Chris Benz Talks Savannah, Mentoring, and Friendster Connections

chris benz
Photo: Patrick McMullan
Designer Chris Benz sporting a very colorful hairdo

With his fabulous color sense and quirky details, designer Chris Benz has charmed the uptown and downtown sets alike—for proof, look no further than his loyal fan club of Susan Sarandon and her daughter, Eva Amurri.

The 28-year-old Seattle native, who honed his skills at J. Crew and Marc Jacobs before launching his own line in 2007, presented a Fall 2011 collection at New York Fashion Week inspired by his visits to Savannah, Ga., where he mentors design students at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD).

FashionEtc stopped by his Technicolor studio—which, incidentally, matches his Manic Panic–dyed do these days—to chat about the deep South (Paula Deen included), Prada, and why he’s not working on a Chris Benz baby line.

Congratulations on your Fall collection! Tell us a little bit about the background.

I’ve been going to Savannah about once or twice a month as a mentor for the fashion school at SCAD, and Savannah is just so weird. There’s this Savannah old-society thing mixed with SCAD, which owns practically everything there, and there’s this kind of frenetic tension between those old Southern groups of people and the kind of renegade art school kids. So for Fall, we wanted to take old-fashioned details and give them this new twist. There’s a lot of black and a lot of Southern gothic, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil symbolism, like mourning flowers. It’s a little spooky.

Gucci Fall 2011 collection

Photos courtesy of Chris Benz

Looks from the Chris Benz Fall 2011 collection

What’s your favorite thing about the South?

It’s different every time I go. I love that there’s this level of decay of the city, like they built it and just left it. The buildings are kind of weathered. Also, it’s just so manageable—it’s like the size of the West Village, and it’s just so gorgeous you can’t believe.

Do you like Southern food?

I honestly haven’t had that much Southern food. I haven’t been to the Paula Deen restaurant or anything—everyone tells me I can’t go there because only tourists go there! But I don’t really like food. Really! I just eat a hamburger every day.

What kind of thing are you doing at SCAD?

I have been going down to work with a little group of students, seniors working on their final collection, from their concept—with muslins and sketches and all that—all the way to the end. I love being their sounding board. It’s not like they live in New York and can intern at Michael Kors or something. It’s very innocent, the way they work. Sometimes it’s torturous—like, why aren’t you taking my advice?—but it’s so nice to be able to say the things that you wish someone had told you at that age. Not to sound like a fuddy-duddy!

You worked with Alejandro Ingelmo again this season on the shoes, right?

Every season that we work together, it gets better and better. Our aesthetics are so different. There’s a severity to what he does, and then we mix it with weird colors and fabrications and it makes a marriage.

You’re doing more than ever with your line these days, from the shoes with Alejandro to your knits. How big do you want to be?

This is really as big as we can be and want to be for now—our entire company is only five people! We have a lot of good partnerships going on, like the fur license with Pologeorgis, but I think you can never spend enough time refining the main collection.

So no Chris Benz baby line in the works?

Not that I know of! But we did hats with Patricia Underwood this season, and we’re really working on our hand-knits. They’ve been doing really well for us, and I think it’s the beginning of a sort of classics collection that we can do every season—I love the concept of that.

When did you go Technicolor with the hair?

I did it in December. The weather was so s—–y, and there were all these holiday parties coming up. I was just like, Let’s do it; let’s do chunks of color everywhere. It was great. And as a boy, you don’t have to keep it up. I think it looks cooler when it’s faded and growing out.

What are you working on now?

I’m going to Paris on Thursday to do the buyer’s market. It’s so good. I haven’t been to Paris in a while. We worked so hard on Fall, though, and I’m really excited to close that door and get started on Resort.

Are you keeping up with the shows in Europe?

I loved Prada. I love a live feed!

Speaking of a live feed—you’re someone who’s really embraced digital media.

Our message with this collection was always “fun with fashion.“ I never aspired to be that standoffish designer who relied on severity, that kind of negative appeal, in a way. And I’ve always been on Friendster, on all those. It’s really about making connections with people, and I try to do that all the way to the level of going into stores to meet with the customers. You have to make that connection with the person that’s handing over their credit card. It’s service to that customer. With Twitter, people can feel like they’re a part of your company.

Do the customers tweet you?

Yeah! And because I have this advice column on Fashionista, it puts me sort of into a different category, because people feel like they can ask me questions. I mean, I haven’t been in this that long, but come on. How much can you know about fashion? We know everything there is to know, so ask away! It’s a great added bonus, too—it’s exciting that there are so many people excited about your business.