On Thursday, Aug. 30, the designer Chris Benz answered the door of his sleek studio space in the Garment District wearing Chuck Taylor All-Star sneakers, cutoff khaki pants, and a rumpled pink Ascot Chang button-down shirt worn Tom Ford-style—that is, revealing a respectable amount of chest hair.
Inside an expansive gray room, hanging in an orderly manner around a large black antique table, was the Technicolor women’s collection he plans to show at the New York Yacht Club on Monday. “I’m just ready for it to be over—done and done!” said Mr. Benz, 24, using one of his favorite expressions. Yet he was exuding preternatural confidence and calm. “As long as you put your heart into something, you can’t be nervous,” he said.
Ever since Mr. Benz showed his first namesake collection in February of this year the designer has achieved a loyal following among fashion editors and the type of women who hang out at Sant Ambroeus in the West Village: media-shy, well-bred, student-like if not actually students. The clothes had an “art-school nerdy vibe,” as the designer put it: boyish and slouchy, wearable, even sensible; improbable color combinations worn by models in eyeglasses or jockey caps pulled low. Mr. Benz had made them for his friends—girls with an effortless glamour, he said, who “throw on lip gloss and mascara and just go. Done and done!”
The New York Times raved. Elettra Rossellini Wiedemann, the young Lancôme model, daughter of Isabella and a close friend of Mr. Benz’s, hosted a dinner for him at Raoul’s in SoHo, and he landed accounts with Fred Segal, Linda Dresner, Saks, Bloomingdale’s, and later the online designer mecca Shopbop.com. Mr. Benz began appearing in paparazzi pictures, always draped in scarves and pulchritudinous young ingénues. Not celebrities, he said, but “a specific girl who gets the attitude of the clothes,”
“He’s one of the most promising arrivals to the New York design scene right now,” e-mailed Nylon fashion news editor Jenny Feldman. Ms. Feldman, who been spotted on the widely read blog Fashionista.com wearing head-to-toe Chris Benz (“I’m so obsessed with Chris Benz”), said that the designer has “buzz, youth, talent, vision, and a nascent celebrity following … He can be quite daring—for fall, he combined surprising colors like electro-orange with acid turquoise, and somehow managed to maintain a sophisticated look.”
Faran Krentcil, editor of Fashionista.com and a friend of Mr. Benz’s, agreed. “A lot of girls want to find a good medium between things they want to wear every day and things that are more forward-thinking and fresh,” she said. “And Chris has that perfect balance of what’s chic and fashionable and what’s easy to pick up off your floor in the morning and throw on.” It doesn’t hurt that he’s engaging and popular with the social set, she said, but “there have been designers way more connected than Chris who’ve lasted only a season or two because no one wanted to wear their clothes.”
In Mr. Benz’s office, behind an understated black desk, hung a giant sketch by Mr. Benz’s friend Lola Schnabel (daughter of Julian) and several personal notes on Vanity Fair and Harper’s Bazaar letterhead. A huge plant lent the whole room a hotel-in-the-tropics feel, and a giant inspiration board leaning against one wall featured fabrics, found objects, and pictures—among them the model Gemma Ward done up in 50’s bouffant and the large, menacing tentacle of an octopus. “I just kind of collect a folder of stuff that I like,” Mr. Benz said. Beneath the board, was a line of several retro-looking pairs of colorful women’s platform shoes. “That’s my shoe collection!” he said.
Next up was his famous photo booth, which a friend of his business partner, Ashley Abess, sent up as a gift after they founded the company. Tacked outside the booth was a pictorial record of all Mr. Benz’s well-known visitors, each hamming it up for the camera: Cuba Gooding Jr.; the socialite Fabian Basabe and his wife, Martina; Ms. Wiedemann; Ms. Krentcil; and various other models, stylists, and otherwise attractive people. No one looked better in these photos than Mr. Benz himself, who appeared in an exhaustive array of poses and hairstyles, like the scraggly ponytail he was wearing today. He’s had a lot of practice, he explained sheepishly.
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.
Recently, The Observer went “stoop-side.” It was Labor Day weekend, the calm before the storm of Fashion Week, and Mr. Benz had spent most of Sunday coalescing at Sant Ambroeus with friends after casting the models for his show the day before with the help of a stylist, Jessica Diehl, whom Mr. Benz called “a magician.” Wearing a plaid blazer with shiny blue lining, blue slacks cut to mid-calf, a vintage 30’s brim fedora, and Ray Ban aviators, he was joined by two friends, Talullah Rufus-Isaacs, 19—the stepsister of Ms. Amurri—and her best childhood friend, Morgan Stewart, 20, who had recently moved from L.A. “Can’t you tell?” said Mr. Benz, motioning to Ms. Stewart’s large Nicole Richie sunglasses and general blondness.
