“It’s very personal and emotional, it might make you cry,” announces Mary Benson of her work for Spring Summer 16. Inspired by personal experiences within love and relationships (her words) the new collection will make its debut at Benson’s second London Fashion Week spell in seven days time.
“This season I’ve collaborated with some amazing people,” she continues, “Stephen Jones, Tatty Devine and Melissa; it’s quite overwhelming to be showing and working with them because they are all brands I have admired since I was really young.”
Making her fashion week debut last season as part of Fashion East’s Friday night line-up alongside Caitlin Price and Ed Marler – an experience she characterises as “amazing; I was so happy!” – this time around she will present a solo digital presentation; initial sketches above.
“Straight after we went to Paris and had to get down to business!” she explains of AW15. “I loved the (buying) showrooms and everyone from the British Fashion Council who was there were all so so helpful, giving me loads of advice and made my time there really enjoyable and informative. The main thing was that I was so happy to have the interest from buyers I really wanted to meet: I got myself some good stockists.”
Like many of her contemporaries Mary works out of east London, but it’s Seacroft in Leeds, Yorkshire’s second largest council estate, from which she hails. One of five children, she began making clothes and bags aged 15 as a way to make some extra dollar, which in turn led to a stint with Mary Portas’s ‘Mary Queen of Shops’. So how have her formative years translated to Mary Benson, the label years?
“I have no idea,” she divulges, “maybe it influenced me to get out? Growing up my mum and dad were probably the main influences for me because of the way they brought me up. We used to go to our caravan every weekend and I used to go fishing and on long walks and explore Yorkshire, I loved it. I used to work in the club house on the caravan site glass collecting when I got a bit older, and I used to sing on karaoke, play loads of pool, dance to Barry White and chat to all the customers.”
States the designer’s LFW bio: “She now runs her own label full time and, whilst she is starting to gain recognition and success, Mary still faces challenges to stay afloat and is all too aware of the hard work needed to run her business.”
It’s a very honest acknowledgement in an industry where discussions surrounding creativity versus business are slowly becoming prominent, and in which exposure and even interest from stores, doesn’t guarantee a triumph: in a video for i-D last week Edward Meadham, of Meadham Kirchhoff, a label collectively adored by the industry and not a million miles away from Benson’s own ethereal meets glam rock aesthetic, finally concluded the label’s story.
As a relatively new designer, what does she think are the biggest challenges and best ways to overcome them? “I think the most important thing to do is to seek freelance work elsewhere until you get on your feet and can manage without extra income,” she offers, “because otherwise you will just struggle so much and hate what you’re doing.”
“I’m always in situations where I’ve thought ‘ohhhh my god I have £4,000 coming out next week’ and I have about £30 in my account so I’ve had to find some kind of last minute sponsorship. Fashion East was a huge help financially.”
It’s no doubt a familiar story in many studios, and one that in Benson’s case at least, part provides the case for arts education, as she later affirms: “Westminster was the best university to go to for my BA, I wouldn’t change a thing. The facilities were fantastic, I had all the space I needed even when I was making the most massive ballgown dresses. The tutors really helped me become who I am as a designer now and I still keep in touch with them a lot. I’m that annoying student that leaves uni but still keeps pestering them to see if they like my collection,” she observes fondly.
Graduating in 2014 behind other Fashion East alumni Louise Alsop (’13), Ashley Williams and Claire Barrow (’12) and Liam Hodges (’11), Mary’s since uncovered the power of collaboration; for last season’s presentation she worked with the make-up artist Isamaya Ffrench and stylist Richard Sloan, both whom she notes as playing pivotal roles in her industry introduction proper.
“Oh Isamaya is amazing, she’s got endless crazy good ideas. I loved working with her,” Clash hears. “(We) wanted the models to look like crazy club kids who just decided to go out so threw something wild on and quickly did their hair and make-up. I was working with Sloanie, and he suggested drawing a T-shirt on one of our male models. Did that and it was one of my favourite looks.”
For SS16 she’s lined up the stylist Hope Von Joel and Barney James who will direct and shoot the film. “I’m lucky to work with such a good team of people, they all know each other and have a good chemistry, which is important to me,” the designer continues. “I’m really excited about it because I’ve never done a fashion film before…”
While her overwhelming influences fall at night – “I’ve used my dreams for my last three collections and they are endless!” – she isn’t held back by specifics: “I go by what I’m feeling or what’s going on in my life at the time. Anything I need to get out and explore really.”
And the dream? “I really want to have a shop in London one day, so I’m going to work very hard and stay true to myself all the way.”
Words: Zoe Whitfield