If you live in Italy and your kids, nephews or little cousins are attending a local school, you will know that their classrooms are a melting pot of cultures. Italy went through remarkable social changes in the last 15 years, but so did Britain, France, Germany, Spain and the rest of the world. As migrants from Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia settled down in Italy, they brought indeed with them winds of change.
It was only natural then that photographer Oliviero Toscani decided to relaunch his collaboration with Benetton starting with an image taken in a typical Italian classroom from a Milanese primary school comprising 28 children from 13 different countries.
In one image the kids are pictured all together, sitting at a large desk or standing around the blackboard; in another they are reading Pinocchio with their teacher.
Though Luciano Benetton does not have an operative role in the company, it is said he is behind the return of Toscani to the group that is currently reworking on its marketing strategy and on relaunching its shops. In a way the images unveiled so far (the campaign will be launched tomorrow) read as sweet and innocent compared to previous campaigns.
Toscani worked with Benetton from 1982 to 2000 and made history with some of his campaigns deemed explicit and transgressive by the media.
In the early '80s images showing young people in Benetton clothes on a neutral white background there was a message of diversity and respect for all cultures, supported by the universal "United Colors of Benetton" slogan. The early campaigns often reflected a joyful exuberance: the many colours of Benetton garments became a way to celebrate diversity and optimism in a multi-cultural carefree world.
But there was also a strong team behind the images, comprising Oliviero Toscani, stylist Caroline Baker, hairstylist Valentin Mordack, make-up artist Marc Schaeffer and Benetton Artistic Director Bruno Suter, who worked together in synergy to produce coherent campaigns.
Many companies boast about selecting their models from the street nowadays (think about Vêtements' latest lookbook), but at the time Benetton would scout its models from the streets and the casting would last weeks (now everything is quicker, if you think about it, with companies and brands often spotting people on Instagram and other social media...).
Then there were more controversial themes or images – from a nun and priest kissing to a newborn baby still with umbilical cord attached or three raw hearts accompanied by the words "white", "black" and "yellow".
The most discussed image ever used in a Benetton campaign remains a photograph taken by journalism student Therese Frare of David Kirby, who lay in a hospital bed dying of AIDS in 1990.
Critics saw it as shocking and opportunistic, but Kirby's family highlighted this was a way to raise awareness around AIDS while Toscani stated that Benetton was trying to deal with issues advertisers didn't want to tackle.
In the years that followed Toscani continued to use more powerful images to explore themes such as peace, a theme approached via the blood stained clothes of a young man, Marinko Gagro, killed near Mostar, in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1993, or death penalty - often stating in interviews that his work was about communicating ideas and not producing mere adverts. When Toscani left the company 17 years ago Benetton's star had started to wane, its performance slowed down in more recent years, revenues went down and the group did not manage to communicate any strong messages.
Luciano Benetton seemed keener on investing on campaigns that had strong links with what was going on in the world, even when it meant being unpopular or being criticised, but, as the years passed, the group left behind shock tactics, and at times turned to high profile bloggers to look for a younger audience and reach out to new consumers. The strategy didn't seem to work that well, though: after all, we still remember the David Kirby image and the debates around it, but we have forgotten any kind of collaboration with any contemporary "influencer".
The current Benetton school campaign may look softer compared to the previous ones, but Toscani is asking us to look at the multiracial class and think about discrimination, integration, racism, education and the possibility of a brighter and better future. Besides, that Pinocchio book is not so innocent, but it could be read as a reference and an ironic take on fake news (and to previous Benetton images - Pinocchio appeared indeed a while back in another Benetton campaign...).
Will Toscani inject back the magic of provocation into Benetton? Difficult to say in the fast age of social media, but you can read this return in two ways: this may be the classic Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's "The Leopard" strategy (revolutionising everything maintaining the status quo) or finally returning to genuine professionals. So this could be about the past repeating itself or a way to say goodbye to young and trendy influencers (something that may align with Li Edelkoort's trend forecasts for 2019). Time will tell, but it will be intriguing to see what Toscani will do.
There are indeed so many issues, people and themes that may inspire the photographer, including Donald Trump, North Korea, Brexit, violence against women and the migration crisis. Hopefully, the photographer will have the guts to explore the hidden cost of fashion with campaigns that will also look at workers in Bangladesh (Benetton was among the companies producing clothes at the Rana Plaza factory complex that collapsed in Dhaka in 2013, killing over 1,100 people). We'd better keep an eye on him then.