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The New Players

Fashion is nothing if not a game of chance, and the people behind three new design firms are rolling the dice this season looking for a winner.

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Fashion is nothing if not a game of chance. Here, meet the people behind three new design firms who are rolling the dice this season. Who knows — maybe a few short years from now, Chris Benz will be as well-known a name as Mercedes.

Three’s Company

When it comes to young designers, you’d consider a certain degree of passion par for the course. But in the case of the trio behind the soigné new label Miguel Peña, their level of intensity goes far beyond the expected. And it pervades every aspect of their dealings — from the crisp suits that they choose to wear to appointments to the philosophy behind their business model. In fact, given their disparate backgrounds, it’s actually this shared drive that binds designer Miguel Peña, 27, and his partners Frank Skoch and Dan Otero, both 23.

The three met briefly in 2000 at the month-long summer program at Parsons, where Skoch and Otero were roommates and Peña their residential adviser. Though they kept in touch, it wasn’t until August of 2003, when Otero returned to New York, that they reignited their connection. “We were in a cab going over the Williamsburg Bridge,” Peña recalls. “And we had been talking about our plans and we just said, ‘Let’s do this.’” And the deal was sealed. Since then, they have been carefully building their business, block by block. Skoch and Otero now both hold the title chief of business operations, while Peña is creative director.

These days, they share a 2,000-square-foot loft in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg that serves as home, studio and office. The graffiti-scarred building is in stark juxtaposition to the interior’s minimal white decor and the elegant aesthetic of the clothing they make. “I’m attracted by contrast in life and clothing,” says Peña, pointing out the parallel contrast in Otero’s and Skoch’s backgrounds. They are both highly competitive athletes who are fascinated by fashion.

Their first collection is small — 13 looks in a neutral palette of browns, khakis, natural linen and an ochre-and-cream print. Wholesale prices range from $211 for a silk blouse to $705 for draped silk gown, though they haven’t yet snared a retail account. The geometric construction of tailored tops, dresses and skirts, crafted from panels of silk and linen, betray Peña’s background as a former architecture student. (He dropped out of the University of Puerto Rico’s program in his final year to pursue fashion at Parsons.)  He chalks up the intricacy of his chiffon skirts and tops to a summer spent in London interning at Alexander McQueen — a much-cherished experience. However, when he’s asked about his favorite designers, Peña doesn’t miss even half a beat in answering. “Balenciaga and Yves Saint Laurent,” he says.

But as much as the designer admires others, he, Skoch and Otero are committed to establishing his name. They are currently independently financed and intend to remain so. “We want to develop divisions and departments and to really expand,” says Otero of their future plans to do sportswear and men’s wear. However, for all the moxie that such a statement involves, their utter seriousness and beyond-their-years maturity gives one pause. After all, as our parents once told us, anything is possible if you put your mind to it. 

In any case, they don’t expect to be running a mini-empire while in their 20s. At this point, slow and steady is the name of the game — even when it comes to having a show. “Until we’re ready, we won’t have a show,” says Peña. “But everyone keeps asking about it. Why is it all about those 20 minutes? It’s fake glory if you don’t have a business.” — Meenal Mistry

Gray Matter

Each morning, like clockwork, designer Chris Benz runs out to the Starbucks around the corner from his West Village apartment. He orders the same thing every day: Café Americano. Black. No sugar, no milk. “I’m from Seattle,” he offers when you inquire about his caffeine routine, a response this 22-year-old graduate of Parsons often invokes to explain his likes and dislikes, personal quirks and design bent. “It’s gray all the time,” Benz says of his hometown. “It really does rain as much as everyone says it does.”

A simple remark, but one that accounts for much of his design aesthetic: his emphasis on layers, sheerness and a muted color palette of grays and other soft hues. “It gave me an appreciation for all the different shades of what one color can be,” he says. As for the clothes themselves, a mix of frothy cotton and organza dresses and men’s wear-inspired jodhpurs and vests, there’s a touch of the influence of a great Seattle export from the early Nineties. “They’re always a little bit grunge,” Benz says, adding, “but also a little bit sweet.” To that end, his designs, which wholesale from $90 to $200, have, yes, a fairy-tale romance about them — a modern midsummer night’s dream — but with the edges frayed and tattered “to keep things from being too precious.” (It also doesn’t hurt that Benz spent two years interning for the guru of grunge, Marc Jacobs.)

