Umit Benan takes Barcelona to the next level with a lesson in menswear
“Veni, vidi, vici”, Umit Benan must have thought after presenting his latest collection at 080 Barcelona Fashion in the fashion week’s most international edition to date. The catwalk show ticks off another location for the Turkish designer since his menswear label dropped out of the international fashion week calendar. Multicultural, committed, and with a high dose of Italian savoir-faire, Umit Benan wants to demonstrate that there is a place for an alternative fashion system.
CONCEPTS AND A COUNTER ATTITUDE
“I have always thought it important to share political messages. In this case, religion is not relevant to me, rather than believing in and having a connection with God,” Benan tells FashionNetwork.com about his latest collection. Titled "God is Black", it explores the double racism facing black Muslim men and it was presented by a cast of mostly non-professional black models. “I don’t just do clothes, I develop concepts. I use fashion as a tool to communicate my beliefs and vision of the world,” he explains about the fashion show, which aimed to represent the different types of men who go to the mosque, wearing tunics, suits and tailored coats. “When they take off their shoes, they are all the same: workers, royalty and businessmen,” Benan says.
Born in Germany, Umit Benan was raised in Istanbul where his family had a textile factory, before attending boarding school and university in Switzerland and the US. With travel and a cosmopolitan worldview, the designer began his career in New York and established himself in Italy where he launched his eponymous brand in 2009 and won the first edition of Pitti Uomo’s prestigious Who is On Next? award a year later. In 2011, he was appointed creative director at Trussardi, and left the Italian house in 2013. But two years ago, his career reached a turning point. “I stopped showing in Paris and Milan to break the loop of having to present every six months as per the traditional fashion calendar. It was stressful and it felt meaningless. I still wanted to do fashion shows, but enjoy them. I consider shows to be a celebration beyond the purely business aspect.”
After a first alternative show in Tokyo in 2016, Umit Benan found the right fashion show format for his label: an itinerant concept which takes his vision to distant countries and cultures. “The fast pace of fashion made it come to a point where I could no longer listen to myself because I was constantly thinking about what would sell, what would be good for the press… I wanted to focus on what I really wanted to do,” Benan says about the relentless pace of today’s fashion industry.
As 080 Barcelona Fashion expands its international appeal, Umit Benan’s collection seems to create the perfect synergy between established brands and emerging design. “My work is courageous. If cities and designers can experience the ideas I want to convey beyond the clothing, they will give them more confidence to express themselves. I develop very strong concepts and I believe that the ability to dream can help them launch. At the same time, my messages are communicated to a greater number of people by hosting catwalk shows outside the calendar,” he stresses. And he doesn’t hesitate to talk about the two fashion capitals which were home to his shows before becoming an outsider. “Whilst Paris has been doing a great job in recent years, Italy remains a key player in the sector. You could say France dominates fashion while Italy dominates the industry.”
INDEPENDENT AND LOYAL TO TAILORING
The current system is not very favourable to independent brands such as Umit Benan’s. In addition to the hectic pace of a traditional fashion week, competition is fierce and luxury conglomerates dominate headlines. “Competing with large high-end brands can affect us if we use the same high-end factories, but these tend to prioritise larger firms. The financial, technical and labour power of large luxury groups cannot be compared to that of an independent brand. The only way to compete is through creativity. The bigger the company, the less freedom you have,” he explains. “As an independent, you have more opportunities to be fearless. Because they are established and organised, they have to follow certain economic rules, while for us it's all about being creative. In Milan, for example, I managed to make a mark even when presenting on the same day as Etro or Gucci. And the only way to achieve it was by being unique and creative.”
And despite being the sole owner of his brand since its launch ten years ago, Umit Benan doesn’t rule out a potential partnership with an investor. “I have received offers in the past. I wouldn't mind having partners, but you have to find the right person to be involved with the brand, the clothing, the concepts… I wouldn't consider it purely an investment. An investor can drive your growth or completely destroy you,” the designer continues.
How to find a space in a sector that has fully embraced streetwear in recent years? “My latest collection is very sartorial and classic, but with a certain streetwear and sportswear attitude. For men who enjoy menswear, but with more energy. Never too classic, always with a touch of colour, fabric, silhouettes… which make it more relaxed and casual,” he explains, describing the range. “There is a wave of designers who come from the street, feel the street, the street represents them. When they try their hand at tailoring and add that to their collections, the attitude is good but it is not what I consider menswear,” he says, without referring to specific brands. “You cannot call it menswear, which is more classy. It’s not about hoodies or a specific type of print,” he adds.
Whilst Pitti Uomo’s latest edition was marked by a return to classical silhouettes, progressively leaving sportswear influences behind, Umit Benan believes the trend will continue over the next few seasons. “Currently, there are great male designers, but the trend is for a more casual style. Streetwear is what we are today, but I am convinced that tailoring will return in the coming years. In the 40s, everyone wore a hat and I think this type of man is going to come back, history will repeat itself,” he declares. And he finishes the interview with a nostalgic thought: “Nino Cerruti, Gianfranco Ferré, Gianni Versace ... That's what I call menswear.”
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