interview by OLIVIER ZAHM
photographs HANNA LIDEN
fashion editor NATASHA ROYT
One of the few young designers to survive the washout of the 1990s, BENJAMIN CHO hung on to his uncompromising thinking and his independence from the market.
Still at the core of New York’s alternative scene, every season he continues to turn out fantasmagoric collections and emotionally stimulating shows that no one dares to miss.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You’re from California, right?
BENJAMIN CHO — Kind of. I was born in Massachusetts, but my family moved to Virginia, then Ohio, and then to California. I’ve been all over the United States.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Because of your father’s job?
BENJAMIN CHO — Yeah. When I used to do a lot of hair and make-up, a photographer I knew who liked to shoot in different places asked me, “Where haven’t you been?” I said, “Well, I haven’t been to Georgia.” So he said, “Next trip: Georgia!” And so on.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Your parents were born and raised in Korea, right?
BENJAMIN CHO — Yeah. My family moved over here later on.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Can you speak Korean?
BENJAMIN CHO — Just barely. But when I go to Korea I’m able to pick a little up. Some words come back to me, from hearing my parents speak.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you think there’s an Asian influence in your work?
BENJAMIN CHO — None. Not even a little bit.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Is that because your parents totally melted into the American way of life?
BENJAMIN CHO — I don’t know if it’s being Korean, or just because of the way my parents are — being a little obsessive. But aesthetically, nothing is affected by Korea. My parents are just different. My dad is a scientist and my mom is an opera singer. My mom speaks about eight languages.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Your mother is an opera singer?
BENJAMIN CHO — Yeah. Before I was born, when they had just moved here, she entered a competition at the Met and won. She was going to sing at the Met and then she got pregnant with my sister. Then she got pregnant with me, so she took time off. I was always like, Mom, you shouldn’t have had us — you could’ve been huge! And she’d say, “Don’t ever say that!” But she started again. She worked a lot. But it wasn’t like the kind
of career she had in her hand.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did she listen to a lot of opera when you were still around?
BENJAMIN CHO — Yeah, and I’d be like, Mom! I’m trying to watch TV! Stop singing! But that’s why I know some Italian… Whenever I see Italian people, I feel like I know some Italian. They’re really colloquial and poetic sounding, like Puccini’s Tosca.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How old was your mother when she arrived in America?
BENJAMIN CHO — I think she was in her twenties. But now my parents have moved back to Korea.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did she perform in America?
BENJAMIN CHO — Yes, she did. Throughout my childhood she was traveling all the time, singing opera here and there. She came here to pursue her career. My dad was at MIT, studying to be a scientist. My mom took voice lessons and stuff. But my dad’s career always came first. He got a job at NASA. That’s why we moved around so much. Some of my parents’ friends were wealthy just because of the community we were in. We would go to their houses and I would be like, look Mom, we could’ve been like this if you hadn’t stopped your career. She’d say, “Don’t ever think that. Who cares about money? If you’re respected, people with money look up to you.” I took that really seriously. Stick with your guns. But then, I don’t want to be cursed. I want to make money too.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did they accept your work and lifestyle?
BENJAMIN CHO — Eventually. But not when I first left home. Now that my stuff is coming out in magazines, they’re OK about it.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You did hair and make-up before?
BENJAMIN CHO — Yes, but not really intentionally. At art school I had to do a project for the two-dimensional art class, so I painted my friend Lisa’s body. But I said she had to go to school naked. She agreed and I painted her whole body. Then she wore a see-through raincoat. A photographer wondered who did it. I said, “I did.” He said, “I’m doing this shoot this weekend. Want to do it?” It was with Tasha Tillberg — her first photo shoot. I said sure. I went to all the girls in the dorm asking for their make-up. I imagined seeing all that stuff on TV. Make-up everywhere. I literally took thirty lipsticks, opened them up and put them in a line. I thought that’s what I had to do. That’s how it started, how I started making extra money, and how I funded my first shows.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you always want to work in fashion? Even when you were a child?
BENJAMIN CHO — I didn’t actually know that I could do it, because when I was younger it wasn’t a popular thing to do. I never thought of doing it professionally, but I always made clothes. I even made pretend clothes for Wonder Woman, from the TV show. She’d change her outfit to go scuba diving, so I would invent variations.
