Christian Benner - Distressed and Dressed

Sustainability and ethical production has been a growing concern within the fashion industry in recent years, mainly as a response to the rise of fast throwaway fashion retailers - cheaply made garments which can't be recycled that pollute landfill as surplus textile waste.

Image © Christian Benner, 2013

The trend of "repurposing" garments is still de rigueur, and no I don't mean ripping up an old T-shirt an ex left at your house, and then dusting your windowsills with it - I mean "upcycling", as in DIY reviving old clothes to bring them back to life.

Sustainability and ethical production has been a growing concern within the fashion industry in recent years, mainly as a response to the rise of fast throwaway fashion retailers - cheaply made garments which can't be recycled that pollute landfill as surplus textile waste.

That's why I love the concept behind US designer Christian Benner's self-titled label, which takes old pieces of clothing such as leather jackets, T-shirts and sweatshirts, and creates unique and custom designs - a form of bespoke upcycling! Benner's pieces also incorporate a slight twist, not only does he take clothing and reclaim its wearability, but his creative vision also extends to buying new items to re-work and stamp with his own authentic vintage punk and rock-inspired style. His design signature ensures you'll want to keep on wearing the pieces over and over again.

A former visual merchandiser, Benner's name is synonymous with New York's cutting edge underground fashion scene as a stylist and creative pioneer, with celebrity fans including Donatella Versace, Brad Pitt and Mila Kunis among others.

I spoke to the designer about reviving fashion and how he sees each piece as a canvas for creativity.

You've taken up-cycling to another level with your designs - why is reviving old clothing so appealing to you?

When I first started, I was taking vintage pieces, tees...leather jackets and up-cycling them for myself. I wanted to wear clothing that was unique and that no one else was wearing. After some time, I was so inspired by the vintage pieces I was wearing that I wanted to recreate that look and feel for others, but with new pieces.

Each design is a one-of-a-kind piece - what does your design process involve when a client comes to you? What are the key elements you look for when you create a piece unique to them?

For instance, when I do a custom leather for a client, I like to really get to know that person by talking to them, finding out their hobbies and interests...since I'm creating such a personal piece, it's important to me that if reflects who they are and by creating something so personal, I like them to get to know who I am too. It almost feels as if I am giving them a piece of myself in the jacket.

Who are your main clients?

Social media has opened up many doors for me, it's allowed me to reach many all over the world, which I am very grateful for. I have been able to establish strong relationships with clients in Australia, Dubai and the UK. I have also teamed-up with Brandon Boyd of Incubus, Michael Grant of the LA Guns and Julian Casablanca of The Strokes. In terms of retail, Christian Benner is now being carried in Germany, Greece, and Australia and throughout the United States.

Which design did you most enjoy creating and who was it for?

One of my favourite pieces I created was when I teamed up with Brandon Boyd of Incubus. I created a leather jacket and had Brandon paint a mural on the back. The jacket will be posted on the Incubus website to auction off. All proceeds will be donated to the charity, Road Recovery, which helps children battering addictions through art and music. (find out more on the Incubus site here).

Punk is obviously back on the fashion agenda with the Met's themed exhibition and the recent Met Gala - you created your own take with 'The Sid Vicious' leather biker. Which other icons of that movement inspired you?

I am extremely inspired by what Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm Mclaren created and how they basically took fashion with a no rules attitude. I feel like in today's society, everything is so cookie cutter, so by the pieces I am creating, I'm trying to give my clients a different kind of aesthetic and bring out their own unique individuality.

As fashion and street style evolves year on year, how do you ensure your designs stay relevant, do you follow trends or do your own thing?

I'm not comfortable using the word trend. All of my pieces are a reflection of my mood at the time. I go through a lot of different phases with art and music, so whatever I am into at that moment, it will most likely reflect in my work.

Did you always re-work your own clothes before launching your label?

No, it actually happened on a whim. I went into a friends store and he was so passionate about what he was selling, so I felt obligated to buy something. I picked a band t-shirt. I particularly don't like wearing shirts that have graphics on them, so I altered it, my goal was to break down the graphics so it wasn't so vibrant. After that, I got a lot of positive feedback on the shirt and the clothing company I was working for at the time, asked if I would design a few custom pieces for them. Shortly after, I decided to leave and branch out on my own.

What kind of music do you listen to when you're designing - I'm imagining it's rock related!

Usually when I'm working, I like to work alone and music is my outlet, as it helps set my mood for the day. Whether it is classic rock from the 60's and 70's all the way up to the grunge era of the 90's.

Can you let us into some of the techniques you use when distressing garments?

When I am creating, it becomes a very personal time for myself, and I use it as a form of meditation to clear my head. When I look at a piece I've created, I can probably tell you what was going through my head at that time. I find it very therapeutic and calming. I never necessarily have anything set in stone. I will take a certain piece and just start...the final outcome will change in my head probably 5 different times before I am finished. I like to consider myself a perfectionist and I won't put down a piece until I get the right vibe from it.

Where do you source all your clothing from before you put your own stamp on it?

I like to spend my weekends exploring the flea markets looking for hidden treasures, but since the good pieces are so hard to find, I took it upon myself to start buying new pieces and transitioning them into mimicking desired vintage pieces. For instance, I will buy a brand new leather jacket and look at a photo of a vintage leather for inspiration and transform that piece into something that looks like a vintage item.

If you could collaborate with one pop culture icon (dead or alive) on a custom piece for them, who and what would it be?

Alexander McQueen. Through his work, he taught me to not be afraid to show my true passion through what I create.

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