Although streetwear is not a relatively new term, it only gained momentum in the modern sartorial world over the last few years with the release of premium brands and street-savvy celebrities catapulting the elevated casual style into a global phenomenon. Homegrown Turkish label Les Benjamins launched on the cusp of this urban fashion revolution in 2011, helping to bring the Arab world into the then-niche folds of Western luxury sportswear with menswear collections touting Middle Eastern influences. After a whirlwind few years of impressive collaborations, Fashion Week runways, and a womenswear debut in Spring 2018, the Istanbul-based brand has set its sights on a new frontier: Women’s shoes and bags. Although this foray into accessories has been in the works for over a year, the inaugural collection was unveiled at a Sole DXB pop-up over the weekend and Vogue.me sat down with the line’s visionary and womenswear designer Lamia Al Otaishan Aydin for an exclusive first look.
Featuring three styles of bags and four variations of shoes in trendy hues that Al Otaishan Aydin describes as more “modern” than streetwear, the long-anticipated collection first began with a dash of envy.
“Men always they have the coolest shoes,” exclaimed Al Otaishan Aydin. “Always. The best sneakers, the best shoes. So whenever we have a shoot, I’m like ‘what should we style it with, what should we do it with?’”
Cue the year-long design process where the Les Benjamins team developed and sampled a pair of “Texas boots” incorporating elements from nature, but did not officially release it. More important than just producing a single collection, Les Benjamins wanted to craft a strong foundation to build future collections upon. “We were not ready yet,” explained Al Otaishan Aydin. “We wanted to have a broader collection, so that was the first shoe that we had and then everything else was inspired from it. For us, it’s very important to have a certain DNA that we’re not going to change it the next season—or we’re not going to be bored of it. We want to carry over from season to season.”
Within the collection, the bags boast a similar square-round shape in different sizes except for one rectangular silhouette, to appease the one who needs maximum capacity as well as the one who only carries the bare essentials. The shoes easily translate from day to night with sandals, pumps, and flats in tones of black, white, and hot pink offering a comfortable yet chic solution to those who go straight from the office to an event or even have to “walk a long way” to their destination. Since it’s difficult for Al Otaishan Aydin to choose her favorite “baby” from the line, she found a resourceful alternative. “When we design things, I ask the samples to be in my size so I can try them all and at the same time, I can have them all,” Al Otaishan Aydin said laughing.
As a Sole DXB regular for three years now—first in partnership with Bloomingdale’s and on their own the last two appearances—Les Benjamins found it the ideal venue for the range’s launchpad. “We see how people here in Dubai love the brand and respond to it very well so it was a special thing for us to drop it first at Dubai,” said Al Otaishan Aydin.
Since Les Benjamins already has a large fanbase for its menswear, the focus of the label is to further build its womenswear to achieve the same level of notoriety—if not more. “Until now, people sometimes don’t know that we have a women’s line and we’ve been doing it for three seasons now,” said Al Otaishan Aydin. “It’s really important to have a voice for women and a voice for men.”
When Al Otaishan Aydin first embarked on her Les Benjamins journey three years ago as the womenswear designer after marrying the brand’s founder and creative director Bunyamin Aydin, she sought to build a separate identity for the line as one of her first rules of order. “The women’s at that time was basically the boyfriend’s clothes,” explained Al Otaishan Aydin. “It had an identity but it had more of the men and less of the women feeling so I feel that’s the addition I added—the femininity.” Adding her “own touch for the women” with girly dresses and flattering sweats, Al Otaishan Aydin aimed to establish an individual personality for womenswear while still maintaining the brand’s overarching DNA so customers recognize all pieces are born within the same “family.”
“You get kids from 14-16 years old come in with their parents and the father finds something, the kid finds something. The mother finds something, the daughter. I feel it’s appealing for all age groups and I would say it’s very hard to have it for a lot of styles also, but that’s what we’re trying to do. We don’t want to cater to one certain group of age or style so it’s very versatile.”
Although the couple collaboratively designs the collections and shares their personal input with each other during the creative process, they mostly manage their own spheres, where Al Otaishan Aydin has experienced many times where “people don’t understand that I’m his wife.”
“We go to work together and then I’m in a separate office, he’s in a separate office,” said Al Otaishan Aydin. “We design side by side, the women’s next to the men’s, and then we align it. If there are certain details they’re using for men, we interpret it for women’s and then vice versa so, at the end, when you would see both of the collections, they come again under the same brand but then they have their own personality.”
The key to success when working with your significant other? “To try and see less of them during the working process,” joked Al Otaishan Aydin.
After teaming up with brands like Bloomingdale’s and Puma and capturing the attention of international celebrities such as Rita Ora, the duo has another major global clothing collaboration with both their men’s and women’s lines plans to debut in March, revealed Al Otaishan Aydin, potentially garnering that widespread push of recognition Les Benjamins is looking for in their female collections.
“If Beyonce or Rihanna wears it, I’m going to pass out,” Al Otaishan Aydin said laughing. “I love them. But seeing everyone around us or people randomly in the street wearing our brand and loving them, that makes me the happiest to be honest, more important for me than seeing a certain celebrity wearing it.” However, there isn’t one set definition of the Les Benjamins woman. “It can be a working woman or a mother taking care of her family—someone who’s going to be very confident in her own skin, wearing the things that suit her and makes her feel very comfortable and confident.”
While the perception of the Arab fashion world may be that designers must create more modest clothing or refrain from using certain fabrics or patterns, Al Otaishan Aydin disagrees. “To be honest, nothing about being in our region is restraining. We just follow and focus on the season’s inspiration and ideas.”
Yet, there’s more to Les Benjamins than fashion. Founded on an East-meets-West philosophy almost a decade ago, Les Benjamins has begun redefining its guiding principle to East-meets-East in an effort to share Turkish details and fabrics, like the carpet motif which makes up their “essence”, on a global scale and further empower their local communities. “Now, it’s like taking elements from the East and modernizing them and having this positive image of the East to the West,” said Al Otaishan Aydin.
Although long-term goals include creating a children’s line, opening more stores worldwide, and making their pieces widely accessible, Al Otaishan Aydin’s vision that she shares with her husband stretches much further “to be not just a global brand, but for it to be a lifestyle” with hotels, cafes, and more supporting the designs. “It’s a lifestyle; it’s a community,” said Al Otaishan Aydin. “We want to have something in the future to give back to the community and make them feel a part of it.”