United Colors of Benetton Features Transgender Model Lea T; Alek Wek

Alongside Alek Wek, Elettra Wiedemann, and many more models with “incredible personal stories.”

On the heels of two controversial ad campaigns, United Colors of Benetton launched its spring-summer 2013 follow-up in Paris on Wednesday. Benetton famously coaxed virtual smooches from world leaders in 2011, and its 2012 Unemployee of the Year venture earned a new round of critiques. The new campaign sees the Italian knitwear giant get back to basics with a vibrant refresh of its colorful melting-pot aesthetic.

The new spring-summer 2013 pitch marks a foray into surprisingly untested terrain in United Colors of Benetton’s storied ad history: celebrity endorsements. It puts forward a roster of idiosyncratic models that all boast, as one Benetton executive put it, “incredible personal stories.” (Not a euphemism for homeliness, mind; the new faces are all lavishly hot.) The global campaign features nine spokesmodels with videos that spotlight the biographical quirks that might have hindered them—but actually made them famous. “The route they followed in order to get [to fashion success] was a very unusual route, a different route,” Alessandro Benetton, the Harvard-educated chairman who last April took the reins from his cofounder father, Luciano, told reporters in Paris. “It is perhaps one of the most ‘Benetton’ campaigns, productwise, that we have ever done.”

Shot by young Italian photographer Giulio Rustichelli, the campaign’s best-known quantity is arguably Sudanese model and refugee advocate Alek Wek. Brazilian transgender model Lea T and the Tunisian Hanaa Ben Abdesslem (a rare Arab, Muslim face in the modeling industry) are standout choices, as is German model Mario Galla. Galla made a splash at Berlin Fashion Week in 2010, when he walked for Michael Michalsky in shorts, revealing his prosthetic leg. (Galla’s 2011 German-language autobiography is playfully titled With One Foot in the Modeling Business.)

The campaign also spotlights a pair of faces with luminary lineage: New York–born Elettra Wiedemann, the daughter of Isabella Rossellini and granddaughter of Ingrid Bergman, and Kiera Chaplin, granddaughter of Charlie Chaplin and great-granddaughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill. Benetton plays up both of the dynastic stars’ philanthropy: Wiedemann, who holds a master’s in biomedicine from the London School of Economics, is a prize-winning environmental activist; Chaplin, an actress and model, is active with UNESCO and the Amy Winehouse Foundation.

East London–born model Dudley O‘Shaughnessy, a boxer whose parents hail from England and the Carribbean island of St. Lucia, turned heads as Rihanna’s love interest in her controversial video for “We Found Love.” The Milan-based Uruguayan chef Matías Perdomo, who at 32 holds one Michelin star, is a thickly bearded outsider. And pink-clad Charlotte Free brings her pink-haired mischief and five-foot-seven frame to bear on the campaign. Benetton creative director You Nguyen revealed Wednesday that Free was full of surprises at the November shoot. “Giulio used a pink flower as a prop, to enhance the whole idea. Well, in the middle of the shoot, she starts eating the flower! We didn’t plan for Charlotte to eat the flowers, but that’s who she is.”

The playful campaign and motley cast are a clear pitch to renew relations with younger consumers, a market key to Benetton’s success during its heyday, when Oliviero Toscani was churning out shocking, and ultimately iconic, campaigns for the brand in the 1980s and 1990s that included a nun kissing a priest, death-row inmates, and AIDS patients.

After the storm of controversy that surrounded its kissing-leaders campaign, Benetton executives have regularly insisted the company isn’t seeking provocation for its own sake. “If you want to be shocked on the Web, you don’t need Benetton!” Gianluca Pastore, Benetton’s global communications chief, quipped to The Daily Beast in Paris on Wednesday. Nevertheless, the brand touts both recent controversial chapters in its Unhate series as wild social-media successes.

The knitwear brand has also struggled in recent years on the back of high cotton prices and poor consumer demand in crisis-hit Southern Europe, historically a core market for the 48-year-old family company. The move to promote Alessandro Benetton and delist the stock after 25 years on the Milan exchange are seen as part of the bid to revive the company’s flagging fortunes. But the chairman is coy when asked about the new ad campaign being high on color, but soft on controversy. He adamantly distinguishes between the brand’s product campaigns—which feature actual Benetton products—and the institutional campaigns that let loose on brand values. We’ll just have to wait for the next institutional campaign “to find out how provocative, or innovative, or how strange we are in our message,” Benetton says with a laugh.