United Colors of Benetton unveils its kaleidoscopic next chapter in Milan
Fashion is having a democratic moment. Virgil Abloh is the first African American artistic director at Louis Vuitton, and one of the only black designers to lead a luxury house. Valentino’s Pierpaolo Piccioli’s is making the most elite world of haute couture more accessible, bringing the skilled petites mains who create its designs onto his catwalk. Social media encourages fashion for all.
Equality, freedom, personal expression: these are all tenets that 1965-founded United Colors of Benetton has been promoting since the 1980s. From 1982, the brand launched a series of revolutionary and sociopolitical advertising campaigns, tackling HIV, racism and homophobia, and notably, they lacked clothing. Oliviero Toscani was the creative mind behind many of these images, which included a 1991 shot of an inter-racial lesbian family, a 1996 image of three identical cadavers labeled ‘White’, ‘Black’, and ‘Yellow’, and its most poignant 1990 advertising image of AIDS victim David Kirby lying on his deathbed, originally shot for LIFE magazine by Therese Frare.
It’s culturally fitting that in late 2017, Toscani returned to Benetton, to shoot an advertising campaign featuring an Italian classroom with children of multifarious nationalities. Its co-founder Luciano Benetton is also back as the brand’s executive president. Yesterday, in a bid to bolster its global presence once more, the Italian label unveiled its first runway collection by exuberant fashion designer Jean-Charles de Castelbajac, an offering abounding in sportswear shapes, cartoon prints, exuberant colour and vitality.
‘It’s been the best challenge of my life, I have designed haute couture, I’ve designed for the Pope, I’ve designed for Lady Gaga,’ de Castelbajac said backstage after the show. ‘Today what is most fascinating is the idea of designing for everyone’. For A/W 2019, this translated into easy and effusive silhouettes: colour-panelled puffer jackets, outerwear with a retro alpine touch, knitwear emblazoned with images of Charlie Brown and Mickey Mouse, sporty logo print trousers, and coats assembled from shaggy 3D sheep.
Jean-Charles de Castelbajac is the perfect fit for the Veneto-based brand. The co-founder of 1974 label Iceberg and force behind the eponymous label which he launched in 1978 and left in 2016, he is famed for his use of colour, exploration of knitwear and playful, alternative aesthetic. He also pioneered the dialogue between art and fashion, and has collaborated with Andy Warhol, Miguel Barcelo, Keith Haring and Jean Michel Basquiat. ‘United Colours of Benetton has always been daring with its style,’ de Castelbajac says. It’s a legend, it’s a family it’s a universe that totally matches with me.’
On the runway, models walked a catwalk lined with sewing and knitting machines, spools of coloured yarns, and bright knitwear in the midst of being made. Technicians in white lab coats milled around this factory floor. This glimpse into United Colors of Benetton’s behind the scenes set up, offered a nod to transparency, visible supply chains and an aesthetic that decries fast fashion. ‘We want a Renaissance around the real value of the company,’ de Castelbajac said. And his vision shows no sign of slowing down. ‘We’re going to kickstart our denim production. Then collaborate with famous fashion designers!’ he enthused backstage. ‘We are millennial not just in age, but in mind. The client should be millennial in the soul.’ §