Mohamed Benchellal is a designer for a new world – one where ingenuity and sustainability combine to create fashion for today.
An air of eloquence and a sculptural line. Such are the traces of Benchellal. The creations of award-winning Moroccan-Dutch designer Mohamed Benchellal offer an entryway into the realm of timelessness, where women are commemorated as “empowered and divine.” Following his victory as winner of the 2020 Vogue Fashion Prize, the designer has been on a steep ascension that has since seen his namesake label prosper on Net-a-Porter and receive further awards, including the top prize for evening wear at the Fashion Trust Arabia Awards in 2021, and fashion innovator of the year at the 2022 Emigala Fashion Awards.
At Benchellal, a harmony resides between a measured technique and a spontaneity that is unique to his process. With a family name that evokes the ever-evolving (Benchellal is Arabic for “son of the waterfall”), the brand is an extension of the man behind it, who is an artist loyal to his intuition. “It’s already in my name,” Benchellal says. “Water is unpredictable, and so is my journey. I follow my own stream, always.” Voluminous silhouettes give way to a refined glamour in his creations, just as a fascination with the classics elevates the brand’s resonance. He is devoted to sustainability and uses self-taught techniques in his atelier to manipulate fabrics, while employing the use of existing materials for ecological integrity. What is today celebrated as ethical, was born of genuine practicality. After studying at Amsterdam Fashion Academy and launching his brand in 2015, Benchellal would make use of deadstock fabrics found in local marketplaces. “Sustainability was a necessity for me to survive as a designer,” he reflects. “It was a challenge to find all these fabrics that were forgotten and to create something luxurious with them. If I could get a certain fabric that was considered cheap and make it look expensive… That was when I realized, I could do this.” In a world where fast fashion has an astonishing environmental cost, Benchellal has contributed to the ongoing industry sustainability shift.
As the son of Moroccan parents who immigrated to the Netherlands in the late Sixties, Benchellal attributes his determination to his family. “Everyone who works in fashion knows it takes a lot of money to set something up. I didn’t know where to start at first, but I knew I came from hard-working parents. So I started small and developed from there.” His extensive knowledge of fabric, as well as his sensibility towards the craft itself, was nurtured from a young age, as his own grandfather had worked in textiles. “My grandparents had these intense industrial sewing machines in the house that would make noise. I was always fascinated to see how they worked with them. At one point, I decided to try it myself. I took a portable sewing machine up to my room and started to cut my clothes apart. I became obsessed with figuring out how a piece was made.” As much as the sewing machine had become a form of creative liberation for him at this stage, it was the encouragement of his family that imbued him with the self-assurance he manifests today. Benchellal reminisces, “Both of my grandfathers would make me feel special. They would take me aside and say, ‘You’re going to do something very big.’ I always felt motivated by that. They also knew how to manifest and work hard to get what they wanted. They built a good life for themselves, and this was a huge inspiration to me.” There is a cultural legacy that lingers in the fashion house. An attitude that informs both his wardrobe and personal manner. “When you grow up as a Moroccan child, your culture is woven into your identity. Now more than ever, I feel I embody the best of these two worlds. There is the warmth of my Moroccan heritage and the freedom and discovery of my European upbringing. My parents and grandparents taught me how to present myself. Not only to dress well – I even feel guilty if I wear sweatpants – but the idea that what you radiate is what you receive. There is no better place for hospitality than in Morocco.” It is the grandeur of Moroccan ensembles that he carries throughout his collections, as an aesthetic resonance that never leaves him. “My style is influenced by Moroccan extravagance. I do everything over-the-top and love creating dresses with volume. I’ve always seen Moroccans as elegant people, who are strong and beautiful. I grew up watching my aunts transform into these glamazons for weddings. There is nothing more glamorous than a kaftan, and to see that as a child, it stays with you. To me, it was glamour to the fullest.”
Benchellal creates a harmonious tension between body, shape, and comfort. However structured his garments may appear, there is also fluidity. Instead of contouring the body, he experiments with proportion, with an understanding of volume and cut not dissimilar to architecture. A recurring theme throughout his work is his reverence for women. In the early years of his creative experimentation, he showcased his designs on female friends, while today he collaborates with Hollywood actors and supermodels, including dressing Iris Apfel for her 100th birthday, and Billy Porter, Alicia Keys, Priyanka Chopra, and Sharon Stone for red carpet events. “These high-profile artists feel they have a responsibility to wear something sustainable, yet that is also new,” he recounts. “And that is also inspiring for me.” He adds, “My dresses are not just clothes, they are an event. I believe that women are the most beautiful creation. I want to sculpt around them. They are already divine, but I want to highlight that through my work. To put women on a pedestal. That is my mission when designing.”
His latest collection is a collaboration with the “catwalk contessa” herself, Dutch model Marpessa Hennink. “I remember being a little boy, seeing Marpessa in the magazines of the 80s and 90s. I was fascinated with her, and I would have never dreamed of designing for her. It came full circle.” A radiant Hennink is a contemporary elegante in Benchellal’s garments, with their symmetrical drapery or voluminous roses placed meticulously around her shoulders. “It is truly inspiring for me to see that there are young people out there that stay focused on their vision, undeterred by the daily distractions that social media dictates, and who stay refreshingly independent in a business based on conformity to hype,” Hennink shares. “I’m so grateful to have been introduced to Mohamed.”
Benchellal creates in a way that is particular to his vision. His process begins with the touch of a fabric, followed by an examination of its length. “When I get my hands on the material, this dictates my design. I feel that this is a much more sustainable approach to fashion; to produce from what is available.” While dressing Hennink, pieces were even finalized during the shoot itself. “I was sculpting them around her body, in the moment,” he explains. Hismanner of rejecting the habitual customs of the industry further attests to his singularity as a designer. “I work in a different way that suits me. And though at times it can be a struggle, you must believe in yourself, especially if you are taking a different route.” As a one-man-show of sorts, Benchellal takes the helm of his business proactively, fulfilling all tasks, from cutting to designing, distributing, and even PR, personally. “I do everything myself,” he explains. “It’s challenging, but it stays interesting that way.”
Perseverance is integral to success. It requires action, just as the awareness of bearing risks. In Benchellal’s journey, this manifests through the defiance of popular opinion, and his ability to pursue his own vision, regardless of what the industry may be accustomed to. “Success doesn’t happen overnight,” he affirms. “Working in the professional realm of fashion, you deal with a lot of advisors over the years. I didn’t agree with all of them, because I work in a way that doesn’t suit the old world of doing business. I was told that my way wasn’t the way of working. But I see myself as a designer of the new generation. In my kind of world, money should be the tool, not the goal. In that way, it is putting the planet before profit.” In prolonging his passion for the ethereal, his body of work promises to enchant, wherever inspiration may next lead him. When Benchellal designs something, it is for life. “I love my freedom. I could release 30 new dresses tomorrow or wait a whole year and only release a single dress. I am living in the moment, always breathing fashion. I think if you pin everything down and have all these plans, you can block yourself and all the beautiful things that can happen.”
Originally published in the May 2022 issue of Vogue Arabia
Hair: Ilham Mestour
Makeup: Linda Wickmann
Models: Haddy Ceesay, Esther Roe at Team Models
Post production: Ruben Kristiansen