Benjamin Mach: Project Fashion
By Caroline Jumpertz
Benjamin Mach is a fashion designer with a made-to-order clothing line who took over as creative director of Mood U, the Mood Fabrics Sewing School with locations in New York and Los Angeles, in late 2015.
Benjamin grew up in the inner west of Sydney, Australia and studied fashion at East Sydney Technical College, but just as his own label was beginning to take off, he decided to move to Europe. Benjamin spent most of the following decade based in London working for a range of labels and designers, and in 2009 he sent a contestant application to the television show Project Runway.
Benjamin made it onto Project Runway’s Season 11, which aired in 2013 and which was the catalyst for his move from London to the place he’d always dreamed of living — New York City.
In 2014 Benjamin started a ready-to-wear line, but has since changed tack to a made-to-order business.
Benjamin Mach at Mood U, the Mood Fabrics Sewing School.
Q: How did you get to Project Runway?
A: Project Runway came up because I was working for a tiny boutique label in Chelsea, [London], a family business, doing a bit of restructuring for them, and they had a contact in New York who sent a link to the latest Project Runway casting. I knew about the show, but I hadn’t really watched it because I don’t think it played on the TV in the UK.
Q: Your first application didn’t get through, but you tried again — how soon did you hear back from the producers for that final application?
A: Twenty minutes later I got an email saying “Can you get yourself to LA or New York for an audition?”
Q: But you weren’t through yet: you had to audition in the US, then arrange a visa, and then go back to London and wait. How did you find out you’d been accepted?
A: I was working as a graphic designer but I also had a second role within the company as the maitre d’ of this super cool restaurant called Circus. I remember it was a Friday night and I was on the door and the phone rang and it was an American number and I ran outside and took the call and they said “You’re it! You’re on!”
Q: How many rounds of the show did you get through?
A: I got to about episode 5 or 6; I got about halfway through. It was okay, it was an experience. Obviously I would have liked to have done better.
I didn’t really like most of what I made on that show. It just wasn’t the kind of stuff that I love to do. You’re in a totally new environment, you’re working under extreme situations you have cameramen all around and you’re also working to this really strange, obscure brief that’s been developed by a creative team that may or may not really know how the fashion industry works, although they’ve got great, exciting ideas for TV.
Q: Did you see some amazing things behind the scenes?
A: Yes and no, you’re sheltered quite a bit.
When you arrive they take your wallet, your passport and your phone.
There’s a lot of waiting in stairways because someone’s on the other side of that door talking to someone else.
You’re in such a weird vacuum seal that your judgement is a bit impaired as well. And it’s a competition.
Even as a cast as a whole there are times when we’re all together but we’re not allowed to talk to each other. They call that ice. ‘You’re on ice’.
Then there’s time when things are really hairy, like a runway day when someone’s being kicked out and there’s lots of stuff happening. Then you’ll be on ‘hard ice’. Which means you can’t even communicate with your eyes.
It’s a very surreal environment. But they treat you exceptionally well.
Q: Was the show a turning point for you to get back into your own work?
A: That was the catalyst for trying to do it for myself.
After the show aired and I started seeing all of what happens once it becomes alive in the public arena, then I started thinking “Hmmm maybe this wasn’t the best way to have gone.”
Because it gives you exposure but my question was always ‘Is it giving me the right kind of exposure?’ But the passion is always there to do what I want to do.
The show isn’t probably taken seriously by the people I want to be taken seriously by. When people ask me about the experience I say ‘It was a great experience’ and I love that I did it because it brings with it some amazing memories, but its not a turning point in my career.
Q: Was it a personal turning point?
A: It was definitely a personal turning point. It’s brought me so much other stuff, other than starting a successful business. Project Runway is entertainment, with a theme of fashion. I’ll never distance myself from Project Runway because it’s part of my story.
When you arrive they take your wallet, passport and phone.
As a Project Runway cast there are times when we’re together but we’re not allowed to talk to each other.
They call that ice. "You’re on ice."
Q: What does a ready-to-wear clothing label entail?
A: It’s very challenging because you need to have a lot of money so you can have sales agents and PR and really push it out there. A lot of my fan base is from Project Runway and a lot of the people who watch Project Runway are probably not in the kind of economic bracket that my product would appeal to.
