Beautiful People: Kendra Benson Has Survived to Thrive

Beautiful People: Kendra Benson Has Survived to Thrive

For every woman with an affinity for the glitz and glam, there is also one who finds more comfort in clothes that are simpler, cleaner, and more straightforward. For those that fall in the latter camp, This Woman's Work, the label founded by Kendra Benson in 2009, is probably a godsend. Since 2013 when Benson presented the first fully realized collection, the label has been constructing elegant designs that are easy to wear and impeccably made. Far from basic, however, Kendra's clothes eschew the frills but still place a huge focus on being fun and playful. Everything she makes is fresh and original — some of her prints are even made by hand herself—and each piece embraces a natural sense of ease that perfectly epitomizes the Bushwick, Brooklyn neighborhood in which her creations are executed.

When (and where) are you most creative?

For me, the best ideas come from a very relaxed place — the beach, long drives, watching a movie… when I'm totally relaxed, ideas start to come.

I'm most creative in my apartment, especially when I'm just starting a new collection - making a board, choosing materials. At that time, anything is possible.

How did you get your start?

I moved here right after college and began working for Tracy Reese. I had several incredible jobs in this industry, but in 2012 I was ready to dedicate all of my time and resources to developing my own brand, which was really the dream and reason I moved to New York.

What are you working on right now? Can you describe any current projects or activities?

I just completed my SS18 collection "Nashua" and shot the look book yesterday, so I'm very excited to share that. I am also working on a short film to accompany that collection. I have an idea and materials for a fall/holiday collection but it's just in its infancy right now.

What is success to you?

I think freedom is always how I define success. Financial freedom, freedom to accept or turn down opportunities, freedom to travel, freedom to take risks. There are many small moments of success in what I do and I try to savor them. Usually these moments are about one garment, one idea, one sale, one studio visit, one photograph.

Do critics matter?

I always value the chance to hear from anyone who has seen more than me and has a critical eye. Many critics also have the audience to champion and bring awareness to young designers, and that can be very powerful. When someone has a strong eye and particular taste level, it's flattering when they respond to what I do. But ultimately, I make my work for myself first and the customer second. I have to love it first. Then, I make sure it works beautifully for the customer and somehow makes her life better. If any critics respond, that is for sure a nice bonus.

Obviously you've seen success in your career but can you tell us about a time you failed?

Yes, I viewed my first show as a colossal failure. I just really wanted to have a show — I think a lot of designers can relate to that. I did it in this tiny, narrow, burned out space in my neighborhood of Bushwick. I invited hundreds of people I had no relationship with, hired professional models, bought champagne - everything. It was kind of a beautiful mess that only my lovely friends and family attended. In a way, that moment informed all of my decisions and moves for the next couple years. Looking back I'm glad I went for it and also glad I kind of fell on my face.

Do you think about legacy?

Not really - I think my brand is too young and I'm still honing my craft and refining the language of the clothes. But I suppose I must think about it in some way because I'm a bit of a hoarder and try to document as much as possible from my process. I'm not sure who I'm doing this for!

What advice do you have for someone looking to break into your industry?

I think really question why you want to be in fashion and what you hope to get out of it. If you're serious, then be prepared to work hard, lose money, and persist with enthusiasm for years before anyone notices. Developing personal relationships within the industry is key to any success. Even if you're working alone like I am, you're not truly alone. You have to share, bring people into the process, give back, and keep rotating new people into the circle.

Did you ever give up (or want to give up)? What were the circumstances?

I always remind myself that I could just give up, but I also know by now that I'm built with a "never say die" attitude. I do know when something isn't working though and I know when to walk away. But I will never give up my work - I will always do it on some scale. No matter what happens, I wake up in the morning and think about design, materials, colors, stories.

What trends in your field do you find most exciting/are you most optimistic about? What about your field is frustrating? What would you like to see change?

I guess I observe trends but don't always know how to participate in them. I think Instagram is incredibly exciting because the degree of separation between me and the customer, buyer, editor, celebrity, etc. has suddenly shrunk to 1. It's also an immediate way to share my work and my aesthetic.

The flip side of social media is that people are bombarded with imagery and see too much, then maybe remember nothing … thus, buy nothing.

I think the retail calendar is still a problem, and I think it's a problem that the customer has been trained to expect a 40%+ discount at all times. This is crushing for a small designer. But that being said, I've talked to many small retailers and observed that they keep past season's merchandise out longer, have more "buy now-wear now" pieces on the floor, and wait as long as possible to offer deep discounts. I believe these are ways independent retailers and designers can make the business work in our current climate.

How do you plan to build on your success so far? Is there anything you fear will set you back?

I want to continue to develop the personal relationships with my clients, stockists, and press contacts. I think money and fear in general are the things that could set me back in the future.

What was the first moment you knew you were going to be able to do this as a job – not necessarily your first big break or success, but the first time you thought, "This is it, this is my career"?

I think when I was studying in London (in 2004) and working for an independent designer, I realized I was cut out for that life. I was ready to work hard, I could handle the pressure, and I loved making a luxury product in a small, artisanal way.
Also, my first full-priced sales showed me there was validity to what I was doing and how I was thinking about the product and customer.

What's been the biggest choice you've had to make in your career so far?

Making a plan to leave certain jobs was really hard. Knowing when to take risks and when to walk away from something that isn't working - these are always hard moments.

What is your morning routine like?

I try to wake up at 6:30 or 7am because I'm most energetic and think clearly in the morning. My favorite ritual of every morning is having espresso with my husband on the couch. It's our special time together before the day starts. It's something I know I can always count on. I usually have fruit, workout (on a good day), do emails for an hour or so, and try to be working by 11am.

What are you most excited about for the future? (Can be about your career, your personal life, the world - anything.)

I'm thinking about retail — brick and mortar— as a long term goal for This Woman's Work. I would also like to go to France soon — I've never been!

What are you most worried about for the future?

I'm probably most worried about time — like everyone I want more time. I know it's not a new idea, but lately I'm worried that it might be more and more impossible for young creative people to survive in New York City. It's becoming a financially hostile environment for anyone trying to make work and survive - not just in Manhattan but in all the five boroughs. The interesting people need to be in New York to make it New York.

Are you good at giving advice? What is the best advice you've ever given?

I'm always giving advice to my friends. I'm probably not the best at it because I have a very particular way I see things. But I'm learning to be a better listener and tailor the advice to that person's situation and personality instead of bringing my own projections into the conversation.

Are you good at receiving advice? What is the best advice you've ever received?

Yes, when something sounds like the truth, I just know it, even if it is hard to hear in the moment. A stylist friend of mine gave me some solid advice earlier this summer and it pushed me into another gear as I completed my SS18 collection. I also worked for someone who was constantly giving me advice about everything, and although a lot of it was pretty wild, much of it stuck. One thing she told me was that I should put energy toward what gives me the most "bang" back in return. Not necessarily financially, maybe rewarding in other ways. I still think about that every day and try to work in that way.

What makes a person beautiful? What makes you beautiful?

Every person and every thing has its moments of beauty I think. I am probably most beautiful when I'm childlike - innocent - or when I'm being generous from the heart.

What are you most proud of?

Im proud that I have survived and thrived in New York City for 12 years. That felt so impossible when I was a kid. I'm proud of the small body of work and small business I've built. And I'm really proud of where many of my long-term relationships are — my husband, my parents, my best friends, my clients, and the people in art and fashion I've met over the years.

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Image supplied by Kendra Benson