A tastemaker to tastemakers, the Turkish designer seems increasingly disinterested in the notion of “fashion.”
Umit Benan made his name young, hitting the menswear scene with his eponymous label in 2009 and winning Pitti Uomo’s distinguished Who Is On Next? award that same year with his second collection, all by age 30. In the years since his debut, the Milan-based designer has earned considerable acclaim, said goodbye to fashion shows and then returned to the runway—opening Milan in 2018 with a collection titled “God Is Black”—and introduced, in 2019, his Umit Benan B+ collection of luxe, sharply tailored unisex garments, from knitwear to suiting to double-breasted cashmere overcoats.
“In the new collections, which are increasingly unisex, I first build the model on the man, then transfer it to the woman and make adjustments until it is absolutely perfect for both,” he says of his method of working. For women, the clothes add a touch of the masculine while the opposite is true for men; in the end, these are perfectly curated pieces that work on every body.
Born in Germany to Turkish parents, Benan is a global citizen, having attended boarding school in Switzerland and university in Boston and then living for spells in New York City and London. It seems that part of him has never quite aligned with the posturing of the fashion world, wanting instead to embrace something less ephemeral, more rooted in human stories.
“When I started in 2009, I was fresh out of design schools—Istituto Marangoni, in Milan, and Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, in London—and I wanted to establish my own style, my own character,” he tells Robb Report over the phone from Milan. “My focus was on concepts, not clothes: For my shows, I used to take real men from the street, from a taxi driver to a pizza maker, and create worlds around them.” But after a time, he says, “I felt I was doing it more for sales and the press than for myself.
“I remember one day, in Istanbul, I didn’t have one of my jackets and I borrowed one from my father, who traded in fabrics. It was a Gianfranco Ferré double-breasted jacket from the 1980s made of cashmere. Wearing that cloth, those shapes, I realised who was to be the new Umit Benan. I realised that I was no longer a boy—I had to do something more mature.”
That maturity can be understood, in part, via the exceptional quality of his fabrics. Wool has been replaced with fine cashmere, silk and velvet, which give garments a luxurious drape and elegance; he once produced a mackintosh-style coat made from 100-percent silk. And yet the materials work in service of the pieces—and those who own them—not the other way around. “I’ve always thought that the garment shouldn’t overwhelm the person wearing it—it shouldn’t be brand recognisable, it should be timeless and fluid,” he says.
That move toward absolute quality has paid dividends: Today he doesn’t have just clients but obsessives (including, industry insiders whisper, a number of Milan’s most recognisable fashion CEOs). “It will take 10 years for me to say that what I am doing is perfect, but I am happy that I no longer have the classic fashion customer,” Benan says. “I have a loyal customer to dialogue with.”
Among his earliest admirers is fashion editor, consultant and former editor-at-large of L’Uomo Vogue Robert Rabensteiner. “From the first time I saw him show, I knew he was destined to become a great designer,” Rabensteiner says. “Umit is good at describing his world through collections—he has his own specific, unique identity.” With B+, he adds, the designer’s mission “translates into an almost obsessive search for the best fabrics—Benan does not compromise. He is his own boss.”
Benan’s work centres on the precise architecture of his garments, with inspiration coming from the loose but structured designs of the Italian school of the 1980s and ’90s, such as Nino Cerruti and Giorgio Armani, but with an unmistakable flair that’s his alone.
“I’m not doing anything new—nobody really ever does anything new—but I do it my own way, because the hand that designs it is mine,” he says. “Once, after a fashion show, [the press] compared me to Giorgio Armani, and I said, ‘Armani can never be me.’ It wasn’t to be snobbish. I simply believe that everyone is unique and borrows inspiration and ideas to make them their own.”
In his newest collection, he’s particularly proud of a certain piece of outerwear: “I absolutely love our Neapolitan double-breasted coat, because it is of such excellent quality, but also because of its perfect balance. Between the weight of the cashmere and the pattern, it’s light, almost like a robe, yet it maintains a strong, classic structure. It feels like it has a soul when you put it on.”
The entirety of Benan’s vision will soon be on display in his newly reconfigured atelier. Comprising different levels of a building in the Navigli district of Milan, the space will include his home, a 2,972 sqm guest house and a showroom designed to feel like a private shop, where clients can be pampered while perusing. “The new place will be a friendly little niche to make you feel protected, where you can have a drink at the bar, pick out clothes or have your measurements taken for our made-to-measure service,” he says. It’s a deliberate move away from courting the typical fashion consumer wandering the streets of Milan to buy the latest collections: “They have to choose to take the time to come to me.” It’s time very well spent.