Just a few blocks from Umit Benan's home in Milan is Bar Radetzky, a favourite of the architect Piero Lissoni and other per bene locals who are as discerning about the foam on their cappuccinos as they are about the starch on their fine cotton shirts. One spring morning, Benan, the German-born, Turkish-bred fashion designer and creative director at Trussardi, looks like he's flown in from coolest boroughs of outer space. Behind a beard as dense and thick as red steel wool, and a pair of thick-framed acetate sunglasses, the designer slouches confidently in a chair, wearing an oversized black perforated leather bomber jacket and drop crotch houndstooth pants. No one in the bar, no one in Milan for that matter, looks even remotely like him.
"If suddenly five other people in this bar had beards, I would start thinking about what I should do next," says Benan. At the moment, the odds of keeping his style dissenter status in Milan are still favourable. But when hoards of bourgeois Italians begin converting en masse into the hairy-faced cool dudes currently permeating fashion circles (even on the Armani runway!), credit for the transformation will largely fall into this designer's lap.
It's not just his early claim to the beard, advertised in his very first presentation at Pitti four years ago and championed in every collection ever since, that has been mass replicated. In just eight short seasons, the designer's razor-sharp vision of a rougher, tougher, scruffier, hairier and more wrinkled man than we'd ever witnessed during fashion week, coupled with his highly original methods of presentation, have made him a widely emulated talent in menswear.
Benan's signature is character-based fashion presentations that take on the dramatic precision of movie sets. For his own label, he has dabbled in themes from investment bankers and ageing rock stars, to Turkish coffee shop lurkers and rich Italian aristocrats. The tableaux vivant format comes to life with painstakingly detailed sets and models that are often old, young, weird, scarred, bald, or tattooed: essentially, real men you might actually bump into on a bus, rather than baby-faced plastic robots on fashion's utopian runways.
While Brioni and Berluti pilfered his live, theatrical-style presentation for the autumn/winter 2012 season, Benan was actually already two steps ahead of his copycats, offering up his take on military life and two things never witnessed on any catwalk before: male nudity and live, onstage tattooing. In the midst of his intricate scene of an army barracks, where his models lounged on bunk beds with vintage Playboys, ironed their uniforms, or did one-arm push-ups, there was one totally ripped, completely naked man taking a shower and another getting his arm ink-zapped with a heart and gun as he sat in a barber's chair. The audience was transfixed, as were critics like Tim Blanks who labelled the theatrics "as stunningly, audaciously realised as the kind of production that would drive critics wild off-Broadway".
Though the shower boy originally wanted to wear boxer shorts and threatened to pull out of his nude duty after five seconds, he ended up lathering his beefy muscles under the stream of water for a full minute and a half during the actual event. "He was so comfortable you have no idea," laughs Umit. "When we're in there all together, everyone gets really into the mood. Somehow, whatever I ask they will do."
The charisma, it seems, is infectious, allowing this designer to make a whole lot of noise with very little resources. His Milan-based company, for example, has just five full-time employees. "And that's five in just the last eight months," he adds. "Before that, it was just two: meaning me and my brother. And before that, for five seasons, there was just one: me."
Skeleton crew notwithstanding, he has quickly become the juiciest name in Milan and was nabbed by Trussardi as the Italian luxury good's creative director one year ago. "One year and 11 days ago," he interjects. But who's counting?
Overseeing menswear, womenswear and accessories, the Trussardi job is both a validation of his star having officially risen and proof that he is capable of more than an entertaining evening of theatrics. But as his fellow, frequently-juggled, hired guns know full well, a creative director job is not a guaranteed joy ride.
With two seasons under his belt, Benan has already seen success. "We sold seven times more womenswear than last season," he says, though he knows he still has to prove himself to his three siblings, Beatrice, Tomaso and Gaia, who run the family business. "It's not like my fan club relationship who trust me instantaneously" he says. "It was more like them thinking, 'They say he's good. Ok, let's see if he's good.' So it's not yet a very flexible environment - you need to earn their trust.
"And it's not like they can cuddle with me," he continues. "If you know me, you can cuddle with me. But that chemistry takes a while."
Still, he believes Trussardi's potential is "scary". "I didn't know much about the brand, but as soon as I started going into the archives, I thought, 'This is amazing'. I really liked what Nicola [the house founder] Trussardi did in the '70s and '80s," Benan says. "What does Gucci do today - two billion? It could be that."
Benan takes the same character-driven approach to his work at Trussardi as he does with his own label. Luckily, he has stockpiled enough ideas for many winters to come: the next 12 concepts for his own label and four for Trussardi are already mapped out in his head.
"But when it's Trussardi, I only think about the family, the archives and their history," he says. "When I work at Umit, I only think of myself, my friends, and experience." Benan's pending national military service in Turkey, which was cancelled thanks to a recent change in law, laid the foundation for his last show. The tattoo artist shown on stage has given Benan 26 tattoos in the last five years and is also house photographer for all of his look books.
The wrinkled older gentleman who drives him to his factory doubles as a look book model. In short, the line dividing life and work is nearly invisible.
"And that becomes easier in a way," he observes, noting that he reports to no one but himself. "At Trussardi, I ask and then it has to be confirmed," he says, with a light-hearted chuckle. "It used to drive me nuts but I've matured a lot. Like, majorly. It's educating me."
But it's not changing him. Benan will never relinquish his quest for otherness. "I have always wanted to feel different," he says. "Not special, but different."
It is what made him originally gravitate to meaty, manly men while the fashion world was still championing the pale, thin, and hyper-effeminate style, and it is how he approaches Trussardi too. "I can't find a space for myself [in Trussardi's womenswear] with something very feminine. People already do it very well with bigger budgets. We need to go into a different direction. More sartorial, sort of boyish."
The same is true of the ad campaigns: "If I do a campaign with Mert and Marcus, it doesn't mean anything," he says. "Everyone already does that."
His ease in unfamiliar situations came early. Raised in Istanbul, he attended high school in Lugano and university in Boston, "where I would skip school and go into Saks, Neimans, every day, not buying but looking." He came to Milan to study fashion at Marangoni, but left when he couldn't find a job, returning to Istanbul to work in his father's textile company. He had no qualms about packing up for New York the minute his father and he did not see eye to eye, and quickly found a job at Marc Jacobs. He watched his new boss like a hawk, photocopying every sketch the designer ever made, but did not bond with the design team.
Similarly, he is less than fond of his current home city. "I'm in a major fight with Milan right now," he says, irritated by the bureaucracy and lack of stimulation. But it can't be worse than when he first moved here in 2007 with a giant woolly beard that made the Milanese mistake him for a criminal. "I was having a lot of problems with the looks I was getting on the street," he says. "It was a very difficult time."
Benan spun the discrimination into gold, shaving off his beard and photographing the effects of the regrowth over 77 days in giant photos that now hang in his living room. "I felt so naked, it was awful," he remembers. "But it was amazing to see how differently I was treated." The experience fuelled his first solo fashion collection shown at Pitti Florence, where there was just one model: a strange-looking man Benan found by chance in Milan's Triennale museum. "He had the perfect beard," the designer shrugs. "I was looking everywhere for it."