Alexandra Kometovna

Umit Benan. The menswear designer on the tip of everyone’s tongue discusses the downside of travel and the importance of telling stories.

Alexandra Kometovna
Umit Benan. The menswear designer on the tip of everyone’s tongue discusses the downside of travel and the importance of telling stories.

written by DARRELL HARTMAN
photography by SIMONE FALCETTA

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Twice a year, Umit Benan hits the play button on a new movie that will screen inside his mind for the next half year. It starts when the thirty-four-year-old menswear designer conceives of a collection. It ends “six months later, when ninety percent of those photos you had in mind are there, printed out from the runway, right in front of you, matching the original idea almost exactly. That, for me, is the most exciting thing in this business.”

Born in Germany, raised in Istanbul, educated at a Swiss boarding school and American universities, Benan (that’s his middle name—his family name is Sahin) originally wanted to be a filmmaker. Movies inspire him, and influence his approach to design—for Benan, clothes are insep-arable from characters. His spring collection, designed for denizens of an imaginary Colombian tennis club, took its cues from Blow, the 2001 film starring Johnny Depp as a seventies cocaine smuggler who gets tangled up with the Medellín cartel. “I loved the contrast of a major businessman wearing shorts,” says Benan, who plays tennis and idolized long-haired pros Andre Agassi and Patrick Rafter as a kid.

He’d just shown his fall 2015 collection when I reached him by phone in Paris. For that one, Benan examined his childhood memories of fisher-men on the Bosporus who wore an ingenious mix of waterproof gear and sportswear, in bright colors rarely seen on working-class Turks. Every day, en route to and from school in Istanbul, he’d see them as he left the city’s cluttered streets for the salt-aired expanse of its great waterway.

“If I used twenty-five models with fresh faces and perfect bodies, you’d only be looking at the clothes. Some would say, That’s how it should be! But I’m trying to tell a story…”

Benan has made a similar bid for fresh air recently. A few months ago, he moved out of Milan, where his company is based, and north to the tidy Swiss city of Lugano. “The mountains, the lake — it helps me stay fresh,” he says. Benan lived in Lugano in his boarding-school days, a period that added considerably to his cosmopolitan perspective. He speaks English, Turkish, and Italian. And while travel is important to him, the trips he takes now are often work-related, involving brief and busy stays in international capitals. They don’t inspire him as much as his travels as a younger man, when he was less decided about his path in life and spending months or years at a time in foreign places.

Benan says he looks for a sense of connection with people — he’s a shoulder-grabber—and in things. Many of his favorite possessions link back to his family, like his treasured set of rosary beads and pair of old leather gloves that smell like home. They belonged to his father, a textile manufacturer, to whom Benan admits he’s always wanted to measure up. He also loves pictures by Albert Watson, who “makes me dream more than anyone in photography.”

When not dreaming, Benan has started to meditate. He recently tried ayahuasca. But these are brief respites from a typically overstuffed modern life. Benan opened his first store last fall in Tokyo. Osaka will be next. He now visits Japan almost monthly, and yet also hopes to spend more time in New York, where his wife lives. On top of all this is the sense that he needs to tighten up his business. This may well require him to step back from that uncompromisingly narrative approach—many retailers, after all, care more about the coat than the character, even when that character is Jordi Mollà, who fulfilled a lifelong dream of Benan’s by walking in his most recent show. “He’s in every single mood board of mine,” Benan gushes.

“If I used twenty-five models with fresh faces and perfect bodies, you’d only be looking at the clothes. Some would say, That’s how it should be! But I’m trying to tell a story. The stories come from my experiences, and my past, and the only way to tell them is by using real people. I’m making these stories up, but I also believe in them.”