Photos — Carlos Jones/Contrasto/Laif, Patrick Fraser/Outline/Corbis Date — 4 October, 2012
Father and son sit at the table beneath a fresco-covered wall. To talk business, they meet up at corporate headquarters, a Baroque villa close to the North Italian city of Treviso. Luciano’s son looks exactly the way his father used to, having clearly inherited his smile. Otherwise, the two could not be more different. Luciano Benetton, 77, and his three siblings built up a world-famous fashion group. He has remained, throughout, something of a passionate rebel, still wearing his hair long, sporting sweaters made in his workshops. Once, he even posed naked for a photograph on the company’s behalf. “Passion is part of business,” he says, and it shows.
Luciano’s son, Alessandro Benetton, 48, grew up within the family passion. “As a child, I loved the smell of wool,” he recalls. For business appointments he always wears a suit and tie. In private, his style is more casual, and he has a penchant for modern and contemporary art, with works in his collection by Alberto Burri to Damien Hirst. He lives with his wife, world ski champion Deborah Compagnoni, and their three children in the country, near headquarters, in a villa made of glass and cement and designed by Japanese architect Tadao Ando. Spectacular media appearances are not his thing. Benetton the son is more private than his father. “In a world where everyone’s screaming, it’s sometimes smarter to remain silent,” he muses.
Now, the father is handing the helm over to his son. In spring this year, Alessandro Benetton took over as Chairman of the Benetton Group, which turns over two billion euros every year with its colorful fashion. This generational change at the head of the company galvanized all the Benettons into action. The family-owned holding company bought back all the stock on the Milan exchange and is once again sole proprietor. At this point, Alessandro Benetton is the face of the family. That was always his father’s role. The footsteps in which he is following are pretty big, but no one doubts he will be able to fill them. He is Harvard-educated, founded his own investment company, and has long been his father’s deputy. “Alessandro has already proven that he has the most important thing an entrepreneur can have: He will not give up when the going gets tough,” says Luciano Benetton about his son. In this particular respect, Alessandro is like his father. Crises never put Luciano off his stride. For example, when customers protested against the shock advertising campaign with an oil-polluted duck or prisoners on death row, and American retailer Sears cancelled its orders – he parted company with his colleague of many years, head of communications and star photographer Oliviero Toscani. “It’s at times like that when you simply have to carry on working and follow your ideas with a lot of staying power,” says Benetton senior. They adapted, and they survived.
His son has a similar take on things. The world in which he is currently selling the United Colors of Benetton is different from that of thirty years ago, yet the strategy remains unchanged. “In a globalized world, Italian fashion has to trade on quality and imaginative design. But new ideas take time and money. That’s why it’s better to have a family behind you and not shareholders looking to make a fast buck,” he explains. Alessandro admits that his father has always been a source of inspiration to him. Recognizing this, he still felt the need to be independent. “I cut the cord at an early age, because I wanted to go my own way. The greatest piece of luck I had was always being able to decide for myself,” says the new company head. Luciano Benetton plans to remain on in an advisory capacity. “I don’t want to get too involved,” he admits. Perhaps he won’t have to; the era under Alessandro is off to a good start. At the Cannes Lions advertising festival, the company’s “Unhate” campaign has just plucked an award – with new advertising posters showing international heads of state kissing each other. Ultimately, Benetton will always be Benetton. Even in the second generation, and in those to come. That’s how it is when you stand for something as timeless as passion.