They’re not spending $800 on a silk jersey dress.
I would always get a lots of feedback from people who watch the show, if I posted something onto social media, along the lines of “Oh god I love it! I can’t wait for the day that I can afford to buy one of your dresses!” which is great and flattering.
But when you’re trying to start a business, what’s going to keep the business going is the person who has the disposable income.
Q: So is that why you decided to put the ready-to-wear line on hold?
A: I realized that I didn’t have the financial support that I needed to do that. It takes about five seasons before you see any kind of return. I was fortunate enough to have a little bit of money to get it started, but it wasn’t enough to keep it afloat for five seasons and so I put the pause button on it straight away. My instinct is like ‘If this is going to take longer than what I’ve got right now, then I can put pause on it and re-strategize’.
Q: Is that why you’re moving to your made-to-order label?
A: The made-to-order is event dressing. I haven’t pushed into it just yet, that’s going to be for 2016. For now I’m focusing on Mood U. This has been a conscious choice. It’s giving me something to sink my teeth into — it’s a substantial role.
Once I’ve got this established and running smoothly, I’ll be able to give more attention to my own designs.
Q: What is your advice to others thinking of starting a fashion label?
A: I have a friend who’s texting me with an idea for a product, and he says ‘What do I need to start a fashion business?’ and I was like: ‘Money.’ I mean I love that you have an idea and that you want to try it, but its going to take you money.
Starting a fashion business is a money pit. Starting a lot of businesses can be a money pit, but fashion especially is just a money pit. And not everyone has success with it. It’s luck and timing and a lot of money.
Talent should be one of the biggest elements of it, but there’s a lot of people out there who are not necessarily talented but they have a way of finding a product that can fit in the market and then marketing it to hell.
Q: Can you talk about your trajectory from Sydney to London and now New York?
A: I went to school at East Sydney Tech in Sydney, it’s like the FIT [Fashion Institute of Technology] equivalent I guess. I did very well out of that and I got a lot of press around graduation and started showing In Australia. I was one of the lucky students that got that immediate attention so I went with that for a bit.
Then I went backpacking around Europe for a little jaunt, it wasn’t really even that long, maybe five or six weeks, and I thought “What am I doing? I need to be in Europe!”
So I went back [to Australia] and much to everyone’s horror I said “I don’t want to be here, I have to go!” I did one more mini-collection and then I was off to London.
On Project Runway you’re working to a strange, obscure brief that’s been developed by a creative team who may or may not really know how the fashion industry works.
Benjamin's work for the show, and Benjamin draping for a Project Runway All Stars challenge.
Q: What’s your earliest memory of fashion or design?
A: My mom taught me to sew on her machine when I was about 8 years old, and I remember making clothes for my stuffed toys. That’s my earliest memory. I think I must have shown an interest. I used to style outfits for her to wear to work. Sometimes I’d put together outfits for her, and sometimes I’d put the outfit on and it would be dragging on the ground and I’d say “Mom I think you should wear this to work!” And the outfit would be falling off my body.
Q; You began a degree in journalism at Charles Sturt University, in rural New South Wales, so how did you end up studying fashion at East Sydney Tech?
A: A friend of mine said ‘You’re always making stuff, why don’t you study fashion?’ and I said ‘I don’t want to study fashion, it’s just my thing I do to relax’ and she was like ‘You can make a living out of something you do to relax.’
That was the hugest turning point. Once I decided, nothing was going to get in the way of me doing this.
Q: But once you had started your fashion business after your study, you moved to the other side of the globe…
A: I remember getting on the plane to London, and that month Australian Vogue had come out and I had a double page story in there, and I got on the plane and opened the magazine, I was all excited to see it. And I had a moment of ‘Oh my god, what am I doing? This is the turning point in Australia if I stay, this will take me up the ladder to the next step.’ But I’m on the plane and what am I supposed to do?
My life has been filled with little moments like that. There’s no right or wrong. You’re going to go one way, but you’re never going to know what was down that other path.
Q: Do you ever think about that other path?
