We talk Jean Claude Van Damme, tennis, Mickey Rourke, and ‘80s style with the man who made judo robes fresh this season.
Umit Benan staged his Fall-Winter 2016 runway show around a naked tattooed woman covered in sushi. The models were street-cast tough guys in judo suits, shearling jackets, and elegantly cut overcoats. “My shows are always ironic,” Benan has said. “The men in my show are never perfect. I don’t like perfect.” Perhaps that sentiment is what makes Umit—the man, the clothes, the life—so damn cool. He doesn’t hide his inspirations, whether it’s dojo garb, cowboy gangs of the American West, or retro tennis badasses. His capacity to take familiar style tropes and flip them into something instantly cool, something you never thought you’d wear but suddenly need, is seemingly limitless. On Instagram between his two accounts (one, two) he shares the clothes, travels and friends that define his aesthetic—including plenty of awesome selfies.
Earlier this summer, Benan released a collection of tennis sneakers on his site, which he titled Off Court. His fall collection, titled Tokyo Diaries, was presented in Paris earlier this year, but today it’s available for the first time on his site. We reached out by email to hear a bit more about his latest drops, and what’s next for Umit Benan.
What inspired this new collection, Tokyo Diaries?
In 2014 I visited Tokyo about 16 times. I was working on a made-in-Japan project for my line. Every time I would work ’til late hours I would go to the Golden Gai area to a have a drink and relax. Golden Gai is made from four tiny streets, and there are about 200 bars. A very inspiring area. You can see very interesting characters every time you hang out there. But one thing above all inspired me the most: the kids leaving the martial arts school and hanging out in the bars drinking and having a bite. So what I had done for my Fall-Winter 2016 collection was to create an environment inspired by the judo kids and mix it with my vision of martial arts movies I had seen as a kid, which were mostly Jean Claude Van Damme movies. Technically the clothes and style was based on guys leaving the training sessions with their judo outfits and just putting their daily regular pieces on top such as a classic coat or a bomber jacket.
You also recently released a collection of tennis sneakers through your own site. Is this part of a new strategy for you?
This is something I basically live in. I spent my childhood playing tennis back home. I trained many years, and I still do play twice a week a least. It’s my passion. I always dreamed to be a world-ranked tennis player. So when I was ready to create my sneakers of course I created an old school tennis-inspired sneakers. Which I call UMIT BENAN OFF COURT. It is the perfect shoe in my opinion, that has design elements but does not look too fashion. So yes, I’m really happy to create a shoe that I am obsessed with. I have about 42 color ways done for myself. The next step will be to create a wardrobe for these sneakers. A high fashion tennis line.
Your references range greatly—from the American West to the Far East. How do you arrive at your inspirations?
There is no explanation to how I arrive to be inspired. I do dream a lot. It always starts with, “I wish I was…” I mostly imagine myself being in different situations or even time frames. But it’s very spontaneous. It’s is a mix of what I dream when I close my eyes, and my childhood memories.
Fashion and music are connected at the hip right now. Are there any artists you are excited by right now? Anyone you would like to work with?
I listen to many different kinds of music. Must be connected to my international background. I love Latin music. I love Greek music, Turkish, pop, jazz, piano, hip-hop. My iTunes is a mess when it’s on shuffle. But one thing you will never see me listening is metal. I basically cannot stand that sound…. A$AP Rocky would look good in my clothes. And I also like Dev Hynes very much.
Celebrities have become fashion fixtures. Does that bother you at all?
I like old-school celebrities. Celebrities that were good at their job. One job. I grew up in a real celebrity world. Where you could not see any of them unless in the street. I remember seeing Mickey Rouke and Carre Otis at the Four Seasons in Milan in the early ‘90s. I could not talk for hours. Those days it was something else. Today it doesn’t excite me or inspire me. When it comes to dressing them up, I go mostly for the attitude and flexibility. I would have liked to dress Mickey Rouke in the old days. Today: Brad Pitt.
Where do you spend your time living and working these days?
I live in Lake Lugano, and I have my office in Milan. I drive everyday back and forth. This is my daily routine. Other then that every two weeks max I’m around Europe or the States.
Where is your favorite place in the world to travel?
Palm Springs. But in general the US. I just love jumping in a car and driving for days, weeks in that land. Mostly the southwest and California.
There’s been plenty of political turmoil in Turkey this year. How has that affected your work?
The political situation in Turkey does not change my life, as I have no business there. It worries me tremendously as my family still lives there. I hate politics and religion—two things that cause war between humans.
What was your last tattoo?
Two graphic roses on my shoulders. My last collection LOS BASTARDOS was inspired by the Mexicans that live in Texas. TEJANOS. So I created this imaginary character named Hector Benan. I got so into that character so I added the Mexican roses and left a goatee to feel the collection vibe.
Who’s the most stylish person you know?
Can name many in the ‘80s, but for me Mickey Rouke in the old days. Style has to be natural and effortless. The ’80s were natural and effortless.
What’s next for you after the Tokyo Diaries release?
I have done the Spring-Summer 2017 collection: LOS BASTARDOS. Haven’t released it yet—in about 3 weeks I will be doing my show for that collection in Tokyo.