United Colors of Benetton used the most high-profile event in the fashion calendar to showcase its new collection in a unique, stripped back way. Its creative arm Fabrica explains why fashion retailers are getting experimental with the classic catwalk format.
The fashion week cycle is done and dusted for another another year, with the spring-summer highlight for many having been the Versace supermodel reunion in Milan.
The buzziest moment of the season saw Dontella Versace bring together a series of 90s household names including Cindy Crawford, Claudia Schiffer and Naomi Campbell. Together they took to the runway in glittering gowns to mark the 20th anniversary of Gianni Versace's death, recreating the look and feel of an iconic moment from one of the designer’s 1991 fashion week shows in the process.
Just hours later in the same room in Milan’s imposing design museum, La Triennale di Milano, United Colors of Benetton began setting up a very different kind of display in the form of its ‘I See Colors Everywhere’ exhibition.
The understated event ran over two days at the end of September, and was designed to immerse visitors in a story of colour as told by garments from its forthcoming collection, as well as a series of 50 art and design created by Fabrica – Benetton group’s internal art and communications research centre.
The exhibition was curated by a team of Fabrica designers, led by independent consultant, and the institution's own design lead, Sam Baron. He said he wanted to create an experience that would stick in people's minds rather than a put on a more "ephemeral" six-minute fashion show.
The installations comprised everything from furniture to prints, photography to live music and were grouped into eight colour blocks from black through green.
A diverse range of models were positioned around each station, kitted out in block coloured outfits from the store's latest collection. The models were street-cast, says Baron, to ensure diversity and authenticity.
“Milan is really crazy during fashion week, people are overwhelmed with images and shows and parties so I wanted to do something that was a bit more down to earth but stuck to the values of the brand,” he adds.
Noting that the first thing that springs to mind with talking about Benetton is colour in all its expressions – from sparkling knits to well-known campaigns promoting multiculturalism, the Italian company has been hailing the event as "a return to its brand DNA."
This revisiting of its heritage was carefully undertaken during one of the most high-profile weeks in the fashion calendar, and follows on from a disappointing year for the clothing company's parent group, Benetton.
Losses have widened for the giant following a restructure in 2015, in which it decided to refocus on United Colors of Benneton and its sister company Sisley.
In 2016 turnover was down 8.5% on the previous year to €1.3bn in 2016, perhaps indicating that the retailer's approach to fashion week and underscoring of what it sees as an inseparable bond between art and communication is part of a wider strategy to help separate itself from its rivals.
Carlo Tunioli who is chief executive of Fabrica, as well as the senior vice-president of communications for Benetton, says the show sought to be an encapsulation of what the firm is focused on right now: its values.
"Pulling together the works of Fabrica was a chromatic exploration of that power," he notes. "We’re doing this because we want consumers to engage with Benetton at every level – of course through our fashion collections, but also in terms of what we stand for. Colour, knitwear, Italian style, art, creativity and social values”
In the past, United Colors of Benetton has invested in more traditional fashion shows to premiere its latest collections and mark big occasions. For its 40th anniversary it staged a runway at Paris' Pompidou Centre, but for its 50th birthday celebrations last year, it instead decided to comb through its eye-pleasing archive and stage a knitwear exhibition at its headquarters in Italy.
This time around, "we never thought about a catwalk or anything like that," says Tunioli. "Benetton has always taken a slightly more creative and innovative approach – and this is a further example. This new initiative is not only about fashion but an outward expression of everything the brand is about and brought to life creatively."
When pressed on why there's an ongoing trend for more accessible fashion brands like Yeezy for Adidas or Tommy Hilfiger to rewrite the typical fashion show forumla, Baron – who has consulted everyone from L'Oreal to Luis Vuitton – muses that the old system is "over" for such high-street retailers.
It still works for the glossy high-fashion brands, like Versace he argues, but maybe not so much for retailers where everyday consumers purchase clothes. "[The Versace show] was super golden, very Italian. It was a perfect setup and it was current, but I think we need to take a deeper at look at what the meaning of fashion is these days."
Fabrica, Benetton's longstanding "creativity laboratory", has been helping the brand do this for over 23 years. Nestled between canals in Treviso, ner Venice, the institution looks to combine culture with industry, offering individuals under the age of 25 a one-year scholarship in subjects like design, publishing, visual communication and photography.
Though Fabrica essentially serves as Benetton's internal agency it too works with other brands, additionaly United Colors of Benetton has previously worked with production houses and creative agencies to a hybrid model on certain projects. For example 72andSunny was involved in the creation of its famous 2011 'Unhate' kissing ads.
Speaking on Fabrica, Tunioli hints that the courses it offers may be soon evolve to a more "horizontal" structure that is less siloed. Baron, meanwhile, muses that the the real power of the in-house operation lies in the way it recruits young people from all over the world and encourages them to work with one another on a variety of briefs.
“Lots of brands try to adapt this model, but it always emerges as something very commercial because marketing people see the potential of ideas. Benetton really builds a generation of creative people," he adds.