The Milan home-cum-studio of fashion designer Umit Benan is an ode to juxtaposition, finds Scarlett Conlon.
Photographs by Danilo Scarpati
Bananas aren’t indigenous to Milan, yet in Umit Benan’s courtyard garden, in Naviglio Grande, the Turkish fashion designer is showing off a large bunch hanging from a 12ft plant.
“I think this is the only place in the city where they grow like this,” he grins, then points proudly to bamboos and ferns that have reached similar heights in the two years since he moved here and added them.
“I didn’t even know what I was doing, and look at them now!”
That Benan’s first bash at horticulture is bearing fruit will come as no surprise to those who have watched him cultivate his eponymous menswear brand.
In fact, it’s a neat analogy for his career in general.
Born in Germany and raised in Istanbul, where his father ran a leading textiles company, he may have had fashion in his blood but it wasn’t his first ambition.
Tennis player, footballer, photographer or actor were all, he assures me, viable career options before, aged 18, he found himself in his Boston University dorm watching Tom Ford in Womenswear Designer of the Year for Gucci at the 1999 VH1/Vogue Fashion Awards.
In that moment, he decided he would win it himself, and set about writing a list of people to thank in his acceptance speech.
“My room-mate thought I was f**king crazy, but I knew I was capable of it”
Undeterred by his then inability to sketch, Benan took courses at Parsons in New York, the Marangoni in Milan, and Central Saint Martins in London, then interned from Marc Jacobsand was senior assistant to Sophie Thealletbefore returning to Milan where he had lived in his teens.
In 2008, after three years of working with Rifat Ozbek at Pollini, Benan set about establishing his own brand – he launched, with a subversive collection of cashmere turned inside-out, at Pitti Immagine in 2009 and promptly won the showcase’s prestigious Who Is On Next? award.
Italy’s fashion capitalhas always found a way of pulling him back. And after living in rentals for much of the past two decades, he was seduced by this cool nook of the city centre into getting a mortgage and putting down roots.
“When I was 12, I dreamt about this exact space, and when I first entered I was crying,” he reveals, puffing on his second Romeo y Julieta cigarof the day (he used to smoke three, until it was pointed out that his habit was costing him in excess of €10,000 a year).
Benan is a fan of contrast: the industrial exterior of his home, formerly a Nike HQ, belies the cosy home-cum-studio behind the 39-years-old’s front door.
“I think this idea of contrast comes from Istanbul, where I grew up seeing blonde women wearing super-sexy dresses standing next to women in burkas,” he ponders. “I’m used to seeing two things existing side by side.”
And so a collection of lesser-know black-and-white photographs by Albert Watson, Benan’s Idol, patchworks the central concrete wall (“I adore the guy,” says Benan, “but I don’t want a wall of his famous photos”), along with colourful oil painting by the Turkish artis Yavuz Tanyeli – whose XXL work also keeps a watchful eye over Benan’s bed on the mezzanine floor.
Nearby is a hot-pink portrait of Benan by artist Lola Montes Schnabel, and a renowned piece by Arnenian-Turkish photojournalist Ara Güler hangs beneath a metallic Buon Compleanno garland – a treasured memento from the last holiday Umit shared with his best friend Andre van Noord and his family, shortly before the model’s death.
Keepsakes and ornaments are everywhere. Silk-bristle toothbrushes by L’Officine Universelle Buly (so obsessed is the designer with the 200-year-old Parisian brand that since his girlfriend, the actor Cemre Ebüzziya, introduced him to it last year, he has brushed his teeth three times a day) sit beside framed family photographs and towers of rare fashion books (for inspiration only – save for the first 90 page of Andre Agassi’s autobiography, Benan has never read a book in his life).
It is, however, his 2008 series of framed self-portraits that proves the most poignant element. Having experienced racism and discrimination in salubrious parts of Milan, as a result of his full beard and his fondness for wearing pyjamas as daywear, he conducted an experiment “I photographed myself every day for 77 days while I was experiencing all these things, with and without the bears. The change in how people treated me was terrifying.”
Scenarios ranged from being questioned on entering his apartment block to being asked to play for a designer shirts before he tried it on.
The project provided Benan with the eureka moment he had been looking for. “I said, I am going to base my first collection on this: nothing is what it seems.”
It’s no surprise that Benan finds tranquillity in this autobiographical space, nor that he doesn’t like the idea of having it invaded.
“I’ve never thrown a party in my home,” he says. “I prefer two or three people max.” For friends who do receive an invitation, it’s not for a home-cooked supper.
Benan doesn’t have a kitchen. “Well, not a kitchen I can actually cook in, just a little corner. This is Milan – even if I had five kitchens, I would still like to go out to my favourite places,” he laughs.
His favourite haunt – by far – is his home. It is here that, after year of punishing schedules, Benan has found peace. He stays up every night smoking his cigars, watching TV and sketching the collections for his new brand B+, which launches with Matchesfashion.com this month and for which he ticked off a lifelong dream and enlisted Watson to shoot the lookbook.
“It was an incredible experience… I will always be a 13-years-old boy around Albert.”
Bedtime can be anywhere between 3.30 and 5am. “I don’t feel alone when the world is awake – I intensely absorb other people’s energy – and so at night, when everybody goes to bed, I don’t have any of these distractions. Strangely, I feel like I own the world, it’s my world and I can concentrate.”
It’s fitting, given that he comes alive at night in a heady plume, that one of his favourite plants in the courtyard is a flowering tobacco. The plant is famed for emitting its sweet jasmine scent only after sundown and, according to Benan, it went wild here last summer.
Like its proprietor, it appears to have found fertile ground.
“IN ISTANBUL, I GREW UP SEEING BLONDE WOMEN IN SEXY DRESSED NEXT TO WOMEN IN BURKAS. I’M USED TO SEEING TWO THING EXISTING SIDE BY SIDE”