955.
Luciano was 20, Giuliana 18. The whole family started saving for a knitting machine. Luciano sold his beloved harmonica, with which he played in an orchestra. The thing fetched 36,000 lire, about a tenth of what they needed.
Gilberto sold his bike and borrowed small amounts from friends and relatives. On the new machine, Giuliana was able to show her skills after work and during the weekend. Luciano peddled the first knitted cardigans from door to door and cycled through the neighboring villages.
They called their collection Très Jolie and focused on unusual colors : yellow, green, light blue. "People craved new colors as if they had been rationed during the war."
After four months, they were selling twenty vests a week. Immediately the borrowed money could be repaid. Two months later, Giuliana said goodbye to her work in the studio. From then on she knitted fourteen cardigans a day. "I'm a real whirlwind," she used to say with a grin.
A second machine followed in 1956. Two girls next door, ages 11 and 12, lent a hand. The house in Treviso was covered in wool. Until 1958 Luciano continued to work in the clothing store.
Even in those pioneering days, his boss was so enthusiastic about the Très-Jolie collection that he ordered six hundred cardigans in one go. Which caused some panic among the Benettons.
Always on the lookout for new colors – there were 36 in the range at the time – Luciano came across Adalgerico Montana one day, who came from an old dyer family and had a shop near Treviso where you could have discolored or faded clothes dyed.
In small jars on a spirit burner, the young Benetton and the old Montana began to test new colors. Colors were an obsession for Luciano: 'Maybe because I grew up in such a dark environment.'
Deep into the night, until the crack of dawn, they—the old master and the wizard apprentice—experimented with new shades and nuances, searching frantically for colors "that no one had seen before." Luciano: 'I even bought art books to find new colours.
I especially loved Kandinsky's shades. Montana and I mainly tried to grab the yellow and green shades.'
You could only knit with wool yarn that had already been dyed. Dyeing a cardigan knitted with natural wool was impossible because it required too high temperatures, so that the garment shrank considerably or simply burned. Luciano wondered if there was no way out.
Montana thought there was a solution. For months they experimented: vests burned, shrank or otherwise went down. But one day the time had come: Montana could dye a cardigan any shade after knitting.
He just said, "It works."
Luciano: 'For me it was as if I had discovered a new continent.' At first no one could believe it. But it soon became apparent that the Benettons could supply cardigans in every fashion color within a few days. This turned out to be a huge asset, especially in fashion-forward Rome.
In addition, the Benettons were never left with outdated shades. Luciano : 'In the fumes of our dyeing department, mountains of raw wool cardigans were waiting for the dictates of fashion.' Turnover increased by leaps and bounds. At the end of 1962, Luciano was 25 years old, Giuliana 23, Gilberto 19 and Carlo 17.
Luciano developed into 'Minister of Foreign Affairs'; Giuliana emerged as a designer; Gilberto had just finished military service and took care of the finances and Carlo, a technical draftsman since he was fifteen, focused on production techniques.
In April 1965, the first factory, covering an area of 20,000 square meters, was opened in Ponzano, father Benetton's home village.
At about the same time, an enthusiastic young salesman in the town of Belluno opened the first shop selling only knit textiles from the Benettons. Shortly afterwards, a case followed in the exclusive ski resort of Cortina d'Ampezzo.
The counter was abolished, the goods themselves formed the decor. 'Colours, colors and more colours,' was the motto. Dozens of cities followed.
In 1968 there were already three hundred stores in Italy. Initially, the Benettons paid half of the investment. More and more people appeared who wanted to work entirely for their own account.
Luciano did see something in the franchise system of, for example, McDonald's, where someone opened a business for their own account and in exchange for the concept contributed a certain percentage of the proceeds.
Luciano: 'Our system was not as formal as that of the hamburger chain, because most of the store owners were friends of ours or friends of friends.
We didn't want percentages to be paid, nor did we have to sign a contract. A handshake was enough. All they had to do was sell our products exclusively and adapt the interior to our design.
I retained the right to approve the location of the store and check the individual's business prowess.” And : 'We never asked for a share of the profit because we never sold our ideas.'
Just as for sales, a system of suppliers arose in production: Benetton supplied the material and design, independent firms took care of the machines and the work. In this way, in 1973, a thousand stores could already be supplied with Benetton textiles.
Between 1970 and 1975, sales increased from ten to twenty million items of clothing. The conquest of Europe could begin. In 1979 the empire already had 1700 stores: 1000 in Italy, 250 in Germany. The Netherlands and Belgium each had 25.
From 1980, the United States was invaded: the first 300 stores were opened in a few months. In 1983, four a week were sprouting up in the US.
Spectacular was the opening of a store in Budapest, where stock for an entire season was sold out in five days: the store staff had bought everything for friends and acquaintances. The organization of the expansion was also in the hands of independent agents.
In 2002, the Benetton textile empire had 5000 stores in 120 countries with a turnover of 2.1 billion euros. This makes Benetton the largest producer of knitted textiles in the world. Luciano has been able to indulge his mania for colors over the years.
Wool and cotton sweaters, for example, are designed on computers that create intricate knit fabric in 265 colors. In theory, the range can be expanded to seventeen million shades.
From 1985 the Benetton advertising campaigns came into the hands of the photographer Oliviero Toscani. He started in the US with a campaign called "All the Colors" and cost three million dollars.
Through an endless series of shocking advertising campaigns, Benetton has rarely made the news in this area since then. However, the death row campaign with portraits of American inmates closed the door.
The Sears retailer immediately canceled a $41 million Benetton deal. Toscani was fired in May 2000. The official comment read: "Both sides felt they needed something new." Eighty percent of the group capital is still owned by the four Benettons.
At its headquarters in Ponzano, the company's frenetic activities are unaffected. Insiders say the quiet, informal atmosphere is due to the excellent relationship that has persisted between the four. Luciano is still at the helm at 67.
He thus follows his philosophy: 'I will continue until the last day.'