5 Minutes with the Family from Naples: The Bencivenga Family
I met with Oscar Bencivenga in the hills of Naples, Italy on a sunny March day in his family garden. We lounge on wrought iron chairs, overlooking a green expanse of cypress trees, marble statues, and yard tortoises (for good luck), as we chat over white Asprinio wine that is grown in the family vineyards in Southern Italy. Oscar is the face of the family. He and his brother Tiffany are the only English speakers, but each family member has a unique presence, even without saying a word. Best known for their statement men’s and ladies wear, the Bencivenga brand is increasingly gaining international recognition.
Tell me the history behind the property.
The house belongs to my great grandfather who owned a lot of land. For bureaucratic reasons he had to sell some of it, but he kept the part in this area. My family has been living here for the past 75 years. My father did the renovation and the interior layout here, as well as at the other houses and shops; using a lot of gold, marble and the same finishing.
What’s the name of the area?
We are a small village well known for manufacture especially of ladies and menswear. We are 10km away from center of Naples; the city is called Grumo Nevano.
For people who have not heard of you, who are you? What is your background and history?
We are a 4-generation fashion company from Naples. My grandmother began as a tailor for the royal family and for wealthy families in Naples. She was in charge mostly of the ladies’ line and my grandfather was a tailor for men. My family has always been in fashion.
What does your family stand for?
Heritage, union, quality, and passion.
Do you support each other? What’s it like to work together?
There is no competition, everything is done together and there is a lot of warmth. Of course 9 people together is not that easy, but we always come up with final decisions together. It takes a bit longer but being together makes us stronger.
Tell me the story of the famous twins.
My father and my uncle are twins. They almost look the same, but my uncle looks younger and less stressed because he’s not married. My uncle takes more risks with his fashion choices- he prefers classics with prints, embellishments, and accessories; my father is more traditionally classic, with a touch of gentleman.
What’s their relationship like after all these years?
They have been together for 72 years so whatever they do, they come up with decisions together. They have never had any issues and they still get along.
How’s your relationship with your brother?
It’s alright. He’s more involved in the business aspects and I do more PR.
Where else has your family left their mark?
Winery business and interiors.
How did the winery business start?
It was started by my great grandfather. The land was offered to him by his great-great grandfather. The business is not well known everywhere, and we have been trying to expand- but as you can see we are more focused on the fashion right now. We still do it for ourselves however- we always had the wine in our blood.
Where are the vineyards?
Northeast from here, approximately 25km. The wine is called Asprinio which is made from grapes that grow high up the wall- the top grapes are hit directly by the sun so they have a different flavor from the ones below. The wine is mostly white- not as flat as regular white wine- it’s darker and a bit fizzy, more fruity.
In Tuscany a big feast follows a successful harvest. How do you celebrate the harvest here?
In Tuscany they have a history of wine and most of their income is from that but the wine here in the south is not well promoted. My plan is to promote the winery here like I am doing with my fashion business, but right now I don’t have the time for it.
What’s the biggest challenge of running a winery?
Getting drunk (laughs).
Is it difficult to market a wine from here? How do you compare to Il Borro?
Il Borro is very famous. They have a history, more marketing strategy, excellent location and international promotion which makes all the difference. We need to work on marketing to be famous, which will allow us to sell our product for the same price as the international brands.
Tell me about interiors.
Whatever you see here is customized- chairs, tables etc. My father and uncle were always in love with this. They once decided to launch an interior collection, but it was hard to produce custom made, high quality furniture without a partner in the field.
How has the south influenced the family identity?
60-70% of the clothing style is from our origin, which is south of Italy.
How did you go from here to London?
I had a partnership with one of my best friends but eventually he moved to Hong Kong. I then returned to my family brand and in May 2015 we opened the first flagship store. It was a great location, but I wanted something more central and different clientele. We moved to Knightsbridge in June 2017.
Describe your brand and style to someone who has never heard of it.
