MILAN — Take it from an expert: streetwear will never be dead.
So believes streetwear guru Luca Benini, founder of Slam Jam, which has taken a street-inspired approach since its early days in 1989. In an interview with WWD, the maven not only discussed the company’s recent expansion into womenswear in the lead-up to Slam Jam’s 35th anniversary, but also shared thoughts on the state of the industry.
While the minimalist and beige-forward “quiet luxury” wave may have dimmed the enthusiasm of hype beasts, Benini said that such a shift in fashion is only physiological.
“I believe that a statement like ‘streetwear is dead’ can come only from those in fashion, not those looking at costume at large. Fashion takes and rejects, and if we think of streetwear as a food ingredient, there’s been a sort of overuse — it was everywhere just like parsley,” said Benini. “And since fashion has to change by definition… [it’s understandable] that after years, there was a need to go back to something more minimal.”
“Streetwear is dead just like punk is dead — which is never dead, because even after 50 years, we still talk about it. Streetwear existed before fashion noticed it and will exist after it, too,” continued Benini. “What happened was that after decades that [streetwear] was ill-viewed from the fashion system, at a certain point the industry realized there could have been something to take even from there. That basically it could offer a lot — and it did. In return, streetwear received a lot from this closeness to fashion, as well: it understood that clothes could be made better, it upped the quality.”
Started from a garage in Ferrara, Italy, Slam Jam was on the scene way before the category became mainstream. Benini established the first Italian company to distribute cool American streetwear brands in the country, having catapulted the likes of Stüssy, Carhartt WIP and Alpha Industries to Italian and European fame, and establishing a sense of all-are-welcome style by blending music, art and clubbing outside of the European fashion establishment.
What kicked off as a small warehouse operation in Ferrara evolved into a global company that highlights urban subcultures and their cultural influence. From the mid-2000s onwards, Slam Jam gradually expanded its scope, adding a direct-to-consumer business with retail on top of its distribution arm. It introduced a cult e-commerce site, as well as multibrand stores in Ferrara, inside the headquarters, and in Milan.
To this end, the company decided to mark its approaching 35th anniversary by expanding its product assortment and bringing its point of view to womenswear, too.
“We are in a constant dialogue with our community and we felt it was natural — yet urgent — to extend our brand selection in order to serve our people better through more categories, with a strong focus on accessories,” said Benini. “For years we have occasionally included and then removed women’s items, but now times were ripe to take a decisive step into this direction with a certain selection… There’s a dedicated buying that focuses in translating the Slam Jam attitude into the women’s world.”
The assortment blends emerging and established names, including Chet Lo, Jean Paul Gaultier, Martine Rose, Marrknull, Roussey, Abra, Guess USA and Kiko Kostadinov.
Benini, who is also behind some of the sector’s successful collaborations — including Napapijri and Martine Rose, Oakley and Samuel Ross — confirmed that “the way we operate won’t change, so there will be projects in partnership with brands that could range from the product to an experience or an event” for the women’s segment, too.
“Today multibrand stores need to give companies more than just a window for their products, but also contents, collaborations and feedback,” said Benini. “This makes [the job] more interesting but also more complex because it means you don’t have to have just buyers, but also other figures able to answer to different demands, and ultimately turn these destinations into something more.”
Speaking of collaborations, the most recent one is the XT-Quest 1 for Slam Jam sneaker developed with French sportswear label Salomon, which dropped Thursday. Marking the second tie-up between the two parties, the 190-euro outdoor-inspired footwear style nods to the rugged beauty of desert landscapes and aims to shed light on the importance of dialogue with nature.
For the occasion, the companies conceived an immersive retail experience at the Beijing hot spot SKP and a takeover of the Shanghai-based electronic music club Heim Club with a six-hour party and international DJ guests.
The project marks another step in the lead-up to Slam Jam’s anniversary, which will be celebrated with a free zine created with Zero and retracing the last “35 years of history of culture we believe to have contributed to,” said Benini. The publication will be offered at Slam Jam stores, included in the deliveries of online purchases, as well as available in a selection of bars in Italy and abroad starting from the fourth quarter.
Overall, Benini defined 2023 as one of the most complicated years, with the company’s DTC channel “growing but little.” Slam Jam reported a total turnover of 50 million euros in 2022, equally divided between its business-to-consumer and business-to-business legs.
Since the mid-2010s, the latter segment also includes production, design, licensing, brand consultancy and marketing services, in addition to distribution, as Slam Jam added another layer to its corporate structure and evolved from curator to creator.
Slam Jam’s portfolio includes majority stakes in brands such as Roa and _J.L-A.L_; a minority stake in Aries and the license of the soccer-rooted label Umbro for the premium lifestyle segment, as reported. Production accounts for 80 percent of Slam Jam’s business-to-business revenues.
The expansion of this business marked a pivotal change for Slam Jam, as “we now have to produce and take care of creativity,” said Benini. “It’s like a different job, which I hope it will mark the future of this company.”
Looking ahead, Benini’s wish is “to find with my team something that continues to make us unique, because another thing that is scaring me of the market right now is homologation.”
“Unfortunately, there’s too much stuff, and they all look too similar. I think it’s our duty to try to differentiate ourselves and find our place in a world that today is very, very homologated,” he said.
How to do that? “I don’t know. We’re thinking about it every day,” said Benini candidly. “Maybe trying to think in a way that’s a little revolutionary; trying to revolutionize what has been done so far. And I know it’s not easy, because the things that work out are the most difficult to let go of, but I believe that there’s a need for a [thought] that can enable this company to find quite a unique place in a market that today makes it difficult to be different.”
“Luckily Slam Jam has a strong identity, so we don’t have to create uniqueness. We have to preserve it, stimulate its evolution and communicate it,” continued the founder. “We have to reinvent ourselves by remaining true to ourselves… And we don’t have to be afraid to diversify where we invest energies and ideas.”
Being a full-stack business partner comes with the privilege of having a special observatory in the industry, which enables Slam Jam to oversee the development of a product or project from A to Z, representing “already a uniqueness in terms of business architecture,” noted the founder.
Asked about how the outside perception of Slam Jam has evolved through the decades, Benini joked that “there’s more confusion.”
“I see that sometimes we’re identified as a retailer but we’re not just that,” he said. But for a company that has “Chaos is Order” as one of its claims, that doesn’t sound like a major concern for Benini. He underscored that Slam Jam’s increasing complexity and internationalization marked its evolution and identified in the shift from curation to creation one of the three main turning points of the past 35 years.
The first two Benini pinpointed were his first trips to New York and Los Angeles in the early ‘90s, which kick-started Slam Jam’s journey and those to Tokyo in the early 2000s.
“I started to work in fashion in the early ‘80s and Giorgio Armani, Gianni Versace and Gianfranco Ferré were among the designers influencing me. Seeing streetwear going toward a more fashion orientation — and the firsts in this sense were the Japanese brands — has been pivotal for this company,” recalled Benini. “When I opened the store in Verona, the idea was to have Dior next to the Neighborhood. Maybe it didn’t turned out really like that, but we had Sacai and Undercover, and all this was happening long before that famous Supreme collaboration with Louis Vuitton.”
Asked about the current designers who are influencing him, Benini struggled to offer names as “today more than single designers, situations inspire me.”
“The feeling I have is that more than absorbing, now it’s time for me to release. I had managed these past four decades as blotting paper, and maybe now that blotting paper is drenched,” said Benini.
“I have always had guiding lights since I started working, from Fiorucci to Armani, from Shawn Stüssy to Hiroshi Fujiwara and many more,” he continued. “Today, it feels right that everything that I’ve absorbed, I release it under the guise of the projects we are doing… But don’t mistake it for being self-referential, rather for expanding horizons even more going forward and maybe finding new references within me — which it can also be a pain in the neck because I’m not used to it and it’s not easy,” he added with a laugh.
What’s sure is that music will always play a central role in Benini’s universe, as proved by the Archivio Slam Jam personal archive inaugurated in 2021, which gathered the memorabilia and knickknacks he has collected over the years for a total of around 30,000 objects, including 10,000 vinyl records hinging on the counterculture and club scenes from ‘90s New York, London and Italy.
Through the years, Slam Jam also dropped a series of music-leaning capsule collections under its (Un)corporate Uniforms private label project introduced in 2020. These paid homage to the likes of Italian punk band CCCP, to Akron, Ohio-based band Devo, and to the Gaznevada music group from Bologna.
Benini is also committed in continuing to explore Slam Jam’s role as cultural promoter, which was fueled with the opening of the Spazio Maiocchi multidisciplinary hub in Milan in 2017.