Curiosity has lured Glamcult into the world of provocative Canadian fashion designer Benji WZW. Behind his outgoing personality hides an obscure and gloomy side, which he only reveals through his outlandish designs. In a heart-to-heart, the designer—whose graduate-collection yellow motorcycle jacket has been worn by none other than icon of weirdness Lady Gaga—reveals the inspirations behind his A/W 2014 collection.
“Architecture taught me how to be a designer,” declares Benji WZW. “Fashion taught me how to love my perversions.” The Torontonian designer, who was raised in Hong Kong and Canada, initially studied architecture at the prestigious University of Waterloo before realizing it was a compromise too far. “It was a natural choice to keep my parents happy,” he admits. “They thought it’d be the perfect balance between art and finance.” But those “perversions” kept resurfacing, and midway through his architecture degree Benji crossed the Atlantic to enrol in the Fashion Design programme at Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts. It proved to be a good move for a man who once declared that if he weren’t designing, he “would be dead”.
“Antwerp was a place to be free and to discover who you are—the person you were always afraid of being,” says Benji, with a provocative glint in his eye. And it turns out Benji’s hidden self is much darker than his effervescent character would suggest. Dressing as outrageously as he wanted was part of exploring boundaries, turning his body into his canvas and exploring his initial attraction to fashion: the ability to create a character and identity via something that’s so close to your body. And it’s not just his external appearance that was constantly reinvented while he learned his craft from such top-notch designers as Dirk Bikkembergs, Dries Van Noten and Walter Van Beirendonck: his body went through more transformations than Christian Bale in an Oscar-bait flick. “If I want to design for skinny boys, I get skinny; if I want to design for bigger guys, I bulk up. It’s important to feel something,” he says.
A different aspect of what Benji feels is revealed with every collection, by a process of zooming in and dissecting his emotions. In his A/W14 collection Fall in Love with Machinery he turns the tumultuous tribulations of heartbreak and self-destruction into something tangible. Whether obsessing over such subjects is therapeutic or destructive doesn’t really matter; self-analysis is an inherent part of his process—“but it won’t always be a direct translation of an experience,” he explains. “It can be an interpretation of my dreams and memories.”
Inspired by the Japanese biker subculture bosozoku, Fall in Love with Machinery is as loud and powerful as the roar of a customized Suzuki bike engine. At the beginning of his research, Benji watched the 1976 Japanese documentary Godspeed You Black Emperor!, which follows the exploits of Japanese biker gang the Black Emperors. Despite bikers’ badass reputation, the Black Emperors are heavily dependent on their mums, and the majority join the gang for something to do while growing up in the suburbs. Benji relates to the bikers on a personal level, having grown up in the suburbs himself, daydreaming of turning his fantasies into reality.
Digging deeper into this subculture, Benji became fascinated by the curves of the motorbikes they customize. “The shapes I found became a source of inspiration for building up silhouettes in the collection,” he says. Leather, belts, chains and car-paint finishes bear witness to the bosozoku influence. In spite of the collection’s unique street-wear vibe, there’s a nod to classic tailoring in the clean, sharp silhouettes that reflect his preoccupation with form-fitting shapes. Studying under a Savile Row tailor taught Benji the basics of creating cleaner fits and customizing to different body types. Spending eight-plus hours a day making patterns and tailored suits from scratch, he now adds his own spin to classic cuts and turns them into a more contemporary version, where bosozoku merges with street-wear influences.
In his creative process Benji inclines towards a combination of tradition and technology: “Technology is fascinating but you need a human hand in it that gives it a bit of warmth and something personal. A personal touch makes things so much more special,” he says. We see a perfect marriage of the two in his use of 3D printing and hand stitching. Chokers and appliqués have been developed by a 3D printer, the latter being embroidered on to the garments by hand. Next to his 3D creations, iridescent features such as holograms have been hand cut and stitched on to outfits one by one. Benji creates his eerie prints—exploring the dichotomy of the physical and digital life—by using new digital technologies such as 3D modelling programs. “I drew inspiration from the idea of gangs and youth tribes, and how they build up a certain set of symbols and iconography within their own cultures,” he explains. Benji’s “gang” is represented by angels, embryos and crescents, reflecting the representation of life and death in various cultures. A new tribe has been created, comprising new iconography originating from his travels and endeavours in Europe, his Asian heritage and his Canadian homeland. This alchemy of different backgrounds, surroundings and emotions has resulted in a new visual language with a dark undertone—and one we’re intrigued to see play out.