FERRARA, Italy — "Basically, what I do is selling clothes," says Luca Benini, matter of factly. That's for sure. But “selling clothes” only describes what he does. Just how he does it is a lot more complex and interesting. The subcultural spin which characterises Benini's approach — with its knack for framing streetwear labels with a sense of tribalism rooted in more than mere hype — explains his enduring success and the unique position he has attained in the fashion industry.
If sportswear and high fashion keep flirting with each other, it's partly because Benini paved the way for this cross-pollination almost 30 years ago, back when the barriers between high and low were more firmly defined. Indeed, his instinct for artfully blurring cultural boundaries is, in essence, the secret to his business success. “It’s all based on intuition rather than careful planning,” he says. “I learned everything I know through experience, not with schooling.”
Benini, an ebullient 50-something more akin to a rockstar — of the Pete Townshend variety — than a businessman, is the founder and chief executive of Slam Jam, the Ferrara, Italy-based enterprise whose operations largely consist of selecting and distributing sportswear, from Stüssy to Carhartt WIP to Nike. Today, Slam Jam operates across the world, with outposts in Milan, Paris, London and New York. In parallel, a smaller division of Slam Jam manages production for lines like Alyx and Martine Rose. A portion of its revenue also comes from retail. The company operates mono- and multi-brand stores as well as a website, Slam Jam Socialism. In 2016 the company, which employs 88 people, generated revenue of €47 million (about $51 million).
A strong link between fashion, streetwear, music and popular culture has always been the backbone of Slam Jam — and its main raison d'être. "I would like Slam Jam to be perceived as a seal of approval on the products we distribute, a bit like the Woolmark logo warranties quality on the different products that bear it," explains Benini, who has a background in nightlife and whose main interest beyond fashion remains, to this day, music. "I am not a designer, which means I am not a creator. I am a selector, a bit like a DJ: creating worlds by mixing existing bits is what keeps me going."
Sampling, postproduction or whatever you call it is, by and large, the creative mode par excellence of the contemporary world. Humble and straightforward in an almost disarming way, Benini never uses the term du jour "curator" even though curating is exactly what makes his take on distribution relevant. He has an eagle eye and a rare ability to spark a following. He is probably the sole showroom owner who has inspired a sort of tribe. Indeed, the Slam Jam posse is unmissable: niche, nonchalant and not really giving a damn. From Opening Ceremony to OAMC to Visvim, every cool label out there somehow gravitates to Slam Jam’s showrooms or stores.
Benini's painfully specific but eclectic taste ensures coherence to choices that might at first seem a bit haphazard. His curatorial eye naturally leaves its imprint on the collections he distributes, giving Slam Jam a palpable identity. But if he has become something of a case study, his freewheeling path to success is hard to categorise. Benini got his start in music in the optimistic '80s and he has managed to maintain a certain freedom of thought. This makes his enterprise highly personal. You might say Benini has managed to turn his own individual tendencies into a business model.
It is the intangible but defining world that exists around each and every product that makes it special. It’s artistic as well as commercial.
The Slam Jam headquarters, where our meeting takes place, are located in the outskirts of Ferrara in the Emilia-Romagna region of central Italy. The brutalist splendour of the building — a Diener & Diener masterpiece of dramatic volumes and challenging spareness — contrasts with the industrial dullness of the surroundings, but also with the Renaissance opulence of the city centre. But in a way, it could be anywhere. Or maybe not. After all, Emilia has given rise to some of the most original business stories in the history of fashion. Maybe it's because slow provincial life leaves a lot of time for one’s imagination. Maybe it's because small town life calls for creative revenge. Maybe it's something in the water.
"I've always loved clothes, even though nobody in my family was into fashion," recalls Benini. His blue eyes are piercing and curious. "Early on, however, I was drawn to fashion as an expressive tool and that led to music. I fell into different musical loves because of the way a particular subculture looked," he confesses. Benini quit school to work as a shop assistant. He was a denizen of a burgeoning nightlife scene and worked as a DJ, printing t-shirts with the flyers of his gigs, and acquiring a flair for cultural mix and match.
