Mellowing Out in Mykonos
Mr. Benz grew up in Seattle and moved to New York at 17 to attend Parsons, where he met Ms. Abess. While there, the Council of Fashion Designers of America—the industry equivalent of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences—awarded him their Emerging Designer Award. He interned for Marc Jacobs before taking a job at J. Crew when he graduated, designing dresses. He and Ms. Abess secured their own studio last August, getting a deal on rent, stripping all the walls, painting the floors and buying lights on Craigslist. “Ashley and I love being here,” he said. “We, like, order dinner and twirl around the studio.” But he also stressed the seriousness of their enterprise. “We asked as many people as we could what we were getting ourselves into. We tried to cover all our bases in terms of planning,” he said. “This is real life, so it’s like, make no mistakes!” Two employees handle sales and manage the studio, and Mr. Benz retains an outside PR representative. “We like to keep it small, like a family,” he said with a shrug.
After nailing down his “It” boy status during winter fashion week, Mr. Benz showed a flirtier “resort” collection in June, had a trunk show at a store called Distractions in Aspen, then went on his annual two-week pilgrimage with friends to Greece’s Mykonos island in July. “This is our fourth year going,” he said. “It’s like our little summer camp. We just lie in the sun for two weeks straight and order huge plates of watermelon and that’s it. It’s so chic!” Mykonos is one of the world’s foremost jet-set party locations, but Mr. Benz said that’s not really his scene. “We don’t even leave the hotel.” There are also shorter getaways, like the one he took to London last weekend “My friend Cheryl and I left on Thursday night, we arrived on Friday morning, went to TopShop, went back to the hotel, changed, went to the Prince concert, came back to the hotel, got up on Saturday morning, got on a plane and, like, done and done, back in New York on Saturday afternoon!” he said.
Fashion is about creating and selling illusions, myths and aspirations, and Mr. Benz has an uncanny knack for this. Critics often attribute his imaginative color palette, which blends whites and nudes with wild color for spring, to his Seattle upbringing. (As in, this is why he understands muted, bad-weather-ish tones, and also why he has a special appreciation for new and exciting hues!) “I’m so tired of hearing, ‘Chris is from Seattle!’” Mr. Benz sighed. “One of these days, I’ll just be a New York designer.” But in some ways, he consciously emphasizes his Northwestern roots: He’s often photographed in ripped jeans, and has posted a large picture of Kurt Cobain on his MySpace page. His spring collection, though, invokes an entirely different kind of myth: “I was thinking a lot about the 1930’s, and specifically, about an old-world starlet all alone in this huge old house in the Hollywood Hills,” Mr. Benz said. “And she can’t leave the house, so she sort of runs around the garden in these big sun hats”—he motioned to the rainbow of huge floppy straw hats set out on the window sill—“and she wears gardener’s clothes, and mixes in bed clothes with the clothes she may have worn out last night. The fall collection was more the funny, nerdy girl, so this is different, but it still has a restless, reckless feel. ”
‘Like an Old Woman’
And then there is the myth of Mr. Benz himself, who does not spend his days idling, but who does spend many evenings doing so—at least according to his blog, Stoop News, which is not about fashion at all, but the stoop of his Bank Street tenement building, where he likes to smoke and kvetch with his fabulous neighborhood friends. It’s cryptic and dry, full of mock horror toward the encroachment of incivility—in the form of tourists, stained mattresses, and used prophylactics—on his beloved West Village (where he has lived for four years). It features a lively cast of friends and neighbors, drag queens and yuppies, some with thinly disguised pseudonyms and some who actually appear in photos (the latter, one suspects, are not in on the joke). Mr. Benz never names himself, and the only glimpse we get of him is an occasional shot of his white sneakers. “I sit on my stoop like an old woman and listen to everyone’s business,” he said breezily. “The people in the building who are around our age read it. But all the rent-stabilized old people have no idea. But I don’t really pay attention to them anyway!”
Besides Ms. Weidemann and Ms. Schnabel, neighborhood celebrity spawn include Eva Amurri, daughter of Susan Sarandon. “We go to the Beatrice a lot, and we go to Sant Ambroeus all the time and eat outside,” Mr. Benz said. “And the D.J. from my show D.J.’s at Socialista, so we always go and say hi to him. Where else do we go? I don’t know. I’m always just like, ‘Meet me on the stoop!”
Mr. Benz’s stoop is framed on each side by benchlike blocks of concrete that support the stairs’ railing. Several people can sit on each, facing each other, to observe the comings and goings in the building. “People have to walk right in front of you,” he said. “It’s really fun.”
Aside from neighborhood happenings, Mr. Benz is fond of reporting on the new downtown vernacular. For example:
fluffy (adj.) . . . to be silently, majorly pissed. e.g. fluffy tailed, fluffed. syn. halloween cat.
ex: They turned us away at Socialista last night, and I was so fluffy.
Also appearing is his favorite catchphrase:
done & done (v.) . . . to be absolutely sure and confirmed of something; extrapolation of the exp. “done”
ex: a: Want to go to Ye Waverly?
b: Done & done.