Interview with Designer Kendra Benson, This Woman's Work

Last month I got to sit down with fashion designer Kendra Benson of This Woman's Work. I met Kendra through my friend, lingerie designer Rachel Rector, over a lovely homemade dinner. I was immediately blown away by the way Kendra talked about art and fashion; like it was this living and breathing part of her that she couldn't function without. True passion. Her fall collection is full of cultivated silhouettes, colors, and prints. The line makes me feel like I've stepped in to the 40's and 50's, like I live in a world with Kendra's muses. We chatted over coffee in a little cafe in the heart of Bushwick by Kendra's studio, and here's what transpired:

How did you come up with the name “This Woman’s Work”?

There’s that famous Kate Bush song “This Woman’s Work” that everyone knows. I always loved that song. I liked those three words together a lot.  It sounds like one person toiling away at something by themselves, like it’s their mission. It’s a phrase with a very solitary feeling, and that’s how I’ve felt about my work for a long time. It also has anthropological implications in relation to things considered to be traditional women’s work:  weaving, sewing, mending, cooking. 

Your pieces feel very sculptural, artful, and individually special. Why did you choose apparel as your medium?

I’ve recently been thinking about this question a lot because it’s getting really hard and I’m always wondering, “Why do I have to do this?” Fashion can be so challenging (but I don’t want to say it’s harder than any other art form) because it’s a multifaceted process that involves 2-D design, architecture, photography, video, hair & makeup, and business & marketing. You’re also working with and relying on many people all the time. There are so many different elements to it, and it gets quite complicated, but of course the combination of all these elements is part of why I love fashion.

As a child I always felt this urgency to create bubbling up within me. I wanted to get every single thing in our house - paper, pens, crayons, fabric, Barbie clothes - just everything - and bring it all together to create something.  As a young teen I started to realize that the ultimate thing I had to put all of my ideas into was women’s apparel.  I still feel that way today.  The ultimate thing I want to create is clothing.  It’s not a painting, a sculpture, a piece of writing, or a weaving. Clothing is the ultimate expression for me.

What's the coolest place you’ve ever traveled to?

The trip of my life - and I don’t think anything will ever be better - was when my husband and I had just fallen in love and we went to Budapest for three weeks.  It was a place I wanted to visit for a long time.  I feel like I became a designer on that trip.  It was really life-changing to get away from New York and think about my work while seeing a new culture.  I was shopping for materials and inspiration at flea markets and thinking about my career and where I wanted it to go next. I was really honing in on my aesthetic. It was on that trip that I climbed to a new level in my life and career.  I also resigned from my job right before we went on that trip.

What kind of support system did you have when getting your project started, and what kind of support system do you rely on to maintain your work?

When I got back from Budapest I was fortunate enough to fall into a job that gave me lots of free time, that was financially supportive, and fed me inspirationally.  I worked for a woman selling archival clothing and textiles to designers.  I spent a lot of time working with other designers, going to their offices, and choosing inspirational pieces from our archives that fit their various concepts.  Every Monday morning was like Christmas morning. The woman I worked for would bring in so many new things, and my eye became really strong. I was exposed to new aesthetics and new cultures, and while I was seeing all these things, I was really developing my own aesthetic. 

Philip, my husband, is my ultimate support system. He studied painting and is a photographer but didn’t know too much about fashion when I met him. But he was the first person who said, “You’re so talented. You need to be selling in these stores. It needs to cost this much. You need to be working seven days a week. If you want that fabric, don’t buy two yards, buy the whole roll.”  He really built me up in the most validating ways and pushed me to not just dabble in this.  We’ve been investing our own savings into this so we’re investing in ourselves and in me, which is a lot of pressure, but we’re learning as we go. 

In terms of other support, my mother-in-law has let me build a screen-printing studio in her basement.  I work there several days a week, and she washes all my rags and makes me meals sometimes.  

My family came to my first show and they really support me and want to see me succeed. My mom has given me some of the best tough love pep talks ever.

Can you talk a little bit about the collection you’ve just completed, “Padam Padam”?

When we were in Budapest we went to this club called Piaf. I didn’t know who Edith Piaf was at the time. When we came back I watched “La Vie en Rose” and became intrigued like, “I have to know everything about this woman.” The collection is not just about Edith Piaf though, it's also about 1940’s French style, surrealism, and really strange powerful women like Frida Kahlo, Schiaparelli, Billie Holiday - people in that era that were kind of troubled and created this dark but wonderful art.  All the work for this collection culminated in a runway show in February, and we just photographed all the looks this summer.  For me, the pinnacle of the collection is the photo shoot because it’s the perfect expression of the collection, and I can control everything - so for me the photo shoot days are my happiest days.

What kind of preparation/research goes into beginning the process of making your collections, and how long does it take for you to execute everything?

In terms of research, I go deep into my arsenal of materials, vintage clothing, trims, films, music, books, and pull everything out to see what fits.  For the Edith Piaf-inspired collection, I went to the NYPL Performing Arts Library and spent all afternoon with this special Edith Piaf scrapbook with all of her photos, letters (written on Chateau Marmont letterhead), and other personal effects.  I watched lots of 1940’s films and listened to all of her music.  I’m always researching and taking in inspiration for a collection right up until the very end.  

In terms of executing, it took me over a year to make everything for this collection. I make all of the patterns and I sew a lot of it myself.  But I also have a woman who works for me, and when I need something finished really perfectly, she’ll do that, or make duplicates, etc.  What took so long to produce the line, and made it really hard, was that I designed and screen-printed a lot of the prints myself. 

What kind of structure and organization do you have in your creative process?

Six months before the show I was working six/seven days a week. I’m pretty structured, but it’s hard to stay focused because I work from home.  I try to designate strict start times and end times for working.  In terms of organization, I know where everything is, but sometimes I get too organized and I have to dig through bins and folders to find things I’ve “organized” so well.  My studio is exploding, and when I’m working I take over the entire apartment. 

Where do you like to work? Do you like working around others? 

I love working at home and alone, with all the best conditions - good music, good food, a comfortable “uniform” to wear, and no interruptions.  

It’s hard for me to bring someone into my process all the way because I’m such a control freak, but it’s something I’m working on. I just hired an intern who is amazing. I’ve been working alone for so long now, and I’m finding that just having someone there, even if they’re working on something totally different (but working towards my goal), keeps me motivated.  Having the intern here this summer has been really great in that way.  It validates the effort I’m putting in. 

But finding inspiration, researching, sourcing materials, and gathering all these things together - that part is still very much a solitary process for me. 

What do you do when you feel uninspired?

I try to remember what first got me started and what first inspired me.  And that’s why that initial concept has to move me in a big way.  Also, the best work comes from being relaxed and calm. 

Sometimes I worry about finding my next concept and hoping it will be a strong enough concept to keep me motivated.  Right now, I’m working on the collection for Spring/Summer next year, but I don’t have any concrete ideas for the following collection.  But soon I will.  It always comes when you least expect it.

What materials do you love to work with? What materials excite you?

Great buttons! I try to use them in a way so that the garment is designed around them - not in a decorative, “tacked-on” way but in a meaningful, appropriate way.  If I can’t make the buttons functional and sensible I won’t use them.  I also love silk/cotton blends. Good materials are everything for me.

If you could hang out with one female dead or alive, who would it be?

Most of the people that inspire me - Frida, Edith, or Schiaparelli - I would be scared to hang out with.  They’re intense, a little self-centered, troubled.  It would be cool to hang out with Sonia Rykiel or Vivienne Westwood, but also intimidating.  All the women I admire scare me.