A: There has never been any regret, but there was that moment, in Sydney, I could have stayed in Sydney, and I’m sure now I could potentially be one of the biggest fashion brands in Australia, because I was on that trajectory. But I just really wanted to go to Europe, so that’s what I did.
Occasionally there have been moments when things have been really hard when I’ve been “I could have just stayed in Sydney!” but anything could have happened, and I don’t live my life that way. Occasionally I’ll think “what if?” and I have moments of thinking about it but I just keep going forwards. Sometimes I’m going up, sometimes I’m going sideways, sometimes I’m going down.
Q: Could you describe your aesthetic?
A: There’s a vintage influence, but its a modern reinterpretation. It can be minimal and slick but it’s very luxurious.
I draw a lot of inspiration from Madeleine Vionnet but I also draw ‘vintage but slightly more modern’ influence from Halston. For someone that hasn’t seen my work, that would best describe the area my work would fit into. They are quite iconic so people can relate to that.
Q: If you weren’t here and now, what fashion era would you most like to live in?
A: New York in the seventies. Absolutely. And I’ve felt that way since I was 18.
I just fell in love with the idea of this city.
Q: So you started living in New York straight after you’d done Project Runway?
A: Pretty much. We filmed in the summer and there was a six month gap between when we wrapped and it started airing. So I came back and we filmed the fashion week episode in the February, the filming of the finale in 2013, and that was it, that was when I moved here.
Q: What are your biggest influences in your work?
A: Growing up we had an art deco sofa and art nouveau around the house, little vintage finds that my mom had, so I guess in a way that my mom is an influence.
She used to make clothes for herself back in the 60s and 70s. She’d whip something up for herself on a Saturday afternoon to wear out on Oxford Street [Sydney] on a Saturday night. She wanted to study fashion, but she never did. She never pushed me to study fashion but when I came to her and said I that’s what I wanted to do, she was ecstatic: ‘That’s amazing! Okay! Great!’
Q: When did you realize that your passion was making clothes?
A: I’ve just always made stuff but I didn’t really make everyday wearable clothes for myself, I made costumes for parties — there’s many a Mardi Gras or Sleaze Ball costume that I’ve whipped up for myself or for friends. It wasn’t until I went to study fashion that I had a fashion focus on what I was making.
Q: Who is someone that you’d like to see in your clothes?
A: Cate Blanchett. Julianne Moore. Marianne Cotillard. I like those women that are not typical beauties, they’re strong. To me they’re incredibly beautiful women but its not that typical vision of beauty that the world tends to have.
Q: If you had unlimited resources, what would you do?
A: I would purely just focus on creating dresses and getting my own brand up. I know what has to happen, I know the steps, but the sad part of it is you need money. It’s not happening without money.
Q: What advice would you give to your younger self?
A: Follow your instinct, because that’s been one of the biggest lessons that I’ve had to learn. I still have moments when I don’t follow my instinct but I know that I haven’t followed my instinct. In the past I wouldn’t have even realized. Now I’m tapped into my intuition so most of the time I’ll listen to it.
Q: Can you give an example of a big lesson and how you learned it?
A: Looking back on it, it was an important lesson because it had a huge impact. One of my very first orders that I did for a shop, a little boutique, in Sydney, they ordered some pieces from my graduate collection.
It was my first time doing a production run. I found this little sewing room in the suburbs of Sydney where they gave me a good price. I didn’t know what I was doing.
I wasn’t just re-making this jacket a number of times, I was re-making this jacket in a size range a number of times and I made one little mistake — I was grading the sizes and I had made a mistake on the sleeve. I took them to the store, on consignment, and I got this call saying “The sleeves don’t fit on the jacket!” and I went to the store and the sleeves were really tight, and this was a tailored jacket. And I thought “I don’t understand!”
Then I saw the mistake. And I asked the woman who’d done the sewing “Did you not see the mistake? Did you not catch that?” and she said “Its not my job to catch that.” So she had just done what she was doing, and that was my biggest learning point.
At the end of the day when you’re running a business, you’re responsible for every fine detail. Even if your outsourcing things and you’re paying people, you still end up being responsible. It’s always all going to come back to you.
So all the jackets came back to me. I think they are still in storage in Sydney.