Designing Like No Other: Chris Benz

Fiona Byrne

Chris Benz's future as a designer was sealed when he won the CFDA (Council of Fashion Designers of America) Emerging Designer Award upon graduation from Parsons School of Design in 2004. Following a stint designing for J.Crew, Benz branched out on his own, creating a classic American sportswear line, which he debuted in 2007.

What's your look for the upcoming season?
Chris Benz: Coming from Seattle, I like to keep it pretty easy and casual. When it actually gets really cold, I hate wearing winter clothes, so I try to wear the bare minimum in order to not freeze to death. It's all about layering—two cardigans, a shirt, a scarf. A big heavy coat is not comfortable. It's this big thing you have to carry, and if you're going to dinner, it's so annoying to check your coat. I see how hard I can push non-weather-appropriate clothes.

What three essentials do you recommend for women this upcoming season?
CB: I think a terrific new pair of jeans is great. I always think about it as what you get if you were going back to school, and there's something so great about a schoolboy navy blue blazer with gold buttons. I am also a big fan of the canvas tote bag, so I feel fall is a good time to start with a new L.L. Bean tote.

If you could shop at only one store in New York, where would it be?
CB: I'm a big fan of J.Crew. I started working there after Parsons, designing. It was such an important time, coming from the ivory tower of education, to see how real clothes sell.

What is New York's best-kept shopping secret?
CB: Hit the pavement and go to the flea markets on West 25th Street or West 39th Street and spend an afternoon going through all the racks. [Editor's note: See our flea-market roundup for more ideas.] I always find a great treasure. Last fall, I got this really amazing navy chunky stadium sweater that has a roll collar and two buttons. I think it was, like, 20 bucks, and was under this pile of things, so you really have to go and look. There's something really visceral about hunting and finding something.

Which young designers do you admire?
CB: I admire people I went to school with, so Alexander Wang, Lazaro Hernandez and Jack McCollough from Proenza Schouler, the Vena Cava girls—the Parsons crew.

Who is your muse?
CB: I look to my friends as muses. They all share this quality of being really assertive and really funny, tenacious and a little tomboyish, like my dear friend Eva Amurri. She's sort of boyish, but her body is super-feminine. She has all these curves, but it's all about humor and the total package.

Who do you think is leading the fashion pack in New York?
CB: I worked at Marc Jacobs and hold a special place for and owe a great deal to Marc and Robert [Duffy]. It's really nice to still have him as a great American designer. Everyone waits to see what Marc's going to do.

What's your favorite place to people-watch?
CB: I love to hang out on my stoop, which we do almost every day after work. It feels like you went out and did something without leaving the building. I used to live on Bank Street. That was really fun because we had Lips restaurant there, and all the drag queens would come out and hang out with us, and The Waverly Inn was just down the block. But we're breaking in a new stoop now, in Chelsea. I recently moved to a new apartment, so I'm reconditioning the neighbors to our stoop-sitting sessions.