‘80s Nostalgia

Benetton’s Rebirth

The Italian brand famous for its sweaters and socially aware advertising ups its fashion game. Robin Givhan reports from Milan.

Chris Ratcliffe, Bloomberg / Getty Images

No other industry demonstrates such a deep affection for the ghosts of its past as fashion. Its designers and bean counters are constantly trying to revive comatose brands and re-energize sluggish ones. Few companies are ever left for dead—even those for whom a dignified funeral might be the kindest gesture. Fashion is in a constant state of daring rescues and private bailouts. And the latest attempt at a reversal of corporate fortunes may hold particular resonance for folks who came of age in the 1980s, when the United Colors of Benetton called to mind socially conscious, multicultural advertising and airy boutiques filled with sweaters in every color imaginable.

Back then, Benetton was a youthful Italian brand that seemed more intent on riling middlebrow sensibilities with its bold statements on AIDS, religion, and racism than in marketing another crewneck sweater. Nonetheless, Benetton exploded at a time when European style was still something special, even on the coasts, let alone in the American heartland. The brand was vaguely exotic and pleasantly cool without being aloof or intimidating. Benetton hit a sweet spot in both pricing and aesthetics. And frankly no one could compete with its exuberant variety of knitwear.

In its heyday, Benetton’s advertising was viewed as a marker of social change. And as a thriving company, it had somewhere in the vicinity or 500 or 600 stores in the United States.

Today, it has 40 U.S. stores. And its place as a stalwart in the closets of young adults has been supplanted by labels such as J. Crew, Abercrombie & Fitch, Uniqlo, Target, Club Monaco, Zara, and a host of others. What happened in the interim is the story of a brand that was good at manufacturing sweaters but terrible at retailing them. Fast fashion left it behind. And aesthetically, it entered a black hole. The clothes, particularly those shipped to the American market, became unfashionable, unattractive, and unwearable.

But fashion stories never end there. In an industry fueled by change, there is always the possibility of a new day. So Benetton is aggressively revamping its image and re-introducing itself to the marketplace with a new advertising campaign, “Unemployee of the Year,” which highlights the world’s millions of unemployed youth. (It has received a mixed response in the chatter-sphere.) It also has a new designer charged with returning the brand to its former glory and ushering it into the future.

The spring 2013 collection was You Nguyen’s second for Benetton. The first, for fall 2012, is in stores now and is highlighted in a pop-up shop in New York that is open through December. But if an American shopper were to visit a Benetton in Georgetown or in Chicago, they would not see the full range of Nguyen’s work. Only a tiny sliver of it has been shipped to the American market. And it is likely that only a percentage of the spring line will arrive there as well. The company’s store network isn’t strong enough to support the entirety of the line.

That’s unfortunate, as the brand looks better than it has in recent memory. The heart of the spring collection is a grouping called “art folk” that’s youthful, gently tailored but informal. It includes quietly patterned trousers, swing coats in a faded geometric print of red and blue, kimono-style day dresses, knife-pleated skirts, and of course, versatile knitwear in a range of colors. With sweaters priced between $79 and $99 and blazers coming in around $159, it is well below the cost of brands such as J. Crew.

Its advertising remains distinctive—from “The Kiss,” which showed world leaders smooching, to its current campaign. It is an unabashed statement about corporate identity rather than product—akin to Kenneth Cole, but without the puns. And the campaign’s social-media component—#Unhate—allows customers to communicate with each other and not just the company.

Still, Benetton has a tremendous amount of ground to make up.

In a crowded market, it has a long way to go to distinguish itself aesthetically. Club Monaco is known for trendy knockoffs. Uniqlo is notable for its basics. Target has its designer capsule collections. And J. Crew has established itself as a place for eccentric classics and reliable cashmere sweaters in every color of the rainbow. Where will Benetton fit in?

In its spring collection, the best pieces actually weren’t the sweaters. They were summer dresses and versatile jackets. It would have been a powerful reminder of the brand’s essential legacy to see rows of finely knit crewnecks, Henleys, and tanks in mouth-watering colors at a buy-in-bulk price—products that capitalize on the areas in which Benetton was once a major force.

Before offering up a breath of ideas—lovely though they might be, where are the fundamentals?

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The company promises that spring 2013 is only the beginning. And unlike many brands that have been on the edge of bankruptcy or whose names have been shrouded in dust, Benetton has always continued to operate in full within Italy, which accounts for 50 percent of its global business. The company continues to publish its Colors magazine, although in extremely limited editions. And the name still resonates with a generation that once found its sweaters irresistible.

The company’s greatest challenge is not in besting its competitors, but in living up to its own history.