There was once a time, not all that long ago, when Christian Benner was just a 26 year old living in the East Village, strung out on coke, and working at Victoria’s Secret. The New York-based fashion designer who just premiered his ready to wear collection at New York Fashion Week has since come a long way, but photo shoots with Vogue, dressing celebrities like Kate Moss, Lady Gaga, and Axl Rose, all came much much later.
Benner is a storyteller, which became abundantly clear when we unintentionally jumped the gun, and asked him about his introduction to the fashion industry. “No, no. I’ll get to that part later,” he said as he showed us around his tiny South Street Seaport shop and studio, decorated to the tops of the concrete ceilings with rock and roll memorabilia. He is also an avid record collector, personal friend of Steven Tyler, but if there’s one thing Benner wants you to know is that it wasn’t always this glamorous.
Working as a corporate merchandiser for the lingerie giant Victoria’s Secret for five years, Benner’s life alternated between long, labor intensive shifts and equally as long drug and alcohol induced benders, many of which occurred at the now defunct St. Jerome’s — a shitty dive bar in the Lower East Side. Which, as fate would have it, was the choice hangout of Lady Gaga during her pre-fame, gogo dancing days. “All I cared about was going out and just seeing these people, and I didn’t even really know who they were. I just knew them from going out.”
And so the cycle continued, with Benner enduring a job he had absolutely no interest in for 40+ hours a week, and turning into the mid-2000’s, punk rock version of MacCaulay Culkin in Party Monster with the setting of each sun. “As time progressed, cocaine was introduced to me, and it was kind of like, ‘this stuff’s great. Wow, I can go all night long now,’ and it sort of progressed to if I was out and it was there, it would be like ‘oh, sure I’ll do some,’ if someone was selling it, ‘oh sure, I’ll buy some.’ Then it got to the point where at 10 in the morning, I would be ordering it for that night to make sure I had it. It went on for a good three years, and it ran my life. It’s all I thought about.”
Three years, countless binges, and presumably thousands of dollars worth of cocaine later, Benner’s lowest low came at a bar he stumbled into one night. After many drinks, Benner started scribbling onto countless napkins. “I just started writing everything that I’ve ever felt in my entire life. I must have looked like a crazy person. I was blackout drunk.” After waking up, still in his clothes from the night before, Benner reached out to his friend to find out what happened. After explaining that she had babysat him and gotten him home in one piece, she made a life changing offer.
“She said to me, ‘I completely understand what you were going through last night. I was in your shoes four years ago, I’m four years sober. Listen, I’m going to an AA meeting tonight. Do you want to come?’” After a bit of a fight, Benner agreed to go to the meeting. “Everything that I ever did, all of the weird shit and the crazy shit — they were talking about it, and I was like ‘Oh my god, other people do this too? And they feel this way and they go through this? I’m not the only one?’ I learned that I wasn’t alone, and I never had a drink since then.”
The divide between plummeting off the edge and narrowly avoiding a lifetime of regret is minuscule, so small that it may not even seem like a significant point at all. Benner narrowly escaped what could have been yet another harrowing tale of addiction, but instead of allowing his vices to consume him, he started life anew at age 30, securing himself a job at What Goes Around Comes Around — a designer vintage consignment store.
“The t-shirt thing kinda just started happening,” explains Benner in reference to the heavily distressed band shirts he’s become so well known for. “I had just bought a t-shirt and it was real thick, and just gross. So I remember I took it, poured a bunch of bleach on it, and some paint on it, and I cut it and buried it in my backyard for a month. I pulled it out and it was all ratted and gnarly and nasty. I wore it to work the next day, and everyone was like omg where’d you get that shirt, and I was like, ‘Oh, I made it.’ The owners were like, can you make more of these?” But Benner’s life and ultimately how he viewed himself changed forever the day one of the most iconic fashion designers in the industry walked through that door.
“[Donatella Versace’s] got these two bodyguards next to her, and she’s holding like 10 of my shirts like a baby, and she goes ‘Did you make these?’ and I go ‘yeah,’” recalls Benner. “‘You have a talent. I’ll take every one.’ And I just kinda stood there for a second, and my manager goes, ‘You heard her. Go get them.’” It wasn’t long before Benner had left his job, and decided to try his hand at designing full time at the encouragement of his friends.
Operating out of a dingy East Village basement, Benner did what nearly every successful fashion designer has done at some point in their past — acted like he actually knew what he was doing. “I created an Instagram, and I was sanding shirts, painting jackets, and just posting them on social media. Every day it would be something new,” he explains with a slight twinkle in his eye, as if there’s still a part of him that can’t quite believe this is actually his life. “One time I got an email from Miranda Lambert saying, ‘Hi, I’m performing with Carrie Underwood at the Billboard awards. We would love for you to dress us.’ I would pretend that it was a real, legit company, but it was really just me working in a basement.”
Flash forward to 2017, and Benner has become a household name, with many a celebrity, editorial shoot, and luxury retail store knocking on his door. Some days he says he still can’t believe just how far he’s come, but this past summer after a meeting with his manager and Gary Wassner — who has backed brands like Saint Laurent and Alexander Wang — it became apparent that Benner was no longer fumbling around in the dark, trying to find his footing in an otherwise daunting industry. Luxury retailers like Barneys are already lining up to begin their buying for fall/winter 2017, and Benner is on the top of their list.
Due out in stores next fall, Benner’s premier ready to wear collection is the embodiment of the punk movements of days passed, as well as a love letter to the songs and artists that helped him regain control of his life. But most of all, it is the story of Christian — addiction, sobriety, and everything in between.