I had just stepped out of the rain to meet Chris Benz inside a restaurant. At the time, he was still a fashion-design student at Parsons and we were both young plucky newcomers to New York City. I was wearing a khaki trench with jeans and a white button-up shirt. For all intents and purposes, I thought it was a well-appointed outfit, but Chris looked at me and said, “That’s great, but it would look even better with a lobster brooch right here,” as he pointed to my lapel. I’m not the type to wear a brooch of any sort, but I knew what he was talking about. Chris is a slave to details and he shares this trait with Ashley Melisse Abess, his business partner in the ten-collection-strong label Chris Benz.
They grew up on opposite corners of the country: Benz in Seattle and Abess in Miami. Abess comes from a family with deep roots in her hometown, in realms both artistically and entrepreneurially creative.
“My mother, Jayne, used to be the public-relations and marketing director at Bal Harbour Shops, and prior to that had worked at Saks,” Abess says. “So I grew up on the set of my mom’s photo shoots. But my father, Leonard, is a banker, so I also went out on weekends to see properties for real estate loans. Perhaps what I’m doing now is a reflection of the two different backgrounds that I grew up around.” (In February, Leonard Abess was honored by President Obama after giving $60 million to his staff following the sale of his City National Bank shares.)
Both Chris and Ashley displayed a tremendous amount of confidence when they decided to graduate from their respective high schools early and come to study at Parsons School of Design at age 17. Abess entered the design-management program and was inspired upon graduation by Chris’s concept for a label.
“When Chris and I both decide there’s something that we want to do, we just do it. This is the attitude that we had when we were 17 and this is the attitude we had when we wanted to start our own business,” says Abess.
Praised by critics and wearers alike, the label strikes a balance between Benz’s own intensely personal visions and the common narrative of any confident woman’s life. For example, in his Fall/Winter 2009 collection, he dipped into the doldrums of the recession-era mindset and channeled New York in the late 1970s, a distinct time and place when the chips were down and people were devoted to escapism. This spirit left room for him to design celebratory pieces that feel at times both comfortable and risky. “It’s very easy to put together a collection with crazy clothes that can’t be produced and that cost thousands of dollars, but it takes a lot more intelligence to put together a collection that really makes sense, that’s tight and saleable and able to be produced at the right price point,” says Benz.
Certain looks incorporate spurts of taxicab yellow and banner red, possibly shouts to the speedy urgency of New York. Riotous cuts such as one-sleeve dresses and tops are both enhanced and grounded by their inclusion in looks that are almost architecturally proportioned with asymmetrical ruffles and hems. There are blunt pairings of fabrics and patterns, as seen in a look comprised of a boxy cheetah-print peacoat with a svelte light-blue crêpe de chine evening skirt, put together, perhaps, by a capricious wearer who had decided to throw it on and head out into the gritty city.
In a Benz outfit, precision seems effortless. The real challenge for the wearer, however, comes in person, such as when Benz and Abess leave their New York studio and head to Neiman Marcus in Coral Gables for their regular November trunk show.
“Chris’s aesthetic is sexy in an unassuming way,” says Abess. “At the trunk shows, I get into dressing rooms with women and Chris will pick out things for them to try on and they’ll so often say, ‘I love this and didn’t realize it was something that I could wear and I love myself in it.’ ”
Benz attributes a lot of these women’s revelations to the fact that they are often apprehensive about wearing color. His collections are known for trafficking in the richer, bolder hues of the color wheel, but he’s a bit surprised at the reception.
“Even though our first collection was comprised of a lot of really tonal colors, there were these five really brightly colored mohair jackets that everyone loved and then it kind of snowballed from there,” he says. Benz’s color palette was a completely organic development, remembers Abess, and she laughs that he initially proclaimed that the current Fall/Winter collection would be a “black” one.
“Well, there’s black in it,” says Benz. But both he and Abess believe that if color is the foundation for the line from the start of each collection, it turns out to be a completely different animal.
“Consistency is key in fashion,” says Benz. “A lot of our clothes really do drive home a resurgence in classic American sportswear, which a lot of sophisticated women, especially in places like Miami, cherish and have sort of been missing for a while.”
Chris Benz’s ideal Miami ensemble (from assorted Chris Benz collections):
- a luxe silk T-shirt
- trouser shorts in bright colors
- a novelty hat
- a cashmere cardigan (for air conditioning!)
- candy-colored sunglasses