"I used to mix punk with pop, but not everybody was happy with it," he recalls. "One night I got the side of my car scratched with a key in an act of protest." Benini kept changing jobs, but fashion remained a draw and he finally settled as a commercial agent. A trip to the US — and Benini’s encounter with a label named Stüssy and its visionary founder — changed the course of his career in 1989, the year Slam Jam was born. Benini began importing Stüssy to the Italian market. Carhartt quickly followed and his business boomed. "Slam Jam, as a name, came very naturally: it was printed on a Troop sweatshirt which I particularly liked," says Benini, whose fondness for the wonderfully multicultural approach to retail of the late Elio Fiorucci is apparent.
Fiorucci saw shopping as a melting pot. Benini sees commerce as a way to support alternative lifestyles. "I think that what we sell is way more than just t-shirts. It is the intangible but defining world that exists around each and every product that makes it special — and that is attained through a mix of activities that are artistic as well as commercial." Benini has made countless moves across hip hop, skate and club culture that, although not immediately cashable, have helped to build his credibility.
As Benini expanded his selection of brands, retaining Carhartt and Stüssy as cash cows while adding Nike, Super Sunglasses, Edwin, Fuct, Aries, Marios and many others, Slam Jam also created a number of cultural milestones, such as the exhibition of street art, "Beautiful Losers," which the company sponsored in 2006. The creation of Slam Trick, an international skateboard contest backed by Slam Jam, was another such moment.
Benini is extremely aware of how to create the kind of cultural context that gives value to what, in the end, is often just t-shirts and sweatshirts. "When I started, I had the feeling that the world of non-performing sportswear and that of jeanswear could merge. That led to the beginning of our path,” says Benini. “Nowadays, streetwear is flirting with designer fashion and we are again at the vanguard of the movement. Slam Jam is very proactive here — and not only as a distribution network. We actively work on production with designers such as Martine Rose and Matthew Williams, whose brand Alyx is entirely a Slam Jam creature," he explains.
Over the years, Slam Jam has grown while evolving its model. "What's happening more and more, for instance, is that we get contacted to be fully involved in brand’s projects, from the creative process of choosing a designer to creating the assets and distributing the products. We recently did it with Napapijri, an outdoorsy brand in need of repositioning, expanding its scope through the capsule collection, Napa by Martine Rose. Similarly, we created Kappa Kontrol for Robe di Kappa after the collaboration with Gosha Rubchinskiy brought new attention to the label. However diverse, these collaborations always happen spontaneously, out of a keen attention for what's happening in the broader cultural landscape," says Benini. Slam Jam's lean structure ensures the company can move at the ever-accelerating pace of culture.
Expansion into retail is another key factor to the company’s success. In addition to a store in Ferrara, Slam Jam owns a store in Milan, in the arty Brera area, as well as Stüssy and Carhartt shops in the edgy Navigli area. The Slam Jam franchise carries high-end fashion sportswear that fully displays the scope of the enterprise. Important launches are made in store both for products and cultural events.
"I love fashion, I really do,” says Benini. “I like the fact that you can constantly, even abruptly, change. Fashion is open. It offered me unique tools to turn the boredom of provincial life into something productive — and that has an effect on what we do.”
Indeed, with his sustained focus on culture, Benini has turned fashion into something that goes far beyond “selling clothes,” generating cultural context alongside revenue.
“I’m constantly surprised by his passion. He is still out there pursuing new design and music like a young person would; with enthusiasm unburdened by the responsibilities of his success,” says David Sinatra, Stüssy’s 28-year-old chief executive, describing Benini. “I know I can trust Luca. He cares more about the brand than he does profits. That is the only way to run a business with longevity.”