Consider the Chart of Cool for a moment. At the very bottom would be Sheldon Cooper’s “Roommate Agreement”, Donald Trump’s Twitter account, and black kitten-heeled pumps. On the other end of the spectrum, however, is where you’ll find the likes of Turkish-born streetwear label Les Benjamins, its founder Bunyamin Aydin, and its many loyal customers.
So, when we found out that Aydin would be in Dubai to launch a capsule collection created for Bloomingdale’s – Dubai, we knew we just had to crash his breakfast date with Mahmoud Sidani (a.k.a. Mr. Moudz), a friend of the brand and one of Savoir Flair’s favorite men about town. Here, Sidani and Aydin discuss everything from streetwear and music to Istanbul’s coolest spots.
Mahmoud: So Benji, I’m pretty familiar with the brand, but I was hoping you could give Savoir Flair’s readers a little bit of a background. What was the story behind it, and how did you come up with the name?
Bunyamin: Well, I didn’t know I was going to be a designer. I was more interested in following in the footsteps of my parents, which is business. But after studying three different courses in university – Business, International Relations, and Advertisement – I realized that I hated it. I quit and started my own brand seven years ago.
Basically, Les Benjamins stands for the storytelling of culture, so every season, I choose a culture that inspires me and translate it through my design philosophy, which is culture meets comfort. I melt both into each other. We started with T-shirts and then slowly developed to become a streetwear brand for men and women.
Mahmoud: Cultural appropriation is something that everyone is talking about right now; it’s such a hot topic. A lot of brands are getting in trouble for borrowing cultural references. Is it something you keep in mind when designing?
Bunyamin: I think that, so long as you do it for a good purpose, it’s good. If you are doing it for the wrong reasons, it’s bad. There is no right or wrong answer to this. The question really is: are you providing a global platform for the celebration of a culture or are you just using it? It’s just storytelling.
Mahmoud: Over time who have been your ultimate streetwear icons – other than me?
Every season, I choose a culture that inspires me and translate it through my design philosophy, which is culture meets comfort.
Bunyamin: Team Moudz! [Laughs]
Mahmoud: No, but really – do you have any icons?
Bunyamin: You know, I am more inspired by people like Elon Musk or Steve Jobs than I am by streetwear icons. I look at people who really change the world. I love how Jobs came into a meeting and said, “I want a glass screen on the phone.” I like people who take these decisions and push the boundaries. Everyone goes right and, whoever goes left, those are the people who really inspire me. It doesn’t have anything to do with streetwear but still…
Mahmoud: And anyway, streetwear doesn’t mean the same thing anymore. It has evolved so much.
Bunyamin: Exactly. Basically, streetwear is kind of losing its meaning because so many brands are pushing it too hard and trying to get into it purely for commercial purposes. They don’t understand that you have to build a community around the brand first and then kind of live it. You can’t just take the silhouette or the feeling – you have to actually do it together with building the community. I think it’s very important because, when you say streetwear, you think of a certain look, but I think of a community when I say streetwear.
Mahmoud: I remember when I attended one of your events at Soho House in Istanbul a few years ago. You were really stressing the fact that the point of this whole event was to build a community and a family of people. I think it’s so important, and I haven’t seen a lot of brands doing that. Honestly.
You’ve created a group of people that come together, and you really make every single one of them feel like this brand is also their brand. I think that’s the most incredible thing. I’ve seen you, through Les Benjamins, really help further the careers of the members of your community. What I’ve also noticed was that the people in this group are really unique individuals. What would you say they have in common?
Bunyamin: Music, definitely. I think that, especially now in Turkey and the Middle East, it’s time for creatives to become global. This local creative youth wants to do something bigger. Their parents worked so hard to give them an education or give them a life, and they’re now looking to go even further by going global.
Take, for example, the DJs who I introduced you to in Istanbul. One of them just won the Burn Award in Ibiza, and he is becoming a global DJ. Another one is playing at Burning Man and in Mykonos. It’s so beautiful to see artists get recognized. That’s what I do; I start pushing artists globally. I think Les Benjamins is a platform to do that.
Mahmoud: I was just going to say that it’s definitely a platform that allows you to use your connections and database to bring the right mix of people together and help elevate their careers.
