If GQ’s second annual Best New Menswear Designers in America competition Wednesday night, held in a sprawling loft in Rockefeller Plaza, had been a popularity contest, it’s safe to guess whom the winner would have been: Andre Benjamin, known to fans of the genre-bending hip hop duo OutKast as Andre 3000, and to members of the fashion world as the creative mind behind the clothing label Benjamin Bixby.
Mr. Benjamin spent much of the evening with tape recorders hoisted to his lips, often pausing during interviews with reporters to chat with the many colleagues and fans who were eager to get a word in with him. Or, more noticeably, for photo ops—the Daily Transom had blurted out nary a question before Mr. Benjamin was politely whisked away to pose with fellow contestant Yigal Azrouel.
“Nice pants, brotha!” he complimented his opponent in a haze of flashbulbs, as a publicist told us to check back in another 15 minutes or so.
At stake for the six finalists—who also included New Yorkers Robert Geller, David Mullen of Save Khaki and the young design duo behind the brand Shipley & Halmos, as well as Alex Carleton of Portland, Maine’s nautically-inspired Rogues Gallery (some of his models could have been on an episode of Deadliest Catch)—was a $50,000 cash prize, as well as the opportunity to design a limited-edition collection for Levis to be sold in Bloomingdale’s this September. The winner of the contest, which is held in conjuction with the Council of Fashion Designers of America, will be announced Feb. 13.
Though each designer’s models posed their little hearts out for two hours straight around rectangular pillars in the center of the room, the vibe was less competition than party—a very packed party, with lots of free booze and cute girls in skinny Levis carting around trays of Maryland crab cakes and Pizza Margherita. Perhaps everyone was in such a good mood because of the warm weather (55 degrees in February!), or maybe because it was the eve of Fashion Week, generally an overwhelmingly feminine affair—and for once, all eyes were focused on the men.
“This is a nice event to honor young talent. They need a platform, they need a chance,” said Tommy Hilfiger, who arrived around 8 p.m. in “an old suit of mine from, oh, I dunno, maybe from the late ’80s when I wore three-piece. I decided to bring it back.”
Quite the recession tactic!
“I think remixing and recycling is a pretty good idea,” Mr. Hilfiger concurred.
At the bar, the Daily Transom ran into last year’s winner, Engineered Garments’ Daiki Suzuki, best known for his modern take on classic American workwear. “I feel much better this year,” he said, clutching two bottles of Stella Artois. “I don’t have any pressure on me!”
Towards the end of the evening, Gossip Girl actor Chace Crawford was spotted near Mr. Azrouel’s presentation sipping a glass of whiskey and chatting with GQ’s editor in chief Jim Nelson and West Coast editor Chris Huvane. But Mr. Huvane quickly informed us that he’d promised Mr. Crawford’s publicist his lips would remain sealed to the press.
“I’m so sorry,” Mr. Crawford said before walking away.
Us too! But we did get to chat with Mr. Benjamin as he was leaving, shortly after he’d posed for yet another photo, this one with Mr. Nelson and Thom Browne, one of the contest’s judges. He was wearing a green plaid button-down, blue corduroy jodhpurs and a matching sport coat, all of his own design.
When the Daily Transom caught up with the 33-year-old Mr. Benjamin at the same event a year earlier, shortly after he’d launched his prep-heavy line, he mentioned a possible move to the East Village. Update: He’s still living in Atlanta, but plans to move to New York “if Benjamin Bixby stays successful.” (There’s been some talk on music Web sites that the brand is having financial troubles, though Mr. Benjamin said, “We’re surviving.” He also has a new solo album due out this summer or fall.)
“I just do things that I love. Like, okay, to me it’s about adventure,” he said, pointing at one of his models. “So this was about 1917 fighter pilots. The good guys versus the bad guys. I just make up these little stories and get pictures in my head.”
So he’s gotten the hang of this whole fashion thing?
“I’ve learned a lot in a year,” he said. “But I’m still a beginner.”