The Curious Case of Ben Chan
Seven years ago, Ben Chan underwent a dramatic change in appearance: he had lost a significant amount of weight. In late 2010, after subjecting himself to the rigorous Cohen diet combined with core kinesis exercises, the chairman and founder of Bench and Suyen Corporation found himself dropping pounds rapidly, and within a few months the fashion mogul’s personal wardrobe was to face a total revamp as well
He looked a good 10 years younger, perhaps even more. His silhouette went from full to slim. Throughout the late 1990s and 2000s, he would go to work at the former Bench home base in Pasay in a classic short-sleeved barong Tagalog get-up; this office uniform was to be replaced with a crisp, slim-cut cotton shirt in either white or blue, or, on more casual days, a polo shirt in black or navy. Formerly averse to walking in springy rubber soles, Ben traded his everyday Prada loafers for edgy trainers by Acne, Nike, or the latest Japanese sneaker craze. Gone were the roomy Comme des Garçons suits he favoured for evenings out; in their place were sharply cut designer shirts by Dior Homme and jackets by Givenchy. And he had taken a liking to skinny jeans.
The transformation was reminiscent of Karl Lagerfeld’s striking makeover around striking 2000-2001. Like Ben, Lagerfeld wanted a change, inspired by the drastic turnaround in menswear silhouettes when Hedi Slimane helmed Dior Homme. Both wanted to adapt to the times. Both were acutely aware that as leaders in their own respective fashion elds, their public image was vital in representing their brand as not just a label, but also a lifestyle. Both meticulous Virgos, they had the discipline and determination to achieve their fitness goals without resorting to medical and cosmetic “shortcuts.”
Sitting behind his massive wooden desk at the penthouse of the new Bench Tower in Bonifacio Global City, Ben now looks back on that pivotal moment of his life with gratitude. “Losing all that weight gave me a boost in self- confidence,” says the soft-spoken tycoon. “I remember being afraid in the beginning, afraid of what other people would think, afraid that I would make a fool of myself. I didn’t want to look like I was trying too hard, or that I was going through a second childhood. I still wanted to be myself.”
That decision turned out to produce only positive, life-changing results, and after that there was no turning back for Ben. “No matter what your age, you have to be willing to try new things and take risks. When I look at my old pictures, I still can’t believe I was that heavy. Now, I can’t imagine going back to my former weight and wearing those oversized suits again.”
“There was a subtle change in his personality as well,” remarks his close associate, stylist Noel Manapat. “Ben used to be private and shy. After his personal makeover, he became a lot more open, friendly, and comfortable with public life. Reinvention suited him to a T. What is fashion, after all, but constant reinvention?”
The Fashion Man
Getting to design and wear current fashions gave Ben an even more intimate connection with the industry he devoted most of his life to. It only added more fuel to the fire of his lifelong passion. A man of fashion, after all, has to be a citizen of the world, a global villager, who is driven by all that is current, “all the rage,” so to speak, whether it is a new diet, new technology, or a new fabric.
If fashion is a living language that only the most up-to-date can speak fluently, Ben learnt it and continues to relearn it through his relentless travelling, an activity that has kept him fit (“Uncle Ben loves to walk, and walk fast! When we travel, he outwalks all of us, even the much younger ones,” says his nephew, Bryan Lim), his mind sharp, his spirit young, and his trend antennae hypersensitive.
As a man of style, it is probably foremost among Ben Chan’s job requirements that he be acutely sensitive to the pulse of the times, more substantially than the rest, and far ahead of the rest. He founded the Bench brand in 1987 with his sister Nenita Lim, with just a gut instinct “that something was missing in the market,” and that he had “a feeling that I could fill it.”
And fill that gap he most certainly did. The first product offering of Bench was a line of men’s t-shirts, sold in a corner of SM Department Store, Makati, when t-shirts were still considered innerwear by a relatively conservative market. Says Bench head architect Miguel Pastor: “In 1987, nobody went out in a t-shirt if they wanted to look decent or presentable. You had to at least wear a collared shirt, and many people still had their clothes custom-made by a tailor or seamstress. Bench came in at a time when this was about to radically change, and in many ways, Bench helped make that change.”
Success came quickly to Bench, and with it the movement of the epicentre of local fashion from formal to casual, from custom-made to ready-to-wear, from the elite few to the mass market, from runway to street. Not long after its inception, Bench opened its first standalone boutique at the Quad where Greenbelt now stands.
In 1991, Bench famously launched actor and sportsman Richard Gomez as its rst celebrity endorser, propelling both actor and brand to iconic status in an unprecedented television commercial hailed by many as a modern classic.
Expanding to hundreds of stores in the Philippines and across the globe, with a product range that now includes womenswear and children’s wear, underwear, scents, cosmetics, toiletries, and a hair salon chain, and with its mother company, Suyen Corporation, holding an umbrella of dozens of global franchises from Paul Smith to Cotton On. Bench is now considered one of the Philippines’s best-loved homegrown brands. That it marks its 30th anniversary this year is a tremendous feat in itself, given the onslaught of foreign competition and the struggle to survive by one too many local fashion labels.
“Bench is still growing, remarkably,”
Ben states. “We have somehow managed to remain relevant despite the arrival of international retail giants like Uniqlo, H&M, the Gap, and Forever 21. Globalisation is the biggest, most difficult challenge we had to face in our 30 years of existence. Every day is a battle but we are still here, and we are still fighting.” Fashion’s perpetual fight has always been, and always will be, the fight for relevance. How can a fashion brand reach 30 years and still appear not to age?
To know what Ben Chan thinks about the millennial market, and how Bench continues to forge its own trail in the industry, read the full article in this month’s issue of Philippine Tatler.
Photography by Mark Nicdao | Digital Imaging by Mark Nicdao and Carlo Sardes of Moo Digital | Styling by David Milan