Bunyamin: Yes, people are also curious about Turkey. They’re always asking, “What’s happening in Turkey? Are there any cool DJs, artists, or designers there?” It’s not easy to find them, which is where we come in.
Mahmoud: I definitely think that Les Benjamins has created a community, which was not there in Istanbul, but I’ve even witnessed you starting something here in Dubai. I remember being at one of your events at Miss Lily’s last year and thinking, “Who are all these cool kids that I’ve never seen before?”
Next thing you know, they are everywhere! I really feel like you’ve been a driving force in that. You do hear, however, that a lot of people can come across as trying too hard in the UAE. How would you recommend nailing the streetwear look without coming across that way?
Bunyamin: I think you just have to be true to yourself. Too often, people are trying to be someone else, but I think that the whole point of this journey is to discover who you are – and that’s the tough part.
Mahmoud: Tell me more about the launch of your collection for women.
Bunyamin: It’s launching in January 2018, and been very well received and picked up by stores around the world. I think it’s something that was really needed because so many women love Les Benjamins.
Mahmoud: My sister has stolen so many of my hoodies.
Bunyamin: That’s why we decided to do it! The collection will be street chic. We thought, “Let’s give women a new identity.” The Les Benjamins woman will be a lady, but with a hoodie on top.
Mahmoud: What does the collection look like? Can you give us a sneak preview?
Bunyamin: I think the most iconic piece is the off-shoulder sweatshirt made of jersey. It’s very sexy, but also very street.
Mahmoud: And what was your inspiration for this collection?
Bunyamin: It’s very much about the silhouette, but the inspiration is the same as for the men’s collection – it’s about a different culture each season. The colors are also different in order to make the pieces more feminine.
Mahmoud: What do you think are the most important staples in a street-inspired wardrobe? What are the key pieces?
Bunyamin: Sneakers. The right sneakers are key. I think the look, in general, is important too and should be matched to your shoes. It can look too much when people try to color coordinate, though, and I don’t like that.
Mahmoud: So color coordinating is a big no-no for streetwear?
Bunyamin: Well, you could go for a matching look if it suits you. However, if it’s not you, then it won’t work. For example, your look right now? It’s totally you. If I wear it, it would look ridiculous on me. I think it’s about taste and personality.
For example, your look right now? It’s totally you. If I wear it, it would look ridiculous on me. I think it’s about taste and personality.
Mahmoud: True. It has a lot to do with personality and character. On the topic of sneakers, you’re in Dubai for Sole DXB, during which you’ll be launching a collaboration with Bloomingdale’s and customizing sneakers at the Nike booth. Have you been to Sole DXB before?
Bunyamin: No, but I know the founders. They’re good friends of mine.
Mahmoud: Would you consider them a part of your community?
Bunyamin: Yes. We are all one community because we’re all trying to move forward together. We are pushing the same agenda, and that is to bring what’s cool to the Middle East.
Mahmoud: I love that they’re highlighting the UAE’s sneaker community and allowing it to grow. I think that what they’re doing is groundbreaking and revolutionary. They really found what was, at the time, a niche market – and now it’s become an actual movement. It is truly incredible; I remember how small it was when they first started the annual event.
Bunyamin: You also need to recognize that the global luxury world is fully inspired by us. They are so inspired by the streetwear movement, and they’re focusing on these small, niche communities.
Mahmoud: You can really feel this culture develop in certain spots around Dubai, too, like Miss Lily’s. It’s one of the coolest spots in town and you really don’t feel like you’re in Dubai when you’re there.
Bunyamin: I love that place.
Mahmoud: Another one of my favorite spots is Alserkal Avenue. I think it’s really dope, and there’s a crowd that you don’t see anywhere else in Dubai. Can you recommend a couple of must-visit places in Istanbul that you love?
Bunyamin: Definitely Soho House.
Mahmoud: You basically live there. I’m shocked you don’t actually own shares.
Bunyamin: [Laughs] Another one is Akaretler. It’s an area where we are opening a new shop. A really cool community is developing there, and it also has an insane burger place, small coffee shops, etc.
Mahmoud: I definitely need to go to Istanbul again.
Bunyamin: We’re waiting for you!
Browse the gallery below for a closer look at the Les Benjamins x Bloomingdale’s collection.