In the 80s and 90s, the Italian music scene birthed a punk rock band called "CCCP - Fedeli alla linea", which, at that time was considered to be amongst the most influentials of the scenario. The band came from the "left-winged" Italian region Emilia Romagna, famous for their joyful and rebel-like attitude. To be precise, they were from Emilia, the broader part of the area; the Romagna part, among other beautiful places, is famous for Federico Fellini's hometown of Rimini. CCCP's outrageous lyrics and behaviour are a solid memory of every Italian music lover, and if you happen to listen to them nowadays, they still sound modern. Their song "Manifesto" from 1987 states "Non si svende (x2)/Neanche se non funziona(x2)/Niente saldi di speranza/Niente saldi di esistenza/Niente voti alla Madonna (translatable to: You can't sell it off(x2)/even if it doesn't work(x2)/no sales of hope/no sales of existence/no vows to Virgin Mary), a hymn about fighting for your credo without surrendering. This brief geography of the Italian music scene is crucial to understand Luca Benini's roots and the environment where his baby, the Slam Jam company, was born and has grown to become one of the most influential voices of the fashion system.
"Since I started, I have been guided by my instincts", said the entrepreneur. "Sometimes it was complicated to explain my choices to my team and customers and, even for me, to understand what was happening or what I was doing. I had always been loyal to my intuitions, and this allowed me to go through the trends, without losing my vision". Back in 1989, when the company started, it began as an underground distributor of overseas street style brands and, more importantly, an aggregator of subcultures from all around the world. It was social media before the social media era. Today's over-emphasized concept of community was one of the drives that helped Benini to grow his business.
"My company started with a language that was unknown in fashion in that period. I always worked in this environment, but Slam Jam wasn't accepted as a proper fashion player" pointed out. "When 20 years ago I began my collaboration with Stüssy I adopted a completely different approach: I wanted to have the brands in the boutiques to raise the perception of the label because it worthed as it wasn't just a t-shirt or sweater, but a cultural signifier. At the time, it was not possible because there were only high-end stores or cheap jeans shops, quality and timings didn't match with the needs and mentality were also different. But I was sure that my idea of evaluating the cultural genres was right, and it was clear when I visited their New York store for the first time".
Since the beginning, he was not a pure cash-oriented distributor, he always rose the bar of the challenges as he loves the clothes. He quit his studies and started working as a shop assistant. "In the 80s there was a famous boutique in Ferrara that was carrying Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Dior, and I was working there. Every morning before the shop opened, I was spacing out with three fingers all the hangers as I wanted it to be impeccable. In contrast, the boutique's approach to streetwear was completely different, and this really bothered me. I considered (and I still do) the brands I was working with at the same rank of the more deluxe one as they have equal dignity, even if different roots. If you work in a Stüssy or in a Louis Vuitton store, the behaviour must be exactly the same: respectful, well-mannered and sophisticated".
This mindset put Slam Jam in a unique position: an outsider that, at first indirectly and then directly, impacted the System. "It was my passion for fashion that let me work for a store that was selling Fiorucci, then for another one with Saint Laurent, go in a showroom where I sold classic tailoring until I suddenly discovered the "new wave" wave and I started wearing creepers shoes", he recounted. "It was instinctive for me to move on from the skateboarding world and keep looking for something new. Not for a proper business strategy, but for my need to learn and experience as much as possible. My limitless curiosity made me swing from tailoring to sportswear because I repeat, I love fashion in every shade, so I don't want to exclude anything. The trickiest part is to turn this passion into a profession and control it as I have the responsibility of more than 80 employees and collaborators that trust me. I remember when I suddenly switched from selling sneakers and ripped jeans to Alden shoes and trousers with pleats on the front, people were shocked, but at the moment I felt it was the right choice to make. I've never been driven by a real business plan and not every decision was successful, but this helped me acquire loyalty from both my team and the public. One of the style moments in my life that I will never forget happened when I was 12, in the mid-70s, when I had long hair and wore ripped jeans. One day, a friend of mine told me: 'Luca calm down, in two years you will wear a shirt and tie as well'. But I answered: 'Listen, I will wear them only when they will give me the same emotions of my actual long patchouli anointed hair and ripped jeans'". This clears out that Benini is not a poser, but took his own responsibilities.
1017 Alyx 9sm is the project launched in 2015 and designed by Chicago-born Matthew Williams and himself, and it is the perfect and successful example of his fashion approach: a sophisticated mix of slim tailoring, precious fabrics, cool merch and accessories. Located between New York and Ferrara, where the off-limit last floor of the concrete brutalist Headquarters building by Diener & Diener Architekten in the outskirt of the city is all devoted to the brand. This is the first proper label co-launched by Luca Benini, as the entrepreneur never envisioned something like this for Slam Jam. "My second big passion is music, and this is completed linked to my idea of fashion", said Benini. "I love to listen, discover and play if I must relate it to my work. I can easily say that I'm a Dj, not a producer. Apart from Alyx, which is a different project, I never imagined a Slam Jam branded collection. What excites me the most is to pick up the best around and remix it in my way to keep the excellence of the product, but with an exclusive design, the same I do when I play music".
This was a mindset he had since 1996 when he thought of founding his own clothing brand (but never did): a unique logo that becomes an aggregator of the coolest things to upgrade them. At the time, it was impossible, but it happened differently, and it's still going on well. "Twenty four years ago this was a utopia, now it's normal, as collaborations pop up every day. Almost all the brands have entered this risky path, and if you are not aware of the hazards it can be a dangerous boomerang", he warns. "I know so many examples from the past where this behaviour led companies in dire straits. To mention one, at the beginning of 2000, Stüssy's Japanese branch had different management, and they started earlier with collaborations. Long story short soon the customers were asking only for the special items ignoring the real collection, meaning that the brand itself didn't have relevance and identity anymore. I feel that this is not a trend, but something that the fashion system will carry on forever, but it must find the right balance".
Cultural and aesthetic blending is the DNA of Slam Jam. Still, to be successful it must be carefully made, as today's phagocytizing society which asks more and more new products is obfuscating the plans of many companies and buyers which, instead of trying to surprise the customers with smart buying, keep asking for something new without caring about quality or concepts. "Thinking about music again, I don't care to be the first to play one promo if it has no quality, I prefer an old cool track I like. The same applies to fashion, I see that the market keeps demanding new items with a lack of reason and vision", explained Benini. "The request is often to the detriment of quality regard both collaborations and new designers. This quick consuming trend pushed to launch in the market too many new brands which most of them were not necessary, I think. It's sick bulimia of goods that is killing creativity and desire. It's spinning ruthless vortex that will kill most of the young minds which don't have enough money that allows them to resist".
The warm-hearted business model of Luca Benini showed how, even if you're robust and straightforward, sometimes it's wiser to sit down and think a little before getting carried away by chasing the latest empty trend. And keeping his feet on the ground in a small town away from the fashion epicentres has helped the company to feel the gauge of both fashion excesses and real people desires.