Exhaustion and stress led to Leeds designer Mary Benson taking a step back. But now she’s back in creative mode (and in more ways than one). She talks to Stephanie Smith.
Three years ago, Mary Benson made her debut at London Fashion Week. She was a bright young thing whose eponymous label had attracted attention while she was still a student at the University of Westminster, her designs featuring holographic prints worn by Rita Ora, Paloma Faith and Ellie Goulding.
Mary Benson’s graduate fashion collection was a surprise and a revelation, showcasing opulent floor-sweeping ball gowns decorated with narrative fantasy landscapes in foil on satin duchesse pure silk. A collaboration with celebrated footwear designer Terry de Havilland followed and a millinery collection with Stephen Jones. She had a studio in Hackney, assistants, stockists, mentions in Vogue … and then she stopped.
Now 27, Mary, from Seacroft in Leeds, was exhausted and stressed. “It was all the struggles behind the scenes,” she says. “It ended up getting to the point where I was overworked, completely, and I was drinking a lot, and I got really depressed, to be honest. It was really hard.
“I’ve been quite open about it, because nobody really knew at the time. People just thought I was hyper and a bit frantic and wild, but actually, I was going through a lot of anxiety and stress and depression.”
It was the result, she says now, of the pressure put on young designers by the fashion industry. “I didn’t know how to cope with it,” she says. “I was going downhill with my health and stress and I thought, I just can’t any more. It was sad, and my mum and dad were really worried.”
Mary’s parents, Christine and Fred, have been her great support since, aged 15, she began started selling bags and bows to her friends at Corpus Christi High School in Leeds. At 16 she had a pop-up shop at Granary Wharf and Leeds boutiques began stocking her designs. At 17 she featured on TV’s Mary Queen of Shops, leading to a huge demand for a striped metallic dress she had designed. Her collections featured in The Yorkshire Post Magazine and on the catwalks of Yorkshire Fashion Week and the Great Yorkshire Show.
Mary studied at Leeds College of Art before moving to London in 2009 for a Fashion Design BA at the University of Westminster. At 19, she worked with Alexander McQueen and Richard Nicoll and went to Paris Fashion Week with Vivienne Westwood.
And yet, despite so much hard work and recognition she took the decision to step back from fashion. “I didn’t expect to take so long out, but it was just what I needed,” she says now.
She continued at the pub she had been working at to fund her collections and shows, and began drawing every day, mostly portraits of friends which she put on Instagram, only to find that people began asking if she would draw them, too.
“It went hand in hand with me trying to stop drinking. I drew loads, and got much better at drawing because I was doing it every single day.”
Mary has been far from idle. She found love with Tadgh, a pub manager and also a talented artist, while they were drawing together in-between shifts. She moved to Islington to be with him, and their first baby is due in November.
“Once I’d started to get a clear mind, I was able to look at exactly what it was that I wanted to do,” she says. “I’ve been able to start from the beginning again in a much more productive way.”
She had approached online fashion retailer Asos two years ago with a collaboration project. Last Christmas, it got it touch, and her new shoes and accessories collection comes out in October.
Then, last January, Mary started putting together a business plan for a new label, Mary Benson World, a lifestyle brand allowing her to create fashion, soft furnishings, print designs, artworks, maybe even shoes and childrenswear.
“I’m a print designer; you can put print on anything,” she says. “This time, I’m not doing any fashion shows because it’s too expensive and everything is going online now.”
She didn’t want a stressful bank loan and so spoke to Terry and Liz de Havilland about her plans. “They loaned me something to start me off, and also my mum and dad. Terry and Liz have been really supportive” she says. “So no bank loans, no stress, working hours just 10-6, just a normal business. It doesn’t have to be crazy. There’s a lot of wasted time being stressed.”
Mary intends to keep collections small and launch only when appropriate. Her first is a genderless range of streetwear featuring her signature prints in vinyl or screen printed silk.
The clothes are designed in Mary’s studio in Hackney and her print studio in Bermondsey, and finally made in a factory in Leyton.
The process begins with research and lots of drawing to create the concept and imagery for each garment. This first collection references Japanese landscapes and kimonos, and the Egyptian cat goddess, Bastet.
For the shoot, the pieces are modelled by actress Sophia Brown, who will star with Rachel Weisz in Disobedience later this year. She is the sister of singer-songwriter VV Brown, with whom Mary had collaborated for her VV Vintage collection.
Mary says: “When she turned up for the shoot, she was obviously just herself, and she’s super feminine, really gorgeous and kind of delicate, in a way, but then, because she’s an actress, and I said to her, ‘I’m going for an androgynous look’, she just did it. We didn’t use any make-up, we literally just got up on the roof of my flat.”
There are four tracksuit designs. The vinyl ones are made to order works of art, but there are also screen printed ones which are less expensive, and a range of tees, hoodies and sweats, starting at £65.
It’s a calmer, more ordered life, and Mary tries to get back to Yorkshire every couple of months to see her parents, who now live in Knaresborough. She recently took Tadgh to see the bed race.
The children’s book she began writing and illustrating while she took her career break has been put on the back-burner for now, but with a baby on the way, it surely will follow.
Mary’s world is back on track, and more wonderful than ever.
All the designs can be ordered on www.marybensonworld.com