Ben Chan defies the pandemic

Resolved not to cancel everything, the retail pioneer launches the first ever digital show for Bench

Photos courtesy of Karen Jardenil

Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only.

That's according to Coco Chanel. "Fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening," she explained. "Fashion is in the sky, in the street." And because of what has been happening since March, fashion is now online.


Over the weekend, anyone and everyone interested in fashion, in style, in what's current, and in what's coming converged online to take part in the first ever digital Bench Fashion Week, compressed in just a little over an hour this year, to showcase holiday 2020 collections for the brands under the Bench group—Human, Kashieca, and Bench, along with this year's guest artist, Tokyo genius Tomo Koizumi, whose work, after having only been discovered on Instagram early last year, is now being touted as revolutionary, more costume than ready-to-wear, more provocative than inspiring, "bucking up the trends in American fashion," according to Vogue.

Bench Fashion Week on the screen of your phone, tablet, or laptop proved no less special than Bench Fashion Week in the flesh at the Bench Tower. In fact, it proved more special with everybody as close as everybody else to everything unfolding on the stage, as well as to all that stars, established and emerging, ever-blazing and just rising, who would as a matter of course grace both the stage and the bleachers.

No more jostling for good seats this time. Online we were all front and center at the show, with as good a view of, say, Ben Chan, the man behind Bench—and its stellar history in elevating local, casual fashion to the realm of dazzling possibilities—as everybody else.

From the moment Ben decided to launch Bench just 33 years ago, he had resolved to bring forth not only a clothing brand but a lifestyle of dreams and self-expression. And just as dramatic as the perfume ad, more like a short film with Richard Gomez in the title role, he launched in those early years, which caught the imagination of the anybody who saw it, was his foray into the digital age, into which the current crisis forced us lock, stock, and barrel, but not exactly against our will for, after all, we have known for a while that this age is forthcoming and that digital is the new frontier.

Besides, for Ben and his team of carefully selected creatives, the screen is nothing new. They have long mastered the medium, particularly of film that ignites dreams. And thus the success of the first ever digital show for Bench, hosted by style arbiter and Philippine Tatler editor Anton San Diego and Miss World 2019 Michelle Dee.

We are presenting short fashion films, not your usual runway videos, because we always want to show you something fresh. Now, we bring you a new way of watching our collection.

Ben Chan

As always, the show was in a word a youthquake, featuring only the freshest faces or the most promising among the latest crop of idols in music, movies, theater, or modeling. Ben has a sixth sense for talents who eventually become larger than life and turning into figures of pop culture, so his shows aren't only a showcase of trends but also an introduction to the names and faces that dominate—or will dominate—industries engaged in catching public fancy.

VIBRANT AND ANGSTY Bea Alonzo in a Kashieca holiday 2020 dress

Last weekend's digital premiere was no different. First to unveil its holiday 2020 offerings was Human, with its edgy, experimental, androgynous pieces, both playful or rebellious, artsy and angsty, underground and mainstream, male and female, all the complexities and fun of youth expressed in shirt prints, hoodies and bomber jackets, and sneakers.

Headlining holiday 2020 for Kashieca was Bea Alonzo, whose transition from teen sensation to A-list leading lady you could measure in the way her personal chic has evolved. The easy fit collection, in luxe fabrics like silk and knits or a combination thereof, like velvet trimmed with ruffles, like houndstooth layered on abstract prints, and in cuts that displayed her best features, such as her rounded, delicate shoulders, brought out the inner goddess in Bea as well as dreams the viewers could dare to dream of classic romance, self-possession, and la dolce vita.

Meanwhile, Tomo Koizumi, who is currently busy crafting a capsule collection for Pucci, presented his own interpretation of the Philippines terno with his frilly, frothy, fanciful signature. His participation in the Bench Fashion Week Holiday 2020 as a surprise artist is a strong statement of Ben's resolve not only to promote the Philippine brand among the Filipinos but also to establish its place on the world stage.

As for the flagship brand Bench, the virtual show, as always, as in every Bench Fashion Week twice a year pre-pandemic, was a riot of breakout stars with Maine Mendoza, Gabbi Garcia, Ruru Madrid, Paul Zamora, Jack Manere, and more rocking the virtual stage in a mashup of streetwear and preppy.

Baseball jackets, plaid skirts, denim coats found a new gig in hoodies and joggers, and the classic Bench T-shirt got revamped for the season with new, fresh graphics on a collaboration with Secret Fresh, designed by DJ, sneaker head, toy collector, and cool kid Big Boy Cheng.

More than a runway show, Bench Fashion Week was more of a performance art, replete with fashion films that stirred up fantasies and romantic musings. "Not your usual runway videos, because we always want to show you something fresh," said Ben in his welcome remarks. "Now, we bring you a new way of watching our collection."

There really is nothing like a fashion show in the flesh, but for Ben and others like him here and elsewhere in the world who won’t settle for second best, who won’t be content with such flimsy excuses as a crippling pandemic and a stifling quarantine, only a lack of imagination, even in times as dire as these, can deprive us of the fun and, more important, the hope that fashion brings as an armor, as second skin, as a reflection of our inner resolve.

Only a lack of imagination can deprive us of the power of fashion to put a spring in our step, to make us feel more alive, and to express who we are.

So we carry on.

If I were to put together what I have gathered from the wise words of fashion powerhouses like Coco Chanel and Diana Vreeland and, straight from the horse's mouth, from Ben Chan himself, hope does express itself in clothing. And hope is a very powerful, indispensable thing.

After all, in good times and bad, even at the worst of times, even those times that ultimately involve undressing, we always need something to wear.