PARIS, France — Umit Benan is remapping his route. The German-born designer, who grew up in Turkey, studied in Switzerland and the United States, and founded his eponymous fashion brand some five years ago in Milan, is set to present his Autumn/Winter 2014-2015 collection this coming Sunday — though not in the fashion capital where he is based and has shown until now, but rather, as part of men’s fashion week in Paris.
“It’s true that I’m not a big fan of staying in one place forever. I like to travel. I like adventures. It always means excitement for me,” says Benan via telephone from his studio in Milan, only a few days before the models take to the catwalk at the École des Beaux Arts, a venue used in previous seasons by the likes of Lanvin. “I wanted to change and I felt like I needed to move to the next level. I wanted this to be more of an international company.”
Since winning “Who’s On Next?” (a competition for emerging Italian-based fashion talent) in 2009, Benan, now 33, has become one of those designers to whom fashion journalists are easily addicted. His seasonal runway shows, always richly theatrical, have become one of the dramatic focal points of Milan’s menswear fashion week. Using models sourced from the streets, or men whose faces he covers with masks, he assembles an action-packed world which almost always includes a hint of archetypal male societies, from Istanbul coffee house denizens to gangs of graffiti artists or soldiers.
Benan’s work arouses curiosity almost every season. On the one hand, he defers to well-known codes and the existing order, either via made-in-Italy tailoring, or through muses who are the essence of machismo; but on the other hand, his intense attention to detail and the jam-packed, mystique-filled scenarios in which he stages them make his fashion offerings a very specific and unique world, set at a distance from reality.
Without a doubt, he is one of the world’s most prominent young designer names. So does the move to show in Paris mean Benan has hit a ceiling in Milan?
“It’s not that I couldn’t reach the next stage in Milan, but it’s true that the fashion system in Milan is pretty blocked,” says Benan. “I love Italy, but I feel that for a new brand, it is not so international [and right] for the mentality that I have. When you think about it, I produce everything in Italy, I live in Italy, all my fabrics are from Italian companies, everything is Italian, the company is Italian, but I don’t sell in Italy. When I get recognition for the work I’ve done, it’s always been from people who live in London, New York or Paris.”
Benan, who has some 65 points of sale in markets including Japan and the United States, has a simple goal: to harness the buzz he has generated to grow a bigger business.
“I always showed in Milan, but sold in Paris. Most of the buyers prefer to come to Paris and they don’t come to Milan. Milan is basically seen as where the big tycoons are,” adds the designer. “I have met a lot of buyers in recent years and Paris gives me more visibility to international buyers and press.”
It is impossible not to see Benan’s decision in a broader context, coming at a sensitive time when Milan is trying to assert itself as a credible platform for young labels. But does Benan’s move to Paris reflect Milan’s shortcomings, or is it simply the case of an individual talent at a natural crossroads?
The answer would seem to be somewhere in the middle.
“I started in Milan. And thanks to Italy, I started my brand. Thanks to Italian companies who supported me, who did my production, everything,” Benan notes. “The idea was not specially going to Paris, no. The first day that I decided that I was going to move, it was because I didn’t see my future in Milan. Because it’s good, but then, what’s next?”
What’s interesting is that, even in such a connected and globalised era, where a designer chooses to show is still incredibly important. “I wanted to go to New York, because I felt that Milan was a little small, but because of [my] finances, I couldn’t, so I started here,” says Benan on why he started off in the Italian city in the first place. “But for my background, the way I am and everything, I need more diversity in life”.
“[Italy] is an amazing country, but talking about fashion, people go to London, Paris or New York to shop. People don’t come to Milan. They used to, but today, you can find the same products in every single city, so [these days] you don’t look at what products the city offers but what the city offers in general. Milan is great for what it is, but you need more today. For that to happen you need to open up. You need to have younger people around. You need to take more risks. There is strictly one type of mentality in Milan.”
“We only add brands when they have some special value. It’s not easy to join,” says Didier Grumbach, president of the French Federation of Fashion, when asked about what Benan brings to the Paris schedule. “When we received his request [to show in Paris], we looked, apart from at his talent, at how he had built up and organised his company, and how he had studied. First of all, he comes from a family in the textile business. Designers who have a background in the industry have an advantage. He studied at a variety of schools in different places. He is truly exceptional. The fact that he did collections for Trussardi gives him an international image and that is proof that he can support his brand and build a certain image.”
“What will Paris offer me? I don’t know yet because I’ve never done it,” Benan says, noting that he does not have exaggerated expectations. “I just know that the fashion system, companies, everything, are much more ahead. They make it happen.”
The Italians, it turns out, have not been indifferent to Benan’s decision to decamp. “I have had a lot of phone calls from people here in the system, they were very shocked,” says the designer, describing what happened after he published the news of his move to Paris fashion week on his Instagram account last month. “They wanted to understand what was going on because now when you don’t have someone [showing], you start thinking, ‘Why? How can we help you to stay?’ But then, where were they for the past five years?”
“Some collections suit Paris and others suit Milan,” adds Grumbach, who says the Federation did not do anything in particular to encourage Benan to move. “His kind [of fashion] is aimed at a more international audience.”
Either way, a new location means new opportunities. “It feels like my first season,” says Benan. “I’m so scared because it’s a challenge. I have more time to work. That’s why the collection for next winter will be much more mature and better technically.”
As usual, the concept for his upcoming show will be theatrical, but Benan will also introduce a new elements. “It’s still sartorial but much more casual this time. Before, I had shoulder pads in blazers, now everything is much softer. Less structured. Compared to other collections, it’s easier, more natural. Even the linings are more natural.”
Benan is also planning a move into womenswear. “I have a precise woman in mind. A woman who wears menswear,” he says. “Womenswear is not a joke. You have to really do it more structured. At the level of competition of womenswear, you need to deliver more. So I have waited until now for that and I’m working on it but, it will probably come out as something small, a capsule collection, next winter.”
At the end of the day, talent, ambition and a presence in Paris are all very well. But there is still one thing that no designer can do without. “You need money. You need to have a partner. To become a brand you need an investor. The brand has a lot of potential. But you need to hire more people, to add commercial collections, to be more active during the entire season.”
As for now, we wait to see if Umit Benan’s recalculation will pay off.