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November 20, 2017
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Italian knitwear company United Colors of Benetton is undergoing a long-awaited risorgimento. Source: creativefluff.com.

United Colors of Benetton is back in the fashion game. Its conspicuous New York City pop-up shop, The Art of Knit, currently occupies a converted garage in SoHo and is just one of the many initiatives the brand's recently appointed heir, Alessandro Benetton, has planned for the risorgimento of the prolific Italian knitwear company his family started in 1965. 

Benetton's The Art of Knit pop-up in New York City.
Source: benetton.com/popup.

Since the '90s, the brand has declined in cool-factor, almost disappearing from the collective fashion conscious. However, Benetton isn't a neophyte to cool branding concepts and the interweaving of art with fashion. Nor to sexy knitwear, as evinced by Erik Ravelo's Lana Sutra yarn sculptures on display at the pop-up.

Looking back at the brand's history - the controversial ad campaigns of the '80s and '90s, the Fabrica creative laboratory in Treviso, COLORS magazine - Benetton was the precursor to the branding approach being used by many fashion giants, including retailers like Zara, Uniqlo and H&M (which have, ironically, eclipsed their once-popular Italian predecessor). 

"These days, upstart brands such as Zara and H&M are stealing the headlines - and the allegiance of many younger shoppers - as they storm the world from Moscow to Manila. But Benetton, which had sales last year of about [US]$3 billion, hasn't gone away," writes Peter Gumbel in a prescient 2009 article published in Time magazine. 

Edizione S.r.l., the Benetton family's holding company that owns 92.4 per cent of The Benetton Group, has invested in an array of additional enterprises over the years, keeping Benetton and its founders afloat despite increasing materials and labour costs, and diminishing popularity in the face of more contemporary brands coming out of North America and Europe.

In response, Alessandro Benetton speculates that the family company was slow to adapt to the new forms of communication and media, which in turn inhibited Benetton from conveying its image of socially conscious, colourful and classic Italian fashion over the past decade or so. "I don't think we have lost it, I think what has happened is that our business model has not allowed us to show entirely, all these values," Mr. Benetton told Business of Fashion last year. "We see Benetton where it belongs, which is a company that wants to have a psychological communication, an emotional dialogue with its consumer," he continues, "we do it because we have been doing it for 30 years." 

The Benetton family is a sleeping giant of the fashion industry.

The Benetton family is a sleeping giant of the fashion industry. Their diversified business model - investing in everything from Florence airport to cafeteria-style food chain, Autogrill - coupled with award-winning approaches to advertising, social consciousness, branding and ongoing collaboration with and support of cutting-edge artists, has afforded them a gradual, albeit under-the-radar, progress. 

While the public was drooling over conspicuous collaborations like Lanvin x H&M, Benetton was expanding its brand in emerging markets like China, Mongolia and India, to establish in excess of 6,500 stores in over 120 countries. One of the company's particular targets is the Latin American market, moving its New York regional office to Miami in order to be closer to the high demand coming from countries like Mexico.

Re-conquering the American market after Benetton's hey day in the '80s, seems a likely next step for the brand. Hence, the strategically timed pop-up store in New York City. After personally visiting the pop-up on Fashion's Night Out, it became apparent that The Art of Knit should stand as a synecdoche for the Benetton image. Conceived by Benetton's creative director-cum-Messiah, You Nguyen, who was the former vice-president of Women's Merchandising and Design at Levi-Strauss, the space harkens back to the brand's roots in colourful knitwear as well as its incessant commitment to art.

Along with the aforementioned sex sculptures, the space is full of objets d'art and bric-à-brac from the Benetton archives and Fabrica laboratory. One such piece is a vase made out of a spool of wool by Fabrica artist, Valentina Carretta. Incidentally, everything in the garage is for sale. 

The pop-up is complete with The Art of Knit t-shirts bearing the colourful logo and huge paper dossiers cataloguing most of the items on display, reminiscent of COLORS magazine which the brand has been producing since the early 1990s. COLORS, led by the distinctive work of photographer Oliviero Toscani (who is also responsible for numerous Benetton ad campaigns such the recent Unhate campaign featuring world leaders locking lips), became a crucial marketing platform for Benetton.

The Art of Knit marks a promising new direction for the brand with Nguyen. I could hardly believe my eyes upon entering the 135 Crosby Street garage. The knitwear was trendy and completely covetable. Passing by the storefront here in Toronto on Bloor Street seems not so glossy, but rather somewhere you would shop before attending a Carlton Banks-themed charity golf tournament. 

Alessandro Benetton is leading the 47-year-old
family business into a new phase.
Source: telegraph.co.uk.

Researching the exciting projects Benetton is undertaking in other marketplaces reveals perhaps just a lack of representation in North America, especially here in Canada, and a skewed brand image - two setbacks the brand seems committed to overcoming. "You's appointment is the first phase of our work in pushing forward the business after a difficult few years of global economic crisis," Alessandro Benetton tells The Independent, "[he] is a cosmopolitan and international designer who will be able to take us to the new chapter." 

The golden age of Italian sportswear came and went in the '80s and early '90s, and perhaps Benetton's visionary approach to branding back then was a bit too ahead of its time to have any real currency in an era where the Internet, fashion bloggers and brand X artist collaborations seemed like something out of a Jetsons episode. But Benetton hasn't gone away, and working vigorously outside the spotlight all these years has afforded them a world-renowned fashion brand with an unparalleled legacy. Benetton just might have this so-called fashion game, finally, completely right. 

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