OLIVIER ZAHM — As drawings?
BENJAMIN CHO — Just drawings. Then I made outfits out of tissue paper for my sister’s Barbie. Just lick it and stick it — these weird outfits. [Laughs] Then I started making all my own clothes. When I was thirteen I met a girl who went to fashion school. I was like, “Oh, there’s such a thing as fashion school? Where?” She said, “Parsons. It’s where Ana Sui and Marc Jacobs went.” I didn’t really think you could go to school for that kind of thing. Now it’s so easy, but when I was younger it seemed so exotic.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You were a teenager in L.A., then?
BENJAMIN CHO — In San Jose, near San Francisco. Dionne Warwick sang that song, Do You Know the Way to San Jose? [Laughs] But yeah, that’s where I grew up. It’s a really conservative town. I definitely felt very weird-looking.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, you arrived in New York in the mid-nineties?
BENJAMIN CHO — In ’94. It was really exciting. I was talking to Terry [Richardson] the other day about the East Village. If you lived in the East Village you looked like you lived in the East Village. It was very indicative. I met Terry and Nikki [Uberti] when I was like eighteen. It’s the first time that I saw someone from the East Village do a Katharine Hamnett ad.
I was like, “You did that? I saw that in The Face!” We were kind of an East Village community, although I lived on Broome Street, in SoHo.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You were friends with the model Nikki Uberti?
BENJAMIN CHO — Yes, and I knew all of the people around her even though I was kind of shy. I would be looking through magazines and be like, “Woah, its Nikki!” I always thought she was so cool. But I would never say that. I always looked at her and Terry from a distance, like they were the king and queen. It always seemed slow motion to me. Terry and I were just reminiscing about it. But we weren’t like, “Oh, it was so much better back then.” But we were having a good time remembering. The first night I met Chloë we all went to Central Park to see the band Guided By Voices. It was weird to see our kind of people, with our weird hairdos, in Central Park. Now, it’s normal. I remember Nikki, Terry, Chloë, Harmony [Korine]. Chloë riding a skateboard…
OLIVIER ZAHM — The art and fashion communities in New York were smaller then, no?
BENJAMIN CHO — Yeah, and there was a different kind of ambition. Now everyone is very money-oriented. Back then, if you did something that got some notoriety, it was more like impressing the people around you, rather than the world, you know? I did my first show with about seven looks. But now it’s like you’re on a world stage whenever you do anything in New York.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Young people now want their careers to advance quickly. They want to be successful before they’re twenty-five. How old are you now?
BENJAMIN CHO — I’m 31. It’s very strange, this grand ambition that people have now. When I started I wanted to be known for what I was doing, what it meant. Not necessarily to be famous, although there was an element of that too. But after the first outfit came out, I didn’t even care about fame. I just wanted to do good stuff.
OLIVIER ZAHM — When was your first show?
BENJAMIN CHO — A while ago, in 1998, with models Jade Parfitt, Annie Oak… It was seven looks in an apartment building. I did it all by hand. I didn’t even know that I could have other people make clothes. I’ve always done it out of my pocket. I don’t really know any other designer who started with their own money. My sister gave me 500 dollars here and there, to get chairs or something. It was up and down, up and down.
OLIVIER ZAHM — In ’98 you were also helping other designers like Bernadette Corporation?
BENJAMIN CHO — Yes. And also Susan Cianciolo, Seth Shapiro, the Bruce girls. I used to help them out with their shows and to sew things. They came and helped me sew stuff, too. I remember going to Susan’s place, and everyone was so quiet because, you know, Susan was like this [whispering]. But Susan is actually really funny. My potty mouth would go off and Susan would be like, “Eh ehe eh ehe eh eeh.” She laughs like that. All the people, like little Japanese girls wearing like a potato sack around, wondered, “What’s this side of Susan?” It was always really fun, and always a nice community of people.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You may just be the last designer from the ’90s scene.
BENJAMIN CHO — Yeah. It’s just a whole different mindset now. You can’t survive by saying you were so much better back then. You’ll fall by the wayside. Granted, it was a beautiful time. I was younger, and saw things happen. If you were in a magazine, it was a surprise. Now everybody gets pictures in magazines so easily, and there are blogs — everyone has access.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You’ve been really dedicated to fashion all these years.
