Frock and roll

For autumn 2015, Mary Benson has adorned her pieces with surreal fairytale emblems and motifs.
For autumn 2015, Mary Benson has adorned her pieces with surreal fairytale emblems and motifs.
  • Yorkshire-born designer Mary Benson is creating a stir in the fashion world at the tender age of 24. Stephanie Smith reports.
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There’s something very special about Mary Benson. Celebrated shoe designer Terry de Havilland could see it straight away. Despite the near 50-year age gap between them, they are creative kindred spirits, both with a magpie-like fascination with all things shiny and bright, an eclectic approach to colour and an infectious enthusiasm for their artistry.

A collaboration was inevitable, and the result is a stunning collection of shoes. “I’ve always loved collaborating with like-minded creatives” says de Havilland, rock ’n’ roll cobbler of the 1970s, who made shoes for David Bowie, Led Zeppelin, Marianne Faithfull and Bianca Jagger, and whose iconic platforms are still adored today by fashion royalty including Kate Moss. “Working with Mary has been one of the most enjoyable experiences of my career. We have a mutual respect for each other’s craft and creativity, which shines through in the shoes we’ve produced together.”

Mary has collaborated on a shoe collection with renowned veteran shoe designer Terry de Havilland

Mary has collaborated on a shoe collection with renowned veteran shoe designer Terry de Havilland

Mary showed the shoes when she made her London Fashion Week debut last month, presenting her autumn/winter ’15 collection at the prestigious Institute of Contemporary Arts on The Mall. The 24-year-old from Seacroft, Leeds, had been chosen by a panel of fashion industry insiders as one of just three new designers to showcase part of Fashion East, an organisation which supports emerging British talent, sponsored by Topshop and Topman.

As these pictures from the ICA show, Mary’s AW15 collection is eclectic, androgynous, glamorous, cheeky, rock ’n’ roll edgy, fantastical and utterly captivating. And she reveals that she was also inspired when creating the collection by her beloved Whitby, which she still visits every year with her parents, Fred and Christine. In particular, she thought of the distinctive vintage-reworked, dark and magical fashions of the famous Whitby Goth weekends.

“There’s loads of craziness going on, with everyone dressed up,” she said. “So the collection is mostly quite dark, and I’ve been using loads of dark denim, so it starts quite gothic, but then with shots of bright pastels. It’s like a weird Dali-Disney world, my own take on it. But it’s easy on the eye, and sparkling.”

Now living in London, Mary began her fashion career as a teenager at Corpus Christi High School in Leeds, selling bags and bows to friends.

It’s like a weird Dali-Disney world, my own take on it. But it’s easy on the eye.

At 17, she featured on TV’s Mary Queen of Shops, with Mary Portas, after which demand soared for her striped metallic dress (now on display at Corpus Christi). In 2008, she created a shop called Pieces of Eight at Clarence Dock in Leeds, with seven fashion friends, and her designs featured in the Yorkshire Post Magazine and on the catwalk of the Great Yorkshire Show.

After gaining a diploma at Leeds College of Art, Mary moved to London in 2009 to take a Fashion Design BA at the University of Westminster. At 19, she worked with Alexander McQueen before his death, spent her weekends working for designer Richard Nicoll and went to Paris Fashion Week with none other than Vivienne Westwood.

She took a two-year break from university to concentrate on her own label, with her designs worn by Rita Ora and Ellie Goulding on stage. She returned to her studies, graduating last year with a stunning collection of dramatic, floor-sweeping ballgowns, decorated with narrative fantasy landscapes, chosen for the finale of the University of Westminster’s graduate fashion show, attended by industry executives and style-conscious celebrities, including Will Young.

Singer Paloma Faith and Radio 1 DJ Gemma Cairney are also fans of Mary’s designs. It was Cairney, in fact, who introduced her to Terry de Havilland, which led to their collaboration. Mary also provided designs for the milliner Stephen Jones and his SS15 collection Hot House showcase, featuring London DJ, muse and music writer Princess Julia, who chose Mary’s clothes for the shoot as she’s a big fan.

London Fashion Week at the Institute of Contemporary Arts. Mary's piece takes on a unisex appeal.

London Fashion Week at the Institute of Contemporary Arts. Mary's piece takes on a unisex appeal.

So what now for Mary? Well, as one of the three emerging designers selected by Fashion East to showcase during London Fashion Week, she also receives financial sponsorship, ongoing business mentoring and has been showcasing in Paris. She follows in the footsteps of alumni 
including Jonathan Saunders, Marques Almeida, Holly Fulton, Jonathan Saunders, House of Holland, Gareth Pugh, Marios Schwab, Simone Rocha and Roksanda Ilincic.

Mary says: “I’m just so happy. I’ve been working all year to get to this point. It’s the start of something new.”

Terry de Havilland agrees: “Watch this space,” he told The Yorkshire Post. “I have a feeling that this is just the beginning.”

• To find out more about Mary Benson and for details of her collections, visit www.marybenson.co.uk.

Mary was also inspred in  her autumn/winter 15 collection by her frequent family trips to Whitby

Mary was also inspred in her autumn/winter 15 collection by her frequent family trips to Whitby

Called simply "Gorgeous", there is also a heady 1970s Glam Rock infulce to Mary's designs.

Called simply "Gorgeous", there is also a heady 1970s Glam Rock infulce to Mary's designs.