“She is the ultimate power-player in the perfect Bill Blass suit, who is permanently dressed for lunch but never eats any,” read the words I wrote in my book .
Some years later I am actually meeting Chris Benz, the designer breathing new life into the iconic American label Bill Blass for lunch (and planning on actually eating it).
Strolling into Cecconi’s in West Hollywood all camel jacketed and white collared/ blue shirted and sporting a wildly well-groomed ironic beard, Chris Benz immediately strikes me as a suitable successor. A hybrid of old world panache and Brooklyn hipster.
In his hands, an oversized persimmon hued Bill Blass bag containing a sheer saffron sequined skinny scarf brought as a gift. There’s something about being adorned by the person who designed the clothes that makes a girl blush, akin to being spoon fed by a famous chef in his kitchen.
Over tuna carpaccio and two lightening-fast hours Chris shares the challenges of relaunching a legacy label, “No one wants to wear a remake”. Talks balancing creativity with commerciality in an ever changing fashion retail environment, “I want to be able to see what the customer really responded to and thereby adapt moving forward” oh, and the heartbreak of losing out on his dream Brooklyn brownstone to a certain platinum pixie haired actress and her literary beau, “sometimes you never got over a house like you never get over a break up” we concurred.
Every bit as playful and colorful as his clothes, forward thinking with a healthy respect for the past and old fashioned manners, I fell head over Bill Blass heels for Chris Benz and his whimsical designs. Here’s a little insight into his creative mind because I have a feeling you just might too…
How did you end up becoming a fashion designer?
I have always been creative and artistic, even since I was very young. When I was in middle school and high school I really gravitated to fashion magazines and style in general, and the combination really fit perfectly to pursue a future as a designer. I met Donna Karan at a trunk show in Seattle sometime in high school and asked her where I ought to go for design school and she said that I must go Parsons! Any mentors along the way?
So many mentors along the way, yes. I find that I am still learning everyday about fashion and retail. With all of the rapid changes in how consumers are navigating the retail landscape, I have found it so valuable to have mentors with experience and also those thinking in new ways. I learned so much about passion and tenacity from Marc Jacobs and Robert Duffy, where I interned while in school. After graduation, at Mickey Drexler’s J.Crew (which I often call my graduate school!), from he and Jenna Lyons both about the real task of selling lots of product and how. And especially Stuart Goldblatt, whose tremendous career and progressive views on the industry continue to inspire me.
Kathryn Eisman dressed in Bill Blass by Chris Benz
What were you doing before Bill Blass? Tell us about your label.
I worked under my own label Chris Benz for about five years to fantastic industry acclaim and respect. I am still so proud of what me and my little team was able to accomplish while simultaneously taking many years off my life! There is really nothing like the agony and jubilation of running your own business, and I reflect fondly on it, despite not really feeling the need to do it again.
Forbes once named you to its “30 Under 30” list and aptly called you a “disruptor”- how are moving fashion on?
I have never really adhered to strictly to the fashion trendbook, but rather rely more on what I feel is cool at the moment. Sometimes it has fallen squarely in line with the bigger picture but sometimes not. I love to play with color and fabrication and print, not in a silly way but in an elevated and confident spirit. Color hutrs for many people, but depending on the season they’re willing to try. I’ve found almost always a customer with preconceived notions about what colors look good on them are always wrong.
Bill Blass is such an iconic American brand- when such a iconic brand is relaunched it can either lose its DNA or feel too nostalgic and not current- was it like coming onboard in to relaunch it and what was your approach?
My approach with Bill Blass has been to pull through small iconic details and the overall spirit of the brand, while not simply recreating the past. There is a seriousness to the brand, while also always feeling upbeat and vibrant. As long as this sensibility is always maintained – cool, casual, comfortable – the product will remain on-brand. No one wants to wear a remake.
You’ve taken a very 21st century approach to the way you release the collections and sell them, tell us about that?
We relaunched the brand exclusively online, particularly to be able to see what the customer really responded to and thereby adapt moving forward. Interestingly, shoes was the best-selling category from the first season, and remains our primary focus. The brand is now available on both our ecommerce site, brand partners, and many department stores internationally.
I have a few pairs of shoes you’ve designed and every time I wear them out people stop me and compliment me on them…how hard is it to be original in such a fashion and trend saturated world?
Well it is fun to have people stop you on the street isn’t it? I always want the things that I design to be the “cherry on top” of your look. For example, I always think to myself if someone were to wear a fun shoe just with a teeshirt and jeans, does it still hold up? If yes, then it’s worth doing.
For people who would love to become successful designers- what advice would you give them?
Really focus on what inspires you and create your own world in your mind. I think the most successful designers are those who have a well-defined aesthetic world that is unique to them.
Biggest personal challenge in your life, how did you overcome it?
Perhaps my biggest challenge was moving to NYC at seventeen years old. I really have no idea what I was thinking, but at the time it seemed like a good idea.
Hardest professional moment in your life- what did you do?
I once had to take a bunch of samples from my first collection to Vogue for a preview in the dead of August, I think it was 100 degrees and walk a few blocks. I was like drenched in sweat and probably looked insane. I still think about how mortifying it was meeting with Sally Singer looking at fluffy mohair jackets while sopping wet and trying to explain my design ideas!
You live in Brooklyn- does that inspire you?
Everything inspiring is in Brooklyn right now. I suppose besides the museums, but certainly on the street. There is such a tremendous energy and mix of people, styles, points of view. I do love it. Also, it’s nice to leave Manhattan every evening.
Celebrity you’d most love to dress? Carol Channing, still my #1.
Celebrities you’ve dressed?
Michelle Obama, Susan Sarandon, Debbie Harry, Eva Mendes, Madonna, there are lots actually!
The 3 essential pieces women need in their wardrobe next season?
Navy blazer, velvet loafer, oversize button-up shirt.
If you weren’t a fashion designer you’d be? Magazine editor … they seem to have the most fun!
What do you think of the fact that every woman is a instagram star in their own life?
Well, I think it’s great. I think anything that supports personal style is a great thing. Now more than ever it is really about point of view and developing your own way to styling oneself.
Guilty pleasure? Instagram
Secrets to looking chic? Underdressed is always better than overdressed.