A rethink and a baby have prompted a fresh outlook for Leeds designer Mary Benson. She talks to Stephanie Smith about her new life, her label and her collaboration with Gemma Cairney - and models her new collection especially for us. Photographs by Tom Joy.
There’s something different about Mary Benson... “I’ve changed in my life and lifestyle, and in the person I am becoming,” says the Yorkshire designer. “With a baby, everything changes, and I feel like I am able to see clearly what I want now.”
Since she was 16, Mary’s mesmerising, utterly unignorable work has attracted attention and acclaim, first featured 10 years ago on TV by Mary Portas, and then creating beautiful, fantastical printed pieces to be worn on stage by Rita Ora, Paloma Faith and Ellie Goulding.
Now Mary is taking her wonderful world of design to a broader market, creating clothes and accessories that resonate with a wider mix of ages and shapes. “Even though people my mum’s age really appreciated them and liked the artwork, they’d never wear one of my slinky slip dresses,” she says. “I thought, you know what, I want people to wear my clothes, not just be sent out for press loans for a photo shoot.”
And so there has been a rebrand – her label is now simply called MARY – and the focus is on beautiful, vibrant, wearable dresses. “I just love dresses and that’s what I am about,” she says. “It’s a really good canvas for my prints.”
Mary works with a stable of classic dress shapes, which she alters for new collections. “It means I can easily adapt them and make new ones all the time and be really creative,” she says. This latest collection, launched at the most recent London Fashion Week, is called In Bloom, and Mary has collaborated with photographer Tom Joy on this shoot especially for the Yorkshire Post Magazine, on location near her home in Hackney, and modelling her designs herself. She says: “Before, I’ve always been shy and reserved. Since I’ve had a baby, I feel really confident, out of nowhere. I feel like I don’t have to look a certain way any more. I can just be who I am. The brand is supposed to be the epitome of me and what I’m about.”
Mary is from Seacroft in Leeds, and her parents, Christine and Fred, have been her constant support ever she began making and selling bags and bows to her friends at Corpus Christi High School. In 2008 she featured on the BBC’s Mary Queen of Shops and later that year, opened a pop-up shop called Pieces of Eight at Clarence Dock in Leeds, with seven friends, including fashion designer (and Vivienne Westwood muse) Matty Bovan. She studied at Leeds College of Art before moving to London in 2009 to do a Fashion Design BA at the University of Westminster, winning a placement with Alexander McQueen, working for Richard Nicoll at weekends and going to Paris Fashion Week with Vivienne Westwood. Her graduate collection took the hero finale slot at her university’s end-of-year showcase. Since then there have been more collections and collaborations, including ones with footwear designer Terry de Havilland and milliner Stephen Jones. Last Christmas she created an accessories collection for Asos.
But when the dizzying pace of fashion took its toll, around two years aso, stress and depression led Mary to decide it was time to take stock, scale down her workload and find a new balance in her life. Now 28, she lives with her partner, Tadgh, who has just opened his own pub, the Greenwich Pensioner, in Poplar. He is also a talented artist, and they fell in love while drawing together in-between bar shifts. Their baby son, Zephan, was born a year ago.
“It’s quite grounding,” says Mary, who helps at the pub when she can, especially with artwork. Zephan accompanies her everywhere. “He comes to all my meetings. I take him to all the fabric shops and he loves it, because there’s so much going on, the photo shoots, the colours, the prints. I’m trying to teach him to draw as well, so he’s copying the way that I put pencil on paper. I don’t ever want him to be bored or feel like he’s being left out.”
Mary has collaborated with her friend, Radio 1 DJ Gemma Cairney, on a limited- edition beret collection, sourcing 500 vintage berets from Blue Rinse Vintage in Leeds and upcycling them in London, with Mary hand-drawing Gemma’s empowering statements in glitter vinyl. The pair are donating five per cent of profits to the Young Minds charity. They met years ago when Gemma asked Mary to make her a holographic print jacket for Glastonbury. “Since that, we’ve kept collaborating. She’s got really good ideas,” says Mary.
Time away has clearly allowed her to reinvent herself with a fresh new focus. “I’m not going to do the whole London Fashion Week schedules any more, because it doesn’t work for me,” she says. “As a creative person, I do a collection, I love it, I’m so excited about it, and then, with the fashion calendar, I’m told I have to wait six months to sell it, by which time people have moved on, seen it, and I’m just stuck in limbo, bored silly. I think a lot of designers are going with this direct-to-customer model because it makes sense now the internet has taken over. If you upload something onto Instagram or your website, they want it there and then. It makes my life more exciting and it makes my brand easier to manage.”
So Mary will launch smaller, more frequent collections of five or six pieces. Everything is made in the UK, and she works with “an amazing seamstress” on samples, then gets everything printed and manufactured in London. As well as the key dresses, there are also skirts, tees, jackets, jumpsuits, cute bags and turbans created with Stephen Jones. Everything is sold online on Mary’s website.
She keeps her feet on the ground with regular visits home with Tadgh and Zephan to Yorkshire to see family and her parents, who now live in Knaresborough.
“I do feel really grown up,” she says. “I’m really embracing getting older. I’ve got a few grey hairs now, and wrinkles. I don’t even care. I love it.”
Mary’s designs can be bought at www.marybenson.london. Instagram @marybensonlondon