FASHION From humble beginnings with a T-shirt business, to an empire that spans fashion and beauty on a worldwide basis, Ben Chan tells Jack Yan about his philosophy as Bench’s creative director
Main photograph by Alan Raga
From issue 35 of Lucire
Jack Yan is publisher of Lucire.
Getting to Forbes Park among Manila traffic proved a daunting task. This is a city well known for its jams, where arriving two hours late barely elicits a raised eyebrow, especially for those coming from out of town.
This gated community, where the A-listers and diplomats live, is the home of Bench (usually styled BENCH/) founder, chairman and creative director Ben Chan, the Philippines’ foremost fashion designer whose retail empire—not to mention other entrepreneurial endeavours—is well known to Pinoys at home and abroad.
Chan, who lives in a modernist home designed by Bench architect Miguel Pastor, greeted me with his first question, asking if I was Chinese by heritage. When I said yes, he noted, ‘Me, too,’ but quickly added, ‘I’m not Cantonese,’ perhaps knowing that that would have been my next question.
In fact, Chan’s heritage comes from Fujian, not uncommon among Chinese Filipinos, and his parents had gone to the islands and started a marketing company, supplying starch, flour and coffee. His brother diversified the business into snack foods, but Chan took a different path, learning interior design in San Francisco. However, the entrepreneurial spirit shone through on his return, setting up a furniture store and an art gallery, before venturing into T-shirts.
‘My parents were entrepreneurs who successfully created a homegrown brand from scratch—they were able to make it a household name through right marketing and hard work. I suppose it was in my dna to eventually follow in their footsteps,’ he explains.
‘I feel fortunate, of course. There is a great sense of fulfilment. The T-shirt is very symbolic because it is so basic, but you build your outfit and your entire wardrobe from there. The T-shirt is universal, worn by both genders, all ages, and it is not just a staple, but a statement. So that would be the right metaphor for how far our company has grown.’
That T-shirt business, inside Manila’s SM department store, would ultimately morph into the Bench line, part of the family-owned Suyen Corp. Growth was rapid, with retail outlets throughout the Philippines, then Saudi Arabia in 1994, and China and Kuwait soon after. In 2014, Chan was named the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year for the Philippines.
The choice of name is intentional. ‘My parents also taught us that your name is what you should value the most; you must protect it and make sure it remains untarnished. Since my brand, Bench, is a contraction of my name, Ben Chan, it has also become my life work. You can say Bench and Ben Chan have become inseparable.’
Chan comes across as introspective, and while his A-list party in Manila saw his home filled with beauty queens, designers and celebrities, he is not one to party hard. Instead, he surveys the event, and, like all great hosts, ensures his guests have an enjoyable time.
In the corner of his main entertainment space, separated from his living quarters, is a portrait of himself, painted in bright colours, and perhaps a testament to his tastes. I asked him if he liked modernism, to which he replied, ‘Yes,’ but added that he found inspiration from every source. ‘Always be open, be spontaneous, because you never know when the next most inspiring thing will come from. This is why I travel so frequently and I am always on the move.’ At the time of editing, Chan was indeed off to another location (Paris); and a quick glance at his Instagram will show the life of the consummate jet-setter, and he appears to tap well into the Zeitgeist of every location. ‘I get inspiration from my favourite cities, New York, Tokyo, and London, but I also get it from exotic new locales I had never been to before.’ Soon after he would head to Auckland to judge Miss Universe New Zealand’s 2015 final—Bench was a Platinum sponsor of the event—but it was no surprise to learn that he had ventured to the country before and knew Christchurch well. Hong Kong and the Middle East feature among his travels, too.
‘The world of design is about coming up with new ways of doing the same old things, so if I find these new ways in architecture, art, furniture, cinema, theatre, food, etc., then I can transmute that into fashion as well. Design is osmosis,’ he explains.
Chan’s philosophy goes far beyond getting inspired—one has to turn inspiration into something commercially viable. He identifies three cornerstones of his success: creativity, adaptability, and timing.
On creativity, Chan explains, ‘Bench became successful because we took unusual creative risks in the way we marketed and presented the brand. It gave off a creative vibe from the start. Our packaging, our stores, our advertising, were all considered maverick at that time. People liked it because they could see that we made the effort to do things creatively, even artistically. Our first TV commercial was really cinematic and was beautifully executed; it won so many awards and is now considered an iconic classic in the advertising world.’
Bench’s innovation in its marketing continues, and during my time in the Philippines, I noticed the slick nature of the outdoor, point-of-sale and television advertising. Like so many Asian countries, it’s difficult to have cut-through, but Bench does this through visuals that are either clean or cutting-edge, and a very strict adherence to its brand standards. The Philippines can be ad hoc when it comes to branding; Bench, meanwhile, is up there with global brands in having very strict guidelines on how its brand is portrayed. ‘Going global changes your whole outlook. It raises your standards. It frees you from perceived limitations. It opens you up to endless possibilities. Suddenly, you are no longer just defined by where you came from, but you are also inspired by where you are going and what more you could be. Being global-minded is basically having an “anything can happen” mentality. The market picks up on it and it makes the brand more exciting,’ he says.
On adaptability, Chan notes, ‘In the last 15 years we have seen an enormous change in the retail industry because of a combination of several factors, mainly, the rise of the manufacturing industry in China, the preponderance of information technology, and globalization. We had to adapt to all these massive changes quickly and decisively, with no turning back. Had we decided to cling on to the old ways of doing things, we probably would not have made it this far. Everything is global now, everything is instant and instantaneous. We are working at a completely different pace and speed than we did 15 years ago.’ This again was exemplified by what we saw. During the autumn, Bench had set up a Design Studio at Glorietta Mall in Makati, Manila, among other locations, where customers could get their T-shirts custom-designed and made on-site, all within minutes. While there were some set templates, it was possible to go there with something unique in mind, and get it; but even if one stuck with the pre-designed templates, the number of combinations ensured that no two customers would ever depart the Studio wearing the same thing. When I asked how long the Design Studio would be up for, Bench’s representative replied, ‘Three days.’ Making it that limited would ensure even greater exclusivity.
Finally, on timing: ‘In fashion, timing is everything. You can’t be too soon or too late. The right idea can end up a complete failure if you put it out at the wrong time. The art of perfect timing is the biggest lesson I have learnt, and it is still a work in progress. You have to go with your intuition, be fearless, be brave.’
That last item has stumped many an entrepreneur, but Chan has managed to get his timing very right with each stage of his business. Bench isn’t just a clothing label now: it extends to accessories, including very fashionable watches, hair salons and beauty spas. The key here, says Chan, is to be relevant: ‘We live in a fickle age of “followers”, “trending”, “likes”, and “reposts”. Bench became what it is by being a pioneer and leader in its field, so it would be wise for us to retain our leadership position rather than be a follower of trends. This means we must be always be considered a taste-maker and trend-setter in the market. We must endeavour to help bring the best of the world to the Philippines, and help bring the best of the Philippines to the world. It’s this dynamic exchange that I believe will keep us relevant in the future.’
Long-term, Chan sees no signs of slowing down. When I ask him what his plans were, he replies, ‘To keep growing, to keep adapting. The company must not merely survive, it must thrive. We have to stay fresh and keep refreshing. In order to do that we need to be on the leading edge of the global lifestyle. We need to keep maintaining and updating our vision of what that global lifestyle is, which is continuously being shaped and reshaped by technology, world culture, individuality. The core of the company now is how to cater to that global customer whose tastes and preferences are constantly evolving and improving with every Instagram post, every trip overseas, every new purchase. It’s a fun, exciting, and highly educational ride.’ •
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