BENJAMIN CHO — Yeah, I made some of the best shows and got some of my best reviews. But I had no money. People don’t understand that. It sounds a little desperate, or distasteful to say, “Find me a backer! I need money!” I thought I could find money that way. People don’t want to hear that. You have to solve your problems behind the scenes. So I stopped saying that kind of stuff.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You need to be really strong to develop a collection in New York, and you have to be commercial right away.
BENJAMIN CHO — That’s what happened to me. Everyone was saying you have to be signed to more stores for people to take you seriously. I would kind of follow their advice and at least make something like wearable pants. The second I did that was the second I hated it, so I stopped. I was always really defiant. There was this one season, one of my favorites, when I knew I was going to stop. I got sponsorship, but I didn’t want to do it after that. So I just made clothing that was really wearable. All the clothes fit me, because I thought I might as well make some clothing for myself. It was a collection of priests’ shirts. The girls were in see-through chiffon priest shirts and you could see their boobs. There was a 100-pound rosary and umbrellas. It was either totally ridiculous or totally wearable.
I thought I was going to make plain sorts of clothes. But I knew it wasn’t going to work. People don’t want to buy plain clothing from me. I have to make a story, a sort of narrative, but not too much of it, as if my childhood was in there — some corruption and some priest stuff.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You mean it doesn’t work for you if you try to be commercial or do plain clothes?
BENJAMIN CHO — If I make a plain sweater, nobody buys it. People only want the most outrageous stuff from me. I always had a lot of support from The New York Times. Amy Spindler was the fashion editor of The New York Times Magazine. She had a brain tumor — twice. She died from the second one. She was the smartest journalist. Allure made these fortune cookies they put on the seats during fashion week; you would open one and it would say, “Wear red!” or whatever. There was one that said, “If you’re sitting next to Amy Spindler, copy her notes!” There was a time when she was my biggest supporter. After she died the people who took over said they wouldn’t shoot my stuff unless it was in
a department store!
OLIVIER ZAHM — But now that’s changing again because there are so many bad commercial labels. I think people will start to be interested in real design again.
BENJAMIN CHO — I remember reading an article by Peter Som about being really big. He said it’s not about the art school-looking stuff, but about making the art school-looking stuff more designer-ish, pushing it more.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you have a specific vision of a woman?
BENJAMIN CHO — Not that specific. When I was in fashion school people would ask, Who is your woman? Who is your muse? Pick a woman! I thought that was sort of racist — picking one sort of woman. It’s a diverse group, like the people I’m used to being around. Somewhat eccentric — but sometimes conservative people really like my clothes, too. Rich women from Dallas think they’re just crazy.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You like women with real individuality — like Chloë.
BENJAMIN CHO — Yes. ’80s and ’90s kind of girls, different from girls now. I remember when Chloë and I were in high school. We had very different high school friends but we were the same kind of person. Very alternative. She had a shaved head and I had a Mohawk. I’d wear tights and skirts, or whatever. I was always funny and artistic. I was also homecoming king at my high school! It was so random. We had to really like what we liked because people would ridicule us. People don’t have to do that any more because they think what they like has just got to be cool.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Where do you find your inspiration now?
BENJAMIN CHO — I’ve never obsessed enough with something to think, This is it! All people think their scene is cool. But I know what I think, especially when I come up with the inspiration for my shows. It has more to do with my mood. If I’m feeling ambitious or creative or depressed, it affects the way I make clothes. It all comes from emotional things, so influences have to be oblique. I don’t like anything that’s ethnic or retro. When people ask where my inspiration is born, I tell them I don’t have any. [Laughs] They say, “What do you mean, you don’t have inspiration? Your collection is so specific.” I’ve learned to ignore other people’s advice.
OLIVIER ZAHM — In your shows there is always a great atmosphere; people really love them. People like to see what you’ll do. Your friends have been coming to your shows for years.
BENJAMIN CHO — People get surprisingly emotional. At every single show someone cries at the end. I do have friends who have been coming for a long time to see what I’m doing. They never say, “Oh, that’s ridