BOOKS - Benetton - the Family, the Business and the Brand by Jonathan Mantle - Little, Brown, £16.99 - Colour of money. Tim Waterstone enjoys the pace of this account of one of Italy's most famous families.
Garment retailing in post-war Italy was a grim business. This was still a country of rubble and bicycles. Two out of three Italian families had no bathroom, natural gas or telephone, one in four no running water.
The high fashion aristocrats - Olga di Gresy, Laura Aponte, Lea Gallini - were lording it in Rome, Milan and Florence. But out there in little provincial shops, clothes were hidden away, the lighting was sombre, and long counters separated the assistants from the customers, whose social standing would determine what they were offered to wear. Luciano Benetton's achievement, from no more promising a base than his father's ruined car-hire and bicycle business in Treviso, was to build a network of stores putting bright, accessible, stylish knitwear before the public at prices and in a quality that the everyday consumer had never seen before.
Jonathan Mantle tells the tale at a cracking pace. By the end of the '70s Benetton had well nigh saturated its home market through a unique system of partnership franchises. Its three factories in and around Ponzano were the largest consumers of pure virgin wool in the world.
Europe was conquered, then, triumphantly, the US. Sylvester Stallone, Dustin Hoffman, Sally Field and Jackie Onassis became habitues of New York's East 57th street store. The family's spectacular achievements were confirmed when Lady Diana Spencer was photographed coming out of Benetton's flagship South Molton Street store in London. 'Benetton dresses both queens and housewives' ran the headline.
The Benettons are now one of the most famous families in Italy, and Mantle gives a full and colourful account of their lives. Sadly, they have not escaped the attention of terrorists and kidnappers. But the retailing and manufacturing business they have built up is one of the greatest European business success stories of recent years.
When Luciano was eight years old, clothed in rags, pedalling his 20-mile round trip to school, the US bombers flew overhead. Now it is Luciano, with 8,000 shops and annual sales of $8 billion, who lives his life up there in his corporate jet.
If this is not the 'authorised' biography, then it certainly reads as if it might be. Mantle's tone is at times too reverential. But the material is genuinely rich, full of incident, and never dull.