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Fashion 88 : Luciano Benetton Scores Big in Sportswear Game

December 02, 1988|ROSE-MARIE TURK | Times Staff Writer

Luciano Benetton, president of Benetton sportswear, was featured in the September issue of French Elle, wearing not the moderately priced colors of his own Italian-based company, but the expensive designs of Hermes, Jean Paul Gaultier and Jean Charles de Castelbajac.

"It creates a little confusion. But I enjoy that game," confesses the man who helps steer the world's largest knitwear operation. In town for a look at the Benetton store that will open Dec. 9 on Melrose Avenue, he decided on the spur of the moment to attend an unusual company event.

"We don't have fashion shows often," explained Sally Fischer, Benetton's U.S. director of public relations who flew in from New York for the occasion and acted as interpreter.

So what did Luciano think of the spring collection now that he'd seen all those united colors--to borrow the company slogan--on very California models, as he sat in the morning sun and sipped cappuccino?

'Funny Experience'

"Such a funny experience," he said, appearing serious and thoughtful behind horn-rim glasses. "The clothes looked good in the way they should. They're fun, bright, exciting and practical too," he added, sounding very commercial.

In a nutshell, the Benetton Group--run by Luciano, sister Giuliana and brothers Carlo and Gilberto--stands for "industrial fashion, which means affordable designs for the masses."

No one can fault the premise. There are so many individually owned Benetton stores now--more than 4,000 in 63 countries--that the company is frequently hailed as the McDonald's of fashion. With more than $1 billion in worldwide sales last year, the firm has been on a roll since a storybook start 25 years ago--when Giuliana knitted brightly colored woolens and Luciano bicycle-delivered them to stores.

Now it's fast cars that keep him dashing from place to place. He arrived in Los Angeles via Australia, where he watched the green Benetton car take third place in a Formula I race. When Luciano visits here four times a year, he looks and listens a lot: "I go to new restaurants, new stores. I get a feel for what people are thinking."

It took him three years to find a Melrose location because he was looking for the right feeling. It came with an old factory that has a cathedral ceiling, and the store will be the first to deviate from the prototype designed by Italian architects Tobia and Afra Scarpa.

Benetton might be Italian in many ways, but the clothing for men, women and children, the fragrance, even the Under Colors underwear "are more inspired by the French idea of fashion, which tends to be more free flowing, more personalized, more individualized," Luciano said.

The spring collection, with prices ranging from $25 for cotton dresses to $113 for a man's pin-stripe blazer, is based on a number of global inspirations, including surf colors and styles from Southern California.

The vivid hues and "young at heart" fashions seem to go down well everywhere, including Japan (where there are 250 Benetton outlets) and South Korea, where 41 stores have opened since last December and where the reception has been "very emotional and exciting."

Luciano wears his wavy gray hair shoulder-length, and when he makes a personal appearance, such as his recent one in Los Angeles, he prefers classical suits "made by a tailor in Milan." His particular splash of color came from a luscious watercolor tie he'd purchased in Boston (and later discovered was designed by a friend in Italy). His wine-colored socks, worn with brown loafers, matched his glasses. And his white shirt, meant to be buttoned down, wasn't. Could this be a new European trend?

"No, not a trend," responded the mega-millionaire, smiling sheepishly. Just his way of grabbing a few extra seconds in the morning.

'Italian Miracle'

Even seconds can be useful to a man like 51-year-old Luciano. The company he helped set in motion in 1965 has grown into one of the most technologically sophisticated in the world. "The Italian miracle of the century," Life magazine has called it.

Italy is the company's leading market, followed by the United States, Germany and France. But there are Benetton shops in less likely places, such as Budapest, Belgrade, Prague and East Berlin. Next in line for the surf fashions of California and the united colors of Benetton: locations that feel right to Luciano in Moscow and Shanghai.

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