Fashion designer Umit Benan is worldly, dedicated to his craft, elegant and sly: in short, the dude is a consummate gentleman. The German-born Turk honed his craft all over the world before settling in Italy. Recently, however, Benan traveled to Bodrum, in his home country for a pop-up collaboration with Edition Hotels.
Benan is a man committed to his vision. When CONVICTS caught up with him in Turkey, he gave us the low-down on orienting his collections around fictionalized versions of himself, the disappointment of not following through on one’s vision and the intersection of mustaches and cigars.
How would you describe your life?
What do you want to know about my life?
Let’s start with where you were born?
I was born in Stuttgart, Germany. When I was two, my family moved to Istanbul. I grew up there, left for boarding school in Switzerland at fourteen. Then I went to the U.S. for college, then back and forth in Italy. But for the past twelve years, I’ve been working in Italy.
Last night we were talking and you said something very interesting: you took your brand back under your own control. Can you tell us the story behind that?
It was the [fashion] show called “Tennis Club: The Cartegena.” I imagined Pablo Escobar playing tennis. My idea for that show was to take an extremely powerful male figure and show his weak side. For example, everyone is scared of this big, scary, powerful, male figure. I wanted to show him with shorts, no tan…because you never imagine seeing someone powerful wearing shorts or with no tan. Or even playing tennis. I wouldn’t imagine Pablo Escobar playing tennis well, so I wanted to show him playing bad tennis, having a weak side. For that show, I trained for five months because the idea was that I would be playing tennis during the show. But then that didn’t happen because I had a sales team. In the past, my characters had always been very powerful and most of the time they would talk about the show itself and the characters. But my sales team was pushing me not to play tennis because they said if I had been playing tennis, no one would be talking about the clothes, just watching me playing tennis. But as I told you, I’ve regretted not playing ever since that day, because that’s what I’m in it for — a celebration of passion and work. That was one of the things that really pushed me to come back to concentrating on my passions, which are design, inspiration, image, you know? We are all in it for the money, of course…we need to have a business, but that’s not the reason we went into fashion. You always go in with a passion and lately, my decisions have been influenced by that.
How are you feeling about that now?
I feel much better. In the past three years, it was complicated. It was confusing for me because it became more business than inspiration. I was waiting to get orders, waiting to be approved by other people. Now, I just design and produce the stuff I believe in immediately, then I go and sell it. This way I don’t need anyone’s approval. I’m doing what I really want, and then I present it and then the sales start.
Have you always smoked cigars?
Yes, for a long time. I started when I was twenty years old. Never cigarettes, just cigars. Lately, I’ve been smoking more, I don’t know why.
Because of the mustache?
Bravo. But it is true, it is true, because of the mustache.
Can you talk about the way you ‘live’ your characters?
The reason for it is that you’re the perfect example of what you’re trying to create, you know? So in my case, I’m working constantly on this inspirational character I have in my mind. The interesting part is that I know I’ll never be that guy, but that’s why it’s challenging and it’s fun. My name is Umit Benan, I wish it was Diego Benan. Like if it was Diego, or Pablo…I love those names, through experiences, through movies, these characters have stayed in my head. It’s very challenging so I’m always trying to push daily, trying to play that part in my life.
What are you trying to accomplish in your design work?
This is the way men should, in my case, dress up, you know? This is what I believe in, it’s part of one’s ego, so I think you need an ego, you need to control it, but you definitely need an ego if you’re a designer because you’re trying to lecture the rest of the world on how the world should be. My work, like the work of some other designers, is political. I have something to say but I’m doing it through fashion. My main element is fashion, so I think that’s extremely important. There are some designers who are just into the designing procedure. In my case, it’s more of a concept and lifestyle. When you’re this kind of designer, you need to be playing a part in your designs, in your project.
What does your creative process look like?
It’s all connected. It’s not a strategy. Whenever I work on a collection, it’s not like I have a strategy, it’s very spontaneous, I live it. The collection lasts for six months, and within those six months anything that you experience in your daily life gets put into the collection. It all comes together. At the end of the day, you put every experience you have and the images that have impacted your life, all together. The influence in this collection, the influence would be images I saw when I was living in New York. But on a personal level, I would say I got very close to god again and I’m Muslim.
Why is this project at the Bodrum Edition interesting to you?
Because it’s my home country and I have family and friends here. I’ve never been able to get my projects or clothing close to my family, you know? They’re obviously very proud, they’re happy, they’re excited but I never got close to them presenting or selling because I don’t sell in Turkey. Especially now, I don’t sell anywhere other than my own line, but when they approached me it was very interesting because I have been wanting to basically do something that I can control. I can be happy and at the same time, I wanted to start with Turkey because it’s my home country, with my old school friends and family. I wanted to bring it closer to them, so it just made sense and it’s a beautiful location. Why no? A little bit of vacation, a little bit of working, it just makes sense.
You work seriously with colors. Where does that come from?
I don’t know where it starts. If you really go really deep into trying to understand, you might find something deep which I’m not aware of. For me, it’s normal, it’s spontaneous, but it could be also through my father. He’s always been very colorful, he’s always had so much color on him. I grew up watching him, he was always my idol, and he had a lot of colors. If you see him, he would dress exactly the same as me, so I think it’s mainly because of him, but then maybe there is an unconscious reason behind it which I’m not aware of? When I choose something, I like to feel it. I can’t just do a collection with all black and navy and stuff because it all feels flat. I believe you shouldn’t play too much with patterns in men’s fashion, but with textures and colors you can, and that’s the fun part. Classic patterns with a little touch of detail, colors and fabric. I think that’s my way of making the whole men’s wardrobe, making it more interesting, you know.
So what is the most important aspect of a man’s “look?”
The face is everything. That’s why I’ve played around with my face a lot over the years. Clothing is just an accessory, no matter what. You need it, but it’s an accessory. If you don’t have the attitude, you don’t have the face. A face is not about beauty for me. It’s not about good-looking, bad-looking..it’s about the attitude, especially in men’s wear. You still have, in the woman’s face, beauty, I think. But in the man’s world, it’s much more about the power and self-confidence and attitude. The most elegant, best looking guy could have a belly and mustache if he has the right attitude. I started my line with men’s wear first, it felt more flexible and I thought I could offer more. I could have a voice. Whereas with women, there are codes to prettiness. In men’s, I don’t think there are. Perfection in men’s wear is very boring, the attitude is much more important.