Prince of Prep: CHRIS BENZ

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Prince of Prep

At only 28 years old, Chris Benz is poised to take his place alongside great American designers like Geoffrey Beene, Michael Kors and Ralph Lauren. Mixing casual comfort with bold colors and sophisticated details, his pieces attract everyone from PYTs to the grand dames of Hollywood. Here with cover girl and muse Mickey Sumner, Benz offers a sneak peak at his new collection—the latest to showcase his fun, modern take on this country’s classic style.

By Peter Davis

Photographed by Gray Scott

Style by Cricket Burns

Fashion wunderkind and king of color Chris Benz has just re-dyed his spiky light-brown locks a rainbow of Manic Panic-hued stripes. The 28-year-old Seattle native’s punky hair is in contrast to the navy Brooks Brothers boy’s blazer he sports as he zips around his studio. He’s busy prepping his Fall 2011 collection, which is inspired by regular trips to Savannah, Georgia. Since launching his eponymous line in 2007, Benz has become the boy on the block to watch—designing American sportswear that brilliantly blends bright, bold color and quirky details with both classic and unexpected silhouettes. Following in the fashion footsteps of great American designers like Geoffrey Beene, Michael Kors and Ralph Lauren, Benz is Seventh Avenue’s next big star.

Every season, Benz names each piece (mostly separates that can be mixed and matched to create a myriad of looks) after random things. For this upcoming collection, the names are taken from the women who went down on the Titanic—but the looks are far from a downer. Stunning shirts are elongated and flowing, wearable pants are attenuated and dresses and jackets have ante-bellum details. Benz’s signature is comfort, and while the line is sporty, every stitch is sophisticated and smart. Even the pointy witch hats (a collaboration with milliner Patricia Underwood) and the wild platform shoes by Alejandro Ingelmo are 100 percent Chris Benz: youthful, colorful and, most of all, fun.

Being in Benz’s studio, stocked with his eclectic art, pottery and antiques from numerous flea markets and thrift stores, is like being in a candy store. You want to bring everything home with you. “Comfort is a big issue,” Benz explains, slouched on a couch with a Starbucks cup after yet another early morning. “No one needs anything except for a tee-shirt and jeans, really. So I think that with all of our gowns and evening wear, it is really important to maintain that comfort level; they should be something you can breathe and move around in.”

This aesthetic—the opposite of European designers who often make clothes that seem to have the same trapped effect on a woman as bondage—has gained Benz a diverse following of fans. From Kelly Osbourne to first daughter

Malia Obama to Susan Sarandon and her own daughter, Eva Amurri, who is one of Benz’s muses, they all adore his pieces. Other girls in the Benz brigade include Elettra Wiedemann, the face of Lancôme beauty and daughter of Isabella Rossellini, and actress Mickey Sumner, the offspring of Sting and Trudie Styler.

Benz’s babes are often found sitting on his stoop, just hanging out. He met Sumner through Wiedemann when they all lived in the West Village. “I used to walk past Chris while he was smoking on his stoop,” says Sumner. “There is nothing uptight about the man. And his line doesn’t discriminate between casual and dressy—it’s all there in his collection. You can be everything wearing his clothes. There is an ease to them that reflects who he is as a person.”

“All my girlfriends, in one way or the other, fit the mold of my CB girl,” Benz says. “She doesn’t take herself too seriously; she has a sense of humor; she is casual and put together and has that American spirit.” Sumner’s career as a stage actress is taking off, and Benz admits to “bursting into tears” when he watches her perform. “Mickey is much more humble than anyone could hope to be with her family and background,” he notes. “Her personality is the complete opposite onstage than it is offstage, which is the coolest thing about her.”

Growing up with his parents and younger brother on Bainbridge Island, a preppy haven off Seattle, Wash., Benz was constantly drawing with a box of Crayola crayons. “I’ve always been really artistic,” he says. “Both my parents worked, so I spent a lot of time with my grandmother. She was the classic WASP housewife, and she had a sewing machine so I learned how to sew. When it came time to decide where I wanted to go to college, fashion school seemed like a good marriage of all the things I liked.”

Benz ended up skipping senior year of high school and enrolled at Parsons in 1999. While there, he interned for Marc Jacobs, roaming from the design department to PR, which he says was invaluable in learning the business of fashion. After graduating in 2004, he became a designer at J.Crew for three years—a period when the

company was transforming from a preppy catalogue of basics to a real fashion label. “It was such a good balance for me,” he remembers, “from high fashion to the business of fashion.”

In 2007, Benz decided to launch his own line—a big step for someone who was barely 24. “I would rather go for it in my 20s than be an emerging designer at 40,” he reasons. “I keep raising the bar for myself and my team every season.” Looking around the bursts of color and pop art in his studio, one can easily imagine Benz one day doing home décor, accessories and menswear—all areas he promises to explore.

A focused and determined workhorse, Benz lets off steam by meeting friends for dinner at Sant Ambroeus (he hasn’t cooked once since moving to New York, literally) and sometimes hitting a nightclub to dance. “I like making plans,” he says. “Like going to the Upper East Side and having drinks at The Carlyle.”

Although he still loves visiting his family in Seattle, after 12 years in Manhattan, Benz has become the quintessential New Yorker. “Seattle is completely irritating because everyone seems so nice,” he cracks with a sarcastic chuckle. “I can’t imagine living anywhere other than New York. I would always be having a panic attack, thinking

I was missing something.”


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