Fashion

The Christian Benner Story: ‘Why Get Paid to Live Somebody Else’s Dream?’

Fashion

The Christian Benner Story: ‘Why Get Paid to Live Somebody Else’s Dream?’

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Photography by Johnny De Guzman

Corporate America is an easy trap to fall victim to, and such was the case for NY-based fashion designer Christian Benner, who spent his greater twenties doing merchandising for Abercrombie & Fitch and Victoria’s Secret. As the monotonous days of appeasing bosses gradually wore him down, Benner was quietly kindling a rebellious fire within that’d later provide him the backbone to launch his own business, selling distressed leather jackets and vintage tees.

A survivor of substance abuse and manipulative management, Benner has finally carved out a niche in his thirties, where his DIY artistry is properly recognized and a big business’ touch is thankfully far-flung. While we live in an era of instant gratification, the 35-year-old creator is proud proof that slow-burning hard work isn’t a romantic ideal of the past. We caught up the man, who’s dressed icons from Kate Moss to Lady Gaga, to discuss his success story, run-in with Donatella Versace and suburban New Jersey upbringing.

On quitting Victoria’s Secret:

“When I turned 30, I woke up was like, ‘I’m done living this Rock ‘N’ Roll lifestyle.’ I was working at Victoria’s Secret doing merchandising and became a robot. I had to wear all black; they literally gave me a piece of paper with vocab words I had to use to talk to people. I was miserable; I would walk down the street and be like, ‘Get out of my fucking way;’ My escape was partying. I found this niche of Rock ‘N’ Roll that was still alive in the Lower East Side and I’d go to this club where Lady Gaga was go-go dancing and they had a hair metal night. It allowed me to escape the day life I was living. I decided I shouldn’t be working for a corporate company, so I quit Victoria Secret and got sober. I went to work for What Goes Around Comes Around and took half of a pay cut.”

 

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On creating his first t-shirts:

“People kept telling me about Jimmy, who owns Trash and Vaudeville, so I went over to introduce myself and bought a Kinks t-shirt. I buried it in my backyard for four months, pulled it out and poured some bleach on it, and it came out shredded and had these incredible dirt stains on it like it was 30 years old. I wore it to work at WGACA and they were like, ‘Holy shit, where’d you get that shirt? Do you have more?’ So they bought all my old shirts for $50 each and slapped a $150 price tag on them. Within the first week, they were all gone. Kristin Wig came in and bought my personal white v-neck. They eventually gave me a bag of shirts to distress; I charged them $20 per shirt, but little did I know they were selling them for $250 in major department stores. Everyone was like, ‘You need to be doing this on your own; this is your artwork.’

On his unlikely early adopter Donatella Versace:

“One day Donatella Versace walked into WGACA when I was in back on break. I came out and she was holding 15 of my shirts. She looked at me and said, ‘You did this? I will take every one of them.’ She spent $5,500 on my shirts and only wanted me to be with her. Then my owner brought me to his office and was like, ‘What the fuck was that? Why didn’t you show her anything else? We have vintage Versace.’ Ever since then, it was a downward spiral between him and me; he wanted me out of there, but the shirts were doing really well. Somebody once said to me, ‘Why get paid to live somebody else’s dream?’ I was opening magazines and seeing photos of my work with someone else’s name on them.”

 

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On being let go from WGACA:

“Two weeks before Christmas, I was let go and filed for unemployment. At the time, I met a girl who was also sober. She became my everything, but she’d just been signed when I met her. A year later they were putting her album out, so they flew her to Los Angeles. When she came back, she said, ‘Listen—my album is about to come out and my career is about to explode; I can’t do this relationship anymore.’ This was a week after getting fired, so I took three months to myself and started getting into meditation. Everything became a fire inside of me. I was collecting unemployment and buying t-shirts to destroy. I started social media and pretended like I’d been around for a really long time, so people would come across my work and be like, ‘What the fuck is this? Why haven’t I heard of this guy?’ I wanted to be coveted.”

On inspiration:

“When I first started, I was in this whole late ’70s, early ’80s punk rock phase—not the music, but the culture. I fell in love with the whole CBGB, Andy Warhol, Ramones scene. All these people hung out with each other. There could be Blondie on stage and there’d be Lou Reed in the audience. It was like the nu-wave hippy crowd, and the way they were dressing, they were doing it themselves. They had no rules; they’d just take a jacket and paint it or put safety pins and studs on it.”

On customizing his first leather jacket:

“I went to a vintage store and bought my first leather jacket for $40. From the moment the paint touched the jacket, all that aggression I was feeling disappeared. I was in my bedroom in the East Village, painting for two hours on this jacket and it was a new high—a new drug. I posted a photo and people were like, ‘Wow, how much?’ Two weeks after, I got a call from Italian Vogue and they were like, ‘Do you have more jackets?’ So I started going crazy painting these jackets. From the day I started to now, I’ve never really planned anything; the pieces are special because it’s always what’s going on in my head at the moment. I put on a record and go nuts.”

 

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On growing up:

“I grew up in New Jersey and thought I was going to be living there with a family and kids, and commuting into the city everyday, while working a corporate job. That’s what everyone did—my brother was married and had his first baby at 21. That’s what was instilled in my head. It took me until I was 30 to really figure out who I was. When I was 20, I had a mindset based off my small political town. I didn’t go to college right away because my guidance counselor straight up told me, ‘Listen you’re not going to college.’ I just didn’t really give a shit.”

On studying fashion:

“Being a 20-year-old in suburban town New Jersey, I was afraid to bring up my interest in fashion to anyone. I was like, ‘What’re my parents going to think?’ I discovered this school in Florida and decided to go for fashion design. I went down there with this rockstar attitude that I’d become the biggest fashion designer in the world and my professors handed all that bullshit back to me. I didn’t know how to sew; I didn’t even know how to draw. I finished two years there and came back to New York for an internship and went back to school in Philadelphia to study fashion marketing. Schooling for any type of art, I think it’s a bunch of shit; t’s a waste of money. In my career, nobody has asked me where I went to school.”

On his most memorable celebrity clients:

“Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert. I got a phone call before their Billboard Awards duet last year and they were like, ‘Apparently you’re the go-to guy for Rock ‘N’ Roll.’ I did research on their style and how they move on stage, and I thought to myself that they were reinventing with the new single, ‘Something Bad.’ The biggest challenge with Carrie is that she’s a vegan, so she doesn’t wear leather. We spent four days tracking down the perfect vegan leather jacket. It was such a magical moment to watch these two girls on stage during the award show and shine. It was surreal to see something I made in my bedroom; I was literally sitting in my bed putting studs on this jacket and painting it outside in my backyard, and then it was on television in front of millions—fucking wild.”