Over the course of the last 30 years, Luca Benini of Slam Jam brought the likes of Stüssy, Carhartt WIP, and Aries to the world
Luca Benini of Slam Jam could easily be described as one of the founding fathers of streetwear, but point that out to him and he’s way too modest to agree. Still, the stats don’t lie: for 30 years, he’s been responsible for distributing and selling what has come to be known as streetwear across the world, bringing Stüssy to Europe and the streetwear phenomenon at large to Italy and beyond. Today, he works with the likes of Alyx designer Matthew Williams, and Sofia Prantera of Aries.
Slam Jam’s tagline, ‘connecting tribes of like-minded people across the world’, links directly back to how the company was founded in 1989, when it was born from Benini’s desire to bring his love of streetwear to his homeland. “I don’t want to be arrogant but it was really like a desert,” he says of the lack of brand availability in Italy at the time.
Fast forward to now, and, in celebration of its 30th anniversary, Slam Jam took over the Museo Marino Marini in Florence during this week’s Pitti Uomo: a testimony to how streetwear has infiltrated and invigorated the fashion system. As part of a dialogue where fashion met art, duo OrtaMiklos hammered icebergs out of styrofoam in a live art performance, while installations featuring pieces from three of Slam Jam’s key brands – Nike, Carhartt WIP, and Stüssy – stood alongside, demonstrating streetwear’s powerful energy as both disruptor and creator.
“It’s really a pleasure to be celebrated like that. It wouldn’t have happened here 30 years ago,” Benini notes. “The fashion system only started to look at streetwear or subculture a few years ago. I need to say thank you to Virgil (Abloh) because I’m positive he has made a big contribution to try to open the eyes of people working in the fashion industry. Fashion is not the same as before.” He also credits Japan, “where streetwear first became fashion before fashion wanted to be streetwear”, and has been a fan of Undercover since Jun Takahashi’s first show in Paris, in which he demonstrated his ability to operate between art, fashion, and music, “Before all that kind of strong streetwear happened. His slogan is amazing. ‘We make noise, not clothes.’”
Benini came to fashion through music, in particular hip hop, and initially worked as a DJ. His personal involvement with the streetwear community prompted him to drive his car from Bologna to London in those early days, picking up brands like Lonsdale for his new business. He spent the late 80s working mainly with London brands before turning his attention to the US, heading to tradeshows in San Diego to shop Stüssy, XLarge, Pervert, and Freshjive. “The shows wouldn’t just be clothing. Wu-Tang Clan would be performing inside a booth. And when I saw that I was like, that’s what I feel, not only clothing.”
When Benini started out, bringing his wares back to Italy – where the fashion system was (and to some degree still is) fairly conservative – often resulted in a few ‘lost in translation’ moments. Cue Benini trying to explain to stores why a t-shirt from the first-ever XLarge collection, the seminal brand backed by Beastie Boys and Sonic Youth, was the best thing ever. “I was so excited. Really minimal, really simple, but it was impossible to explain to the owner of an Italian clothing store who doesn’t know Beastie Boys or Sonic Youth or anything about underground music. He only sees a shirt without any logo in XL and says ‘why do I need to buy that?’”, Benini laughs. “It’s difficult to translate the energy. Stores here either sold jeans or traditional sportswear, but mainly for tennis, definitely no basketball. We didn’t even have Air Jordans in Italy in ’89.”
Here, Benini breaks down how to build a streetwear empire, the importance of the t-shirt, and why collaboration is key.
THINK BIGGER THAN JUST CLOTHES
What does it take for a brand to catch Luca Benini’s eye? He admits it’s actually difficult to explain, noting how his partnership with Matthew Williams came about from ‘a feeling he got’ the first time they met in Venice. “What I love about Matthew, or Stüssy, or a brand like Undercover is that it’s not only clothing, it’s art. Jun makes music. At his first show at Pitti, he did a very nice performance after the show, really experimental in terms of music. This is what I’m looking for: not only clothing but what’s behind it. The bigger picture.”
IF YOU WANT SOMETHING, GO OUT AND GET IT
When Benini started out, the number one brand on his wish list was Stüssy. “I chased Stüssy as if it were the love of my life I wanted to marry,” he says, matter-of-factly. When they finally said yes, it was an instant stamp of approval for Benini’s business. “All the doors opened. Before Stüssy I’d go to talk to brands and they’d be like, ‘What’s your name, what brands you work with?’ Once I could say Stüssy, it was like having a gold card. Stüssy gave me a lot of credibility in one day. And it still does today. Stüssy is a generator for streetwear, the first brand to come out of California and create that global community.”
“This is what I’m looking for: not only clothing but what’s behind it. The bigger picture” – Luca Benini
YOU CAN’T IGNORE STREETWEAR IF YOU WANT TO WORK IN FASHION TODAY
It’s probably fair to say that high fashion today is quite keen to get in on streetwear’s aura of authenticity. For Benini, the tipping point for streetwear’s introduction into high fashion came with Supreme’s collab with Louis Vuitton for AW17. “I was at that show, and it felt like a kind of official document. I think after that, people who maybe didn’t realise before certainly realise now that streetwear must be taken into consideration. Supreme represents a lot of other brands in terms of subculture. It was a kind of milestone. From now on, if you want to work in fashion you also need to consider (streetwear).” Benini is also quick to bring up the Gucci x Dapper Dan collaboration: “Five years ago, something like that wouldn’t have happened.”
DON’T UNDERESTIMATE THE IMPORTANCE OF THE T-SHIRT
The t-shirt is the kind of holy grail of streetwear. “It’s like the front page of a newspaper. It’s the easiest piece to promote something. A statement. It’s more difficult to communicate something via shoes, harder to make. When you start with a t-shirt, you can drive a message.” How does Benini feel about the rise of the full-on logo? “It’s a trend, like skinny pants were. It will come and go. Right now the graphics are really strong but it will probably change. For me, though, it’s too much.”
COLLABORATE, COLLABORATE, COLLABORATE
What should someone with a great t-shirt brand do to grow into something ‘more’? Benini points to Aries as an example of doing that well: first of all, he really rates the design, but also applauds the connections Sofia Prantera has made beyond a great product, like her Dario Argento project, or her recently announced collaboration with photographer David Sims and artist Jeremy Deller. “It’s this whole big picture that goes far beyond strong design and a high-quality product, which is really important. You need something more and Sofia does that with art really well.”
YOU DON’T NEED TO STUDY FASHION TO BECOME A DESIGNER
If the thought of years of student loan debt or having to win the Euromillions to study fashion isn’t very thrilling, take comfort in this: “I’m not sure studying fashion design is as important as it was before,” Benini says. “Now it’s probably more important for the creative director to know a lot of other things besides the right way to design a piece of clothing.” Again, he points to Virgil Abloh as an example. “He studied architecture, he did music, he did art, he’s not a trained designer but he has a lot of knowledge around that, and from that he can create a good collection. I don’t think it’s so important today to study fashion to do fashion.”