But don’t call Chris Benz a mere product of the Pacific Northwest. “Seattle made my attitude,” he says, “but New York filled the cracks.” So, while he may have painted his downtown apartment walls a monotone gray, he accents them with his collection of gilt mirrors and frames, which he has been collecting for a decade. It’s a design dialectic of the simple and the ornate that finds its way into his clothes. “I like things to be simple,” Benz says, “but you also have to pick the right sort of ornamentation. The gilt mirrors, individually, they’re all sort of gaudy, but when you put them all together, it means something else.” And that statement? “Organized chaos, or organized ornamentation.”

Equally instrumental was his grandmother and the time he spent in the attic of her white-picket-fenced house on Bainbridge Island. As a child, Benz would sift through her antique jewelry and steal time with his mother’s and aunts’ old Sears dolls from the Fifties. “I’d be fascinated by these tiny outfits,” he says. “My designs now, they’re kind of grown-up doll clothes, in a way.” Ultimately, though, it all comes back to the logic behind the gold frames now stacked neatly on one side of his slate gray walls. “I have this obsession with old things,” he says, “but then I try to organize them into this new way.” — Venessa Lau

Cashmere Dash

Talk to 21-year-old designer Alexander Wang and you’ll notice that he punctuates his sentences with the word “we.” No, Wang isn’t one-half of a greater design duo and neither are there French undercurrents to his language. It’s a subtle exchange for “I” that shows the modesty of this native Californian with roots in Taiwan.

There’s nary a moment when Wang doesn’t nod toward his cast of supporting characters as he tracks through the details of his life. For example, he credits growing up in a household dominated by women — his mother, two sisters and 17 neighboring XX-chromosomed cousins, to be exact — for his love of fashion. At 15, he had his first fashion show at, of all places, his brother’s wedding at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco. It was, for the record, a 30-piece evening affair that was the groom’s idea. Three years later, right after his high school graduation, Wang had his second show at his mother’s 60th birthday celebration in Shanghai. “You know how mothers are. They always want something personal,” he says. “I thought, what’s the biggest present I can give to her?” Of course, this meant a full-on runway event, complete with models picked from a local agency — a natural response for a boy who made stylized Cirque Du Soleil-type music videos for fun with his cousins as a child.

But now Wang has left the theatrics behind and is designing a collection of no-frills cashmere sweaters under his own name, wholesaling at $100 to $210. It’s his answer to what’s missing in the market right now: a classic that appeals to every age group. “I wanted to start with that one timeless item that I could take and change up, make young and hip, but also keep a luxury item,” he says. Silhouettes are stretched so they’re longer and looser; trimmings and hardware step away from the traditional, like spring’s raw wooden buttons or fall’s oversized, velvet ones; and, for the collection’s pièce de résistance, Wang revamps his garments with a nouveau take on intarsia. Gone are the geometric and one-note patterns of cashmeres of yore; large portraits of jet-set types peer out from Wang’s tops, the knitting reversed and raw stitching exposed to give it more texture. Cashmere never had it so rock ’n’ roll good.

Initially, Wang had wanted to do a supermodel story, given his infatuation with the top girls from the Eighties and early Nineties. His ideal intarsia? Kate Moss, a fact a large poster in his studio discloses. Trademark complications, however, led Wang elsewhere, and true to form, he found the next best thing in his close friends. “I thought it would be interesting to use people that I knew and have a more personal experience with,” he says. “People could relate to that more than just using something from a magazine.”

Models, nevertheless, might want to take a closer look. Wang may have dropped out of Parsons after two years, but he has made up for it with his time interning at Marc Jacobs and Derek Lam, as well as Teen Vogue and Vogue — not to mention his landing seven retail accounts in New York and California for the collection’s spring debut. He already plans to up the number of looks from six to 22 for fall — expect cashmere separates, skirts and dresses, and a très chic hat story for his intarsia girls — with accessories ambitiously scheduled for the season after that.

And the icing on the proverbial cake? Wang recently visited two of the stores and found that his spring shipment had already sold out.  — V.L.

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