Even before her graduation, designer Mary Benson was making waves. She talks to Stephanie Smith.
Many of us wish we could remember our dreams. Some of us would like to bottle them. Mary Benson has captured hers and spread them across the exquisite, transcendent designs of her latest collection. In doing so, she has created a heavenly explosion within the fashion world.
“There’s a little story in each one. They’re all the weird dreams I’ve had,” she says.
Mary Benson has featured on these pages before, and indeed, on the pages of fashion bibles including Vogue and Elle – and yet, until a few weeks ago, she was still a student. There can be few graduate fashion designers, ever, whose final collection was awaited with as much excitement.
The Leeds designer has just completed the final year of her degree at the University of Westminster, although her eponymous label was already attracting attention, her designs – characterised by sporty shapes and holographic, kaleidoscope prints – have been worn by Rita Ora and Ellie Goulding on stage, with musicians and stylists regularly calling her to ask her to make a special piece, like one she created recently for singer VV Brown (which she wore for Later with Jools Holland).
But Mary Benson’s graduate collection was a surprise and a revelation, unveiled two weeks ago at the University of Westminster graduate fashion show in London, where her designs were chosen for the all-important finale. The lights went down, then up, to reveal the opulence and drama of full-skirted, floor-sweeping ball gowns, sumptuously decorated in narrative fantasy landscapes in foil, heat-pressed on to to satin duchesse pure silk.
“Everybody didn’t expect it at all,” she says. “In a good way. I think they thought I was going to do chilled-out, sporty looks, still in my prints, then I came out with this ballgown stuff.”
Mary’s prints blend the futuristic with the past and her loves and inspirations include 18th-century period dramas and costumes, Pre-Raphaelite women and renaissance paintings, stained glass windows, the gothic and Art Nouveau movements, holograms – and her native Yorkshire. Inspiration for the graduate collection prints also came from her boyfriend’s old record collection from the 1960s and ‘70s, the psychedelic designs on the covers of albums by Cream and Hendrix. “And the plunging necklines and cinched-in waists were influenced by Kate Bush in 1979,” she added.
Mary’s story is one of hard work, determination, seeking out and grabbing opportunity. Now 23, she went to Corpus Christi High School in Leeds, where she started selling bags and bows to her friends. At 16 she had a pop-up shop at Granary Wharf and shops in the Corn Exchange and Blue Rinse began stocking her designs. At 17 she featured on TV’s Mary Queen of Shops and demand for one of her designs, a striped metallic dress, went crazy (the design is on display at Corpus Christi).
In 2008, she created a shop called Pieces of Eight at Clarence Dock, with seven fashion friends, and her designs featured in The Yorkshire Post, as they also did when she showed at Yorkshire Fashion Week and the Great Yorkshire Show.
As for formal training, Mary studied at Leeds College of Art before moving to London in 2009 to do a Fashion Design BA at the University of Westminster. At 19, she applied to work with Alexander McQueen, and was accepted. At university, she spent her weekends working for designer Richard Nicoll and went to Paris Fashion Week with Vivienne Westwood. She took a break for a couple of years to concentrate on her label, but decided to return last year to complete her final year. “I’m so glad I went back,” she says. The tutors are so good. I didn’t realise how much they would help me change for the better.”
Mary was clearly delighted with the reception for her graduate collection (the audience included high profile figures from the fashion industry and celebrities – Will Young was there). “Everyone has been so complimentary,” she said.
Ever the grafter, straight after the show, she began work on a new diffusion collection. “I made my ballgown pieces to look excessive for the catwalk, but I need to sell as well. They will have the same vibe but will be cool, easy-to-wear pieces.” She hopes they will be ready for July, and says pieces the clothes will be really beautiful but not cheap – her signature bomber jackets cost £400.
Now Mary is look forward to more special commissions and freelance projects. Her priority, however, is developing her own label. “I hope to be showing within a year or so, and have amazing stockists, like Dover Street Market, and Selfridges, and Bergdorf Goodman in New York.”
As for the next move, she says: “You’ll just have to wait and see.”
• Find more about Mary Benson on www.marybenson.co.uk.