There aren’t many young designers who have worked with Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood; dressed stars like Rita Ora; had their work featured in the Vogue’s 2012 September issue AND launched a capsule collection of their own in Topshop – while still at university.
Mary Benson is part of a new breed of sparky creatives who are street-smart, brand-savvy and blessed with a aesthetic flourish that can turn art, history and pop culture into something defiantly Here and Now.
Benson has cited Pre-Raphaelite women and Renaissance paintings and stained glass windows as influences. And there they are, for all to see, hewn into romantic holographic prints; planted onto body con dresses, 1980s shoulders and sarky bomber jackets (with the back slogan ‘Yorkshire’).
Marry those shapes to witty details – a masterfully nuanced back seam and a ruff of faux fur here, an MB logo and matching clutch there – and we’re talking One. To. Watch. Yeah, yeah. You’ve heard it all before. Believe us.
The e-commerce site launches soon. Watch this space: www.marybenson.co.uk
Bel: Which comes first – shape, fabric or print?
Mary: Print and shape in equal measure. I have an idea of the shape I want, the print ideas come naturally, and then I make my print work with the silhouette. I always have infinite print ideas because, as I draw, designs evolve and I have to whittle them down to a few really strong ones. I draw for ages till finally something clicks that looks ace and I’ll be totally into it. I then start trying to put colourways together.
Bel: When are you at your most creative?
Mary: When I’m up against a deadline. There’s no time to be indecisive so I just throw myself into an idea and they’re usually the best pieces I’ve made. I love working at night. It helps me focus. I tend to get all my ‘to-do’ things out of the way during the day whilst my assistant is around. Then, in the evening, I can really get creative in my own time and blast my music out – I love it and it really works for me. Only problem is, I forget I actually need to go to bed in order to be able to work the next day …!
Bel: When did you first start working with shiny stuff?
Mary: The first pieces I made were these rainbow metallic party dresses when I was 16. They were so popular with my friends, I started making them in gold and silver, too. I sold these online and to boutiques around the country. It was really exciting for me at that age but it was hard to get my head around the fact I had to treat it as a business. I then opened my own boutique in Leeds and sold them there. In the first year at Westminster University, in 2009, we had a print project. That’s when I experimented with holographic vinyl. As soon as I saw the results, I loved it. In fact, I was obsessed. It looked so effective and it was a big hit. Holograms and holographic materials are so popular at the moment.
Bel: What do you enjoy most about working with a new fabric?
Mary: The challenge of manipulating them, learning what they react well to and what doesn’t work so well. I feel it distinguishes my work and sets me apart from other print designers. I’m constantly trying to push the boundaries with what I can achieve, not only through print but through texture too. The way I create my prints is so specific. It’s almost applique and I’m continuing to develop and work with more new irregular materials.
Bel: Where most 23-year olds are struggling to get started, you’ve achieved a lot. What’s the secret?
Mary: I don’t know! I work very hard but I also hang out with my mates and have loads of fun, so I’m not a hermit! I’ve just been extremely self-motivated since school and never liked to waste time. I was quite blissfully unaware of the fashion industry until I moved to London. During the years in Leeds going to college, making clothes, meeting people and developing myself as a business, I was completely driven and fearless and was never put off by anything. By the time I was in London, I knew what I wanted and maintained that vibe. I wasn’t shy about approaching people and opportunities. I think also, being from Yorkshire, we tend to be quite forward. In some instances, that helps.
Bel: AW13 is very romantic. What inspired you?
Mary: I was experimenting. I wanted to try something different because it meant I could use lots of warm fleecy materials and weighty fabrics. It was all about Russian Dynasty meets Beauty and the Beast meets Pretty Woman with a mental trippy holographic rose theme, on faux fur with loads of beading.
Bel: You’ve worked with McQueen, Westwood and Richard Nicoll. What did you learn?
Mary: From McQueen, I learned how a collection is made, from start to finish. I was 18. I’d just moved to London the summer before Uni and was completely freaked out! I felt like a baby. I didn’t realise how intense a huge fashion house was; the quality of work had to be so pristine and perfect. It helped me understand that things can’t be rushed if you want to make an incredible collection. I worked backstage at the Gold Label show in Paris for Vivienne Westwood. It was amazing to watch because the way it was styled was so wild and carefree. I loved the energy. The make-up was mental and accessories were just wow! Richard Nicoll was great because I was given more responsibility. I found the design process more minimal so it was nice to see a middle ground. The materials were so luxe. I realised that you can make a simple shirt look amazing if you make it from beautiful material and layer it with other pieces.
Bel: You helped launch V V Vintage’s [the online vintage clothing store by singer VV Brown] first full collection. How important is sustainability to you?
Mary: It’s very important to me. I’m always thinking up ways to improve my practices, from being careful around new fabric waste to creating special commissions on existing vintage garments.
Bel: Which are your favourite ever pieces?
Mary: My Twin Head Bodycon dress, which Rita Ora wore – and another piece she wore from last season, the Fish Scale Bomber Jacket. The prints worked really well and she looked crazy on stage with all the lights. It really brought my work to life – and it made me see the pieces in a new way.