The Tight-Knit Benetton Clan Has Stitched Together a Multimillion-Dollar Fashion Empire

updated 10/15/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/15/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

It's no joke to say they are pulling the wool over everyone's eyes. For more and more American teenagers, Benetton has become a clothing fix as vital to daily living as the Big Mac. By the end of this year, the Italian-based firm expects to have opened 150 stores coast to coast, each with the distinctive bright green storefront. The company expects sales in the U.S. to top $60 million in 1984. "Kids have guaranteed our success," Luciano Benetton has said. "They are thirsty for something new. They like the idea of the Benetton name."

But the Benetton boom is not limited to these shores. Nearly every day a new boutique springs up somewhere in the world. Even the Russians, it's reported, want to get into the act. All over the planet, trendy teens and their elders are sporting Benetton knit tops and bottoms, preppy wools marketed at street couture prices. (They range from $7 to $70.) Ordinary citizens are not the only boosters: Princess Di, Bianca Jagger, Mariel Hemingway and Dustin Hoffman have all been sighted in Benetton duds.

Not just one but four determined Benetton siblings are behind the company's success. Giuliana, 47, is the firm's designer. Luciano, 49, is the managing director. Gilberto, 43, handles financial affairs and Carlo, 40, is production chief. "We four have never clashed and as long as we get along, we will stay together," says Giuliana. The quartetto Italiano oversees its empire in Treviso, a 13th-century town a stone's throw from Venice.

Today Benetton is the world's largest consumer of wool, processing some 23 tons of raw material a day, a far cry from the operation that began modestly in the mid-'50s, when Giuliana sold Luciano's accordion and Carlo's bicycle. With the proceeds she bought her first knitting machine. "I liked the way the English did sweaters," she explains. "But I wanted the wool softer. English ones seemed so sad. I thought, 'Let's try brighter colors.' "

Impressed by his sister's work, Luciano peddled the designs to small knitwear stores. The Benettons' first best-seller was a soft violet pullover of wool, angora and cashmere. There were some scratchy moments over the next few years. But by the time they opened their first plant in 1966, the Benettons were well on their way.

Giuliana's bright designs are the company's mainstay, but its merchandising techniques are just as dazzling. Consider, too, the company's high-tech systems: The 30 million articles of clothing produced annually are designed on video screens. In Europe a computerized inventory system provides immediate feedback on what the shopper in Paris, London, Zurich or Rome is buying. That network may soon be linked with Washington and Tokyo via satellite. The company's escalating sales figures are the envy of the rag trade. The Benettons expect to gross $350 million by the end of the year. As Luciano has put it, "There are many elements to our success, but the real point is that we have kept the same strategy all along—to put fashion on an industrial level."

The Benettons' drive undoubtedly stems from their difficult childhood. The children were shattered by the death of their father, Leone, the owner of a small car-rental business, who died of a kidney disease at the age of 33. After his death, the children's mother, Rosa, supported the family by embroidering tablecloths. "Once my father died," says Giuliana, "I felt school was a complete waste of time. I wanted to be useful. I wanted to do something to help out my family." Gilberto adds, "Personally I feel we would never have accomplished all this if our father had not died so soon."

Today the Benettons' impoverished early days are well behind them, and they envision a wildly woolly future for their clothes. As Luciano puts it, "We would like to be present in nearly every country in the world. Like Coca-Cola."

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