Interview by Filep Motwary
Umit Benan’s collections are invariably well received by the press. The menswear design genius is happy with simple things like manly morals, brilliant storytelling and quality time at work or home. Since the launch of his eponymous menswear label in 2009, Benan’s interesting and inspiring work has made him one of the leaders in menswear through his great narrative ability, strong outlines and excellent craftsmanship and techniques.
Dapper Dan met Umit the week before his spring/summer 2015 show in Paris.
FILEP MOTWARY: What led you to become a designer?
UMIT BENAN: I felt like that was the easiest way for me to become a respected person, for who I am and not because of who my father is. Also, simply because I liked it.
FM: You are Turkish, you were born in Germany and you were raised in Istanbul. How are your origins reflected in what you do?
UM: Being raised in Istanbul helped me a lot and it is something quite visible in my work. Istanbul is a city full of contrasts, which is exactly what my own work is about. The Turkish language has a way to play with humour, which is something I like as well: humour is also part of what I do.
FM: What are your memories of Turkey?
UM: Not very good, I’m afraid. As a child, many people who wanted to control me always surrounded me. The truth is I was very naughty by nature but still, trying to control me never actually worked. Once I left home, I found the freedom I was seeking and myself.
FM: There is always a very strong emotional and cinematic undercurrent in your shows. At your first show in Paris (autumn/winter 2014), I actually witnessed people in tears. Do you feel exposed to the world by being so openly personal in your references?
UM: I am a designer because I love being one. It’s the only place where my anger or happiness beauty come out free and during the 15 minutes a show lasts, I always try to give all of me. I explode! Everything I live and come across during the six months before every show is revealed during the show. As a child I was fascinated by cinema and wanted to study it—something I never did due to lack of trust by my parents, so I was never sent to LA alone, to study. Instead they sent me to Boston where my brother was…
FM: Your entire cast featured black models. Why?
UM: The entire collection’s inspiration came from a true American hero: the first African-American baseball player in the professional league, Jackie Robinson. I tried to tell his story through my collection and show.
FM: Why did you come out holding a “NO TO RACISM” sign at the end of the show?
UM: Because Jackie Robinson was the first African-American player. Before Robinson, no other African American was allowed on the baseball field, which was crazy! It is outrageous to think that these people were not judged by their genuine talent but by their skin colour. Robinson broke the rule and others followed. He is my hero and this show was my political message.
FM: I wonder if there is a cause today that would get you to go out on the streets to support it? How passionate are you for the things you believe in?
UM: How Turkey as a country is being managed is a reason that could cause a passionate manifesto with a real result! The Turks are very passionate. I would go and fight until my last minute in this lifetime.
FM: Do you believe in heroism? Are there heroes today and what is a hero for you?
UM: A true hero for me was Kemal Atatürk, the greatest Turk of all time. I see heroes more like a political figure for some reason. But Michael Jackson can also be another kind of hero!
FM: What are the traits you admire in men?
UM: Honesty, being natural as a state of mind, being a man, fatherhood…
FM: What about women?
UM: Femininity, fragility, motherhood, beauty.
FM: Do you think it is necessary to think or act differently in order to create something great?
UM: Of course! That’s the key. Being different makes you unique. You can create something great only if you are obsessed. Obsessed with anything. It doesn’t matter.
FM: The collection represents the classic American fashion of the early 1940s and included all sorts of preppy letterman jackets in denim, woollen trenches and heavy quilted silhouettes. How easy was it for you to escape the retro and the historical and come up with a contemporary result?
UM: My work is a combination of nostalgia and the current world state. The `40s and Robinson were two references I used from the past. I try always to present my work in a modern way that becomes an interesting mix with my references at the end.
FM: What is your general creative procedure?
UM: First I start with a story, then I sketch the timeline, the moment of my interest in the story, the way I want to present it. Then I go on the streets and find people who could play that part of the scene I imagine. And finally, I start sketching the clothes.
FM: What about the fall collection: how did everything start? The idea and this need you had to explore such a specific character of the past?
UM: Five years ago, while walking on the streets of NYC, I came across this guy in SoHo who was selling these amazing posters while shouting the name of Jackie Robinson. I loved the photos and asked him about the guy and he told me the whole story. From that moment on, I started researching everything about him and his story. For some time I wanted to do a story about racism and Jackie’s life was the best way to give the “No to Racism” message to the world.
FM: What about your editing process? What is your strong point? What are your chief preoccupations in your collections technically?
UM: I have no stress in anything other than just putting on an emotional and real show. For me, to do that, I need the heart of others, which I can’t control but only ask them to open for me. It is not easy to find passionate people who can share the same feelings toward your project.
FM: The press raves about your tailoring ability. Indeed it is a very strong element in your work, as is your use of luxury fabrics. Should fashion always be expensive?
UM: Fashion should always be expensive. Otherwise it’s just a product in a store. Fashion is emotions and a dream and that is something that should always have a price!
FM: In which direction do you think fashion is moving?
UM: I hate the fact that we are consuming very fast. And I hate that this puts too much pressure on us. It becomes way too hard for independent designers to deliver the expected.
FM: What about technology, how involved is it in your work?
UM: I neither like nor use it!
FM: How do you spend the majority of your time, when you’re not working?
UM: On road trips with my wife.
Born to Turkish parents in 1980 in Stuttgart, Germany, Umit Benan Sahin moved to Istanbul when he was two years old. He lived there until the age of fifteen, dividing his time between school and work, the latter at his family’s textile company receiving initial instruction about the fashion industry from his dad. After graduating from high school in Lugano, Switzerland, at the age of 18 he moved to Boston to study marketing and public relations at college. Umit’ s cosmopolitan and multicultural character began to emerge. During his time in the United States he decided to become a fashion designer and so spent his summers in Milan taking drawing lessons. Upon earning his B.A. degree, Umit moved to Milan to follow the master’s program in Fashion Design at the Marangoni Institute. Over the subsequent two years he alternated between styling courses at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London and long periods at his father’s side in Istanbul learning all about textile techniques. At 24, Umit returned to the U.S. and enrolled in the patternmaking course at Parsons The New School for Design, collaborating next with different brands. In 2006 Umit settled in Milan. In 2009 he launched Umit Benan and promptly won, with his second collection, the first men’s edition of the Who’s On Next competition organized by Alta Roma in cooperation with Pitti Immagine and L’Uomo Vogue. In 2011 Umit Benan Sahin collaborates with Trussardi as fashion consultant for men and women’s collections.