Umit Benan on freedom fighting

The spontaneous Turkish designer talks Basquiat, fuck ups and the Istanbul riots

Fashion Q+A
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Taken from the October issue of Dazed & Confused

Context is everything for Umit Benan. For his SS14 show in Milan in June, the Turkish designer transported his audience back to the hedonistic world of the Ottoman empire. It was a hypnagogic and theatrical presentation – especially for a city where menswear is notoriously reserved. The show featured a live band, with street-cast models’ faces covered with paper masks to resemble Turkish caricatures (complete with fez hats, moustaches and cigarettes hanging out of their mouths). The 32-year-old has certainly never been reserved. Since establishing his eponymous menswear label in 2009 he’s been set on creating surreal experiences, or “15-minute episodes” as he likes to call them. Benan is also extremely direct: he notoriously announced his departure as creative director of Trussardi in an abrupt flurry of tweets before any official statement had come from the house. But it’s a refreshing openness and one that is shaking up the sorry state of menswear in Milan.

I couldn’t care less about perfection. It’s boring and I hate it. Men are better with their mistakes and their fuck ups

Dazed Digital: The Istanbul riots erupted a few weeks before your SS14 show. Did they influence your collection in any way?

Umit Benan: I began working on the collection almost two years ago, but when the riots started happening I really started feeling it. This is something that has come out of the country now, but it’s an issue that’s existed for the past ten years – you guys just didn’t know about it. It’s something I consider really fascist. Basically, the government in power is saying that two drunks created our country. So for my collection I looked back at the Ottomans, who came before Mustafa Kemel Atatürk (the founder of modern Turkey). But it’s always been like that – we’ve always drunk here and we’ve always enjoyed life. All the men here love women and have nothing to hide. So in a way I was looking at it from that point of view, but I wanted to present it in a surreal and almost cartoon-like way.

DD: Why?

Umit Benan: It was already a serious matter so I wanted to put a little irony into it. But when the riots started happening I started getting a little more emotional and aggressive and serious about it, you know? There were a lot of little details in the show that you guys wouldn’t understand, but it was really a political message. Basically, the government is saying our national drink is not rakı (an anise-flavoured spirit), which it has been for centuries. Instead they say it is ayran, which is a yoghurt drink. That’s why I came out with ayran in my hand, going, ‘Cheers to Atatürk, cheers to my father, cheers to who I am.’ This is who we are and you guys are trying to take something away from us.

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Umit Benan Photography by Gabriele Giussani

DD: Your SS14 show was very much a performance. Does it come naturally to work in such a theatrical way? 

Umit Benan: I don’t know how to work in any other way. The thing is, as a teenager I wanted to move to LA and study film. My family didn’t want me to go on my own so they sent me to Boston, where my brother was at the time. Maybe it was a good idea, because my vision of fashion is still influenced by film. With each show, I present 15 minutes of a little episode. Sometimes the characters in films can inspire me, so I modify them or I create my own. 

The thing is, everything in my life has to be spontaneous. When I don’t feel like it, I just don’t do it. 

DD: Is that why you began street casting? 

Umit Benan: All I cared about in life was to be different – not better or worse, just different. So I started street casting – not that it hasn’t been done before in the past with Gaultier and Margiela, but my characters were completely different ‑ they weren’t very charming and they were more ironic. Men make mistakes, men show mistakes. A man with a beard and a belly can be quite charming; you don’t necessarily have to have a perfect body. So I started concentrating on the beauty and charm of real men. But then, to be honest, I got a little tired and the thing is, everything in my life has to be spontaneous. When I don’t feel like it, I just don’t do it. 

DD: So the idea of perfection doesn’t interest you? 

Umit Benan: No, I hate it. I really hate it. I mean, I like pretty women, but with men I definitely prefer charm, even with bad looks. I couldn’t care less about perfection. It’s boring and I hate it. Men are better with their mistakes and their fuck-ups. A perfect man is not a real man. 

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Umit Benan Photography by Gabriele Giussani

DD: What’s the most spontaneous thing you’ve ever done? 

Umit Benan: Well, that’s the beauty of working on my own now. I don’t have to ask anyone and I can really be spontaneous. Last season I sent one of the models out wearing a suit and a mask but no shoes. People started saying, ‘It’s just like the image of Basquiat in his studio wearing an Armani suit and no shoes.’ Instead, I had actually miscalculated the amount of shoes we had. We had 22 guys but only 21 pairs of shoes. At that point I said, ‘Fuck it – let him walk out with no shoes!’ Backstage everyone was saying, ‘What do you mean let him walk out without shoes! What’s the idea behind it?’ I said, ‘It’s exactly like our mood boards and the images of Basquiat in the 80s.’ So in the end it became something great! 

DD: You left Trussardi quite recently, is it a big transition to just work on your own? 

Umit Benan: That was my first experience and I call it my internship. I saw it as an experience and I really believed in it, but it didn’t go the way I expected it to. We were not on the same page. They wanted to open stores in Forte dei Marmi, which is a little summer place in Italy, but I wanted to open stores in London and New York. At one point, I realised that I couldn’t fight it any more. I’m not going to kill myself for other people. At the same time, I have no regrets and it was such a great experience. It was crazy, we laughed and we cried. It was a full-on two years. 

DD: There was quite a lot of publicity surrounding the way you left...

Umit Benan: I’m pretty open and I’m very transparent in life. You can’t embarrass me, you just can’t. There is nothing people can discover that they don’t already know. Also, I hate contracts. I don’t care about contracts and I prefer to be open. 

DD: What legacy would you like to leave behind? 

Umit Benan: You know, I ask myself that sometimes but I don’t really know if people will care what I think about. In my next life, I want to be a musician. I like the stage and the idea of one person controlling 50,000 people with one finger. I’ve always wanted to know what it really feels like to be up there. How do you think it feels to have 50,000 people just looking at you?

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