With his hot-pink hair and quippy, affable personality, Chris Benz is the kind of young designer who generates a lot of good will. He takes a great picture and provides a pithy sound bite, which editors love. Bon Appétit is hosting his 30th birthday party tonight, for example. Yet like many of his peers, Benz has found that good looks and wit do not a business make. Five years after launching in the designer market, with the average dress priced around $1,295, Benz is adjusting his attitude. His spring collection, which he presents today, will be repositioned at the contemporary — or upper contemporary, as the industry has taken to calling it — price point.
“The feedback we get is that so many people love it, but they can’t afford it,” said Benz at his 36th Street studio. “I really didn’t like the idea of dividing out the collection. It’s been suggested that we do a jersey capsule and some simple pieces to merchandise back to. But I didn’t want to simplify it, I wanted to make it more accessible.” Benz went out on his own after graduating from Parsons The New School for Design and, in short order, interned at Marc Jacobs and clocked time on Mickey Drexler’s watch at J. Crew, then decided he was ready to be his own boss and shoot for the big leagues. When he made the introductory rounds to editorial offices, it was with a trunk full of cashmeres he produced with Loro Piana. “That was a different time,” said Benz. “Now the customer is going into a designer boutique and buying a T-shirt and a pair of jeans, sparkly top and a dress.”
His quirky, colorful take on American sportswear has always brimmed with a youthful verve that is often at odds with designer prices. So Benz is knocking things down to around $495 for a dress. He’s also introducing lace T-shirts and, yes, denim. Otherwise, he said, his collection will remain largely unchanged aesthetically, and there will be some outliers in specialty items that will still ring in at designer prices.
The cost-cutting comes in some of the details. For example, jackets that were once lined with expensive silks or finished with luxury buttons and trims inside and out are now less adorned. But the prints, colors and novelty remain. “I think the place for it now is in that upper contemporary level where the apprehensions of buying something colorful are less evident,” said Benz, who runs his business independently.
Right now, he’s carried by about 20 retailers worldwide, including Saks Fifth Avenue and Shopbop.com, and is hoping the price-level adjustment will open things up. As he put it, “Designer is great if you have an endless pile of money to burn.”