Benetton makes a splash on the eve of Milan Fashion Week

MILAN (AP) — Benetton has long made waves off the runway with its provocative advertising campaigns. But the storied family-owned knitwear brand is seeking to make waves inside the world of Italian fashion under the artistic guidance of French designer Jean-Charles de Castelbajac.

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United Colors of Benetton made a splash with its new collection showcasing experimental textiles and ecological materials that was presented Tuesday — on the eve of Milan Fashion Week — inside a 1930s-era swimming hall.

In his second season with the brand, Castelbajac said he is aiming to create a balance between Benetton's every-man and every-woman image while elevating its styling and innovation.

"This is a big step for us," Castelbajac said. "We are combining ideas, fashion and styling while experimenting in new directions."

A trench coat made out of paper and recycled fibers was the apex of innovation in the Spring/Summer 2020 runway show, which took place along the perimeter of the pool as swimmers in Undercolors of Benetton suits did laps.

Castelbajac said the tailored trench in paper-bag brown with green stitching was impermeable to rain. He also created a papery cropped top paired with a white skirt that bore a devilish silhouette in the same material.

Other standout pieces included a handkerchief skirt featuring a stylized postcard print on the front that can be worn with a flowing silhouette, or tied in the front or back for a straight look in two different prints. And selections covered with tiny sweaters or mini T-shirts bearing images from Oliverio Toscanini's advertising campaigns were meant to inspire playfulness.

The co-ed collection was anchored by the brand's famous colors and denim, epitomized by a check denim kilt with multi-color pleated inserts that was paired with a rainbow-striped knit top and striped color-sheer hosiery for her and multi-colored pockets on white garments for him.

The offerings mostly hewed to a watery theme. The show opened with neoprene rompers, tops and mini-dresses with oversized plastic zippers followed by a series of bold nautical looks with anchor motifs. But there were also preppy outfits in clashing patterns of pink and green and a garden club series of striped embroidered eyelet layered with florals.

Footwear included platform sandals inspired by surfboards and sneakers with florals or streaks of color. Sailor caps or plastic visors topped the looks.

As he relaunches UCB, Castelbajac is combing accessible items like socks that start at 6 euros ($6.50) with high-fashion options like an oversized rainbow-colored jacket of wooly sheep shapes that sold out at 1,200 euros ($1,325) each.

"My problem is they never say no to me," the designer said.

Luciano Benneton said the design shift had boosted sales and also "sympathy" for the brand, which has taken steps to improve its quality by moving some production back to Italy and Europe.

"This is a goal of the company but also an expectation of the market," Benetton said. "Not to buy a lot of things that cost a little, but somewhat fewer things that cost a bit more and create more emotion."

Benetton said the brand is studying a move to open stores again in the United States, noting strong sales on e-commerce there.

"We know the brand is still very fresh and well-known," he said.