Stoop News, Mr. Benz lamented, has not lately been getting the attention it deserves. “I’ve been so busy,” he said. “After the show I’ll get back into it. Expectations are just so high when you have a blog! It’s like, an entire womenswear collection isn’t enough, I need to update the blog constantly, too?”
He sighed and lit a Marlboro Light. “Usually, I just wait for something great to happen, and then I put it up,” he said. “But many a night is spent on the stoop when there is nothing happening.”
Mr. Benz’s silver Vespa was parked across the street. He motioned toward it. “I let everyone in the building use it,” he said. “I don’t care. It’s insured!” He wasn’t sure what kind of Vespa it was. “I don’t know, an Italian one? My friend Eric—actually, Eric Neis, won it on The Real World/Road Rules Challenge and gave it to me. He was on the first New York Real World.” He has since moved to California and become a life coach, Mr. Benz said, but this year accompanied the crew to Mykonos after a mutual friend who works at MTV introduced them.
“Was he the really buff one?” Ms. Stewart wanted to know. Mr. Benz nodded.
“He sounds gay,” said Ms. Stewart.
“No!” cried Mr. Benz. “He’ll be at the show. I told everybody they better look good.”
Mr. Benz and Ms. Rufus-Isaacs became fast friends, she explained, when she e-mailed him out of the blue two years ago after seeing a small blurb on him in Elle. “She said, ‘I am not a crazy person, but I just love your clothes, and I’m going to the British Oscars, and I have simply nothing to wear, and everything in London sucks,” recalled Mr. Benz.
“So he sent me this box of the most amazing clothes,” Ms. Rufus-Isaacs chimed in. “And I wore them everywhere, and everyone flipped for them.” This past February, she visited New York for his debut. “And then I convinced her to move here!” Mr. Benz said. Ms. Rufus-Isaacs relocated last week, and now lives on 15th Street—though she’s a frequent visitor to the Stoop.
“I wish Sant Ambroeus was 24 hours,” Mr. Benz was saying. “We’ve spent like the entire weekend there. It’s kind of a satellite Stoop, with food and beverage service!”
A tall, strikingly attractive man in a T-shirt and baseball hat approached. This was Scott Rozic, 26, resident of the building and one of the identical twins Mr. Benz writes about on his blog. Mr. Rozic and his brother look like models, but they are actually attorneys.
“Did you get some hot bitches?” Mr. Rozic asked jokingly, referring to Mr. Benz’s model casting.
“Yes, about 25,” said Mr. Benz. “Now we spend the next week fitting them.”
“I can’t wait for the show,” said Ms. Rufus-Isaacs.
Mr. Rozic whipped out his phone to update Mr. Benz on a certain pressing Stoop reconnaissance mission.
“Allegedly, the old woman with the two dogs has a terrace,” explained Mr. Benz, somewhat bitterly. “It’s the only one in the building. Our friend Justin lives next door, and you can go out on his terrace and kind of see it.”
Mr. Rozic and Mr. Benz moved on to the subject of their new neighbors, “two new boys who just moved in,” according to Mr. Benz. “I always give people one chance to be part of Stoop crew,” he said. “We’re nice to everyone. We ask them what apartment they’re moving into, blah blah blah, and they have one chance to nail it down. If we sense weakness on the stoop, it’s over! Like those British kids … really not offering a lot to the Stoop.”
“Do people even sit here when you’re not here?” wondered Ms. Rufus-Isaacs.
“Sometimes,” Mr. Benz said. “But then I’ll walk up and like stand there and be watching my iPhone or something and I’ll be like …” he looks out from behind his Ray Bans, demonstrating his “move on” look.
“I just like how the Stoop is this timeless thing,” Mr. Benz said. “People sat on their stoops in the 1800’s, and it was all about neighborhood gossip.”
Plus, it’s nice to do something that doesn’t involve fashion, he said. Not that he’s at all worried about his impending spring presentation. “I just hope all the models come in on time so they can get their hair and makeup done and we can put on their outfits and tell them to get out there!” he said. “Everybody has their job to do.”