The person sitting next to me can learn everything they need to know about the brand just by looking at me. Our brand is for someone who loves fashion and wants to impress. It is classic with a touch of modern elegance and bravery.
Why kind of products do you offer?
We offer bespoke custom-made suits, shirts and a full wardrobe for men and women. I am the perfect director to create your wardrobe from day to evening; including casualwear, workwear, and clothing for all 24 hours. The only products that we don’t offer presently is underwear- there’s too much competition there.
Who is your target market?
Middle-high class. I deal with bankers, lawyers and doctors. People who are unique and don’t want to be boring like their colleagues- they want a touch of color and style even at the office. London is a grey filled world. They cannot change the weather, but they can change what they wear.
Who are your biggest clients?
At the moment, Indians. But I cannot mention specific names.
Are your suits fused or bespoke?
We do both. For bespoke, my Mom does the cutting. She went to school but learnt most of her knowledge from her father who was the master tailor of the army in the 40s and 50s. My Mom learnt more from practice than theory.
What does elegance, etiquette and style mean to you?
I think elegance is in you. You can adjust it, but you don’t acquire that from anyone. You can buy the most expensive clothes but that will not make you elegant. You learn by traveling, meeting people and trials. You can improve your style by learning.
What is your biggest inspiration for menswear?
Traveling. I can pick up ideas from standing outside the Tube, going out to restaurants, bars, or even just on the street. I combine my native roots with what I pick up from all over the world- this is how I improve and enlarge my vision.
When I was young I didn’t do what other kids did. My playground was the factory. This helped me acquire skills by watching color mixing, pairing a shirt with jacket, or trousers with a blazer. I don’t want to pretend or sound arrogant, but I don’t follow anyone, I follow my own taste.
What are the pros and cons of running a business in the south?
It’s very tough to deal with people here- but the government doesn’t appreciate what we do. They’d rather refer a company to move abroad, than to support us to make a local brand international. This is the reason that I left my country to expand abroad, even though I always have regrets that I need to live away from my family.
Where do you see the business in 5-10 years?
I want to be retired in 10 years (at the age of 50), but I don’t think it will be possible! But in 5 years, I would love to open at least 3 stores, in Migalest, one more in Italy and another permanent visible location in the UK. My dream would be Asia, specifically China. My brother disagrees because in China everyone is looking for ready to wear, and they wouldn’t appreciate made-to-measure.
What are your favorite fabrics?
I like very light fabrics, especially light wool. Even though I spend most of my time in London, I’d rather put on an extra layer and keep the lightness, instead of the thick and heavy materials.
You seem to be maximalist in your style. Can you explain that?
I don’t think I am a maximalist. For me, this is average- I think it’s about what you’re used to. I used to be more colorful but as I am getting older I prefer less color.
What about the dresses that your mother makes?
They are not plain. Sometimes plain can look cheap.
I heard that you worked in Harrod’s. Did that inspire you in any way?
I learnt a lot about customer service which is one of the most important things. Even though my London customers buy navy or charcoal suits which is boring, working and living in London gave me the opportunity to learn a lot how to communicate and deal with customers from different races, backgrounds and points of view.
Who are your biggest competitors?
In Naples there are many tailors, and most of them with a good reputation. To compete with them we need to offer the customer something different, a high quality for customer service, a smile and something that makes the customer stick with you.
What are your biggest milestones so far?
The international reach of the brand. We started regional, then national, and now we are becoming international. We have had exhibitions for the last 15 years in Paris, London, US and Russia.
I heard that you will be participating in the Siddhartha Fashion Show. What can we expect?
We will feature our 2019 Summer collection, of men’s and women’s clothing and accessories. Until recently, the brand was focused on tailoring, but we are hoping to reopen distribution in Dubai and Italy. The archival collection is the first of its kind, based on the original model, with upgraded fabrics and a new cut and shape.
How do you plan to keep the company evolving and to keep it competitive?
We will keep things current and follow the trends, but we will never forget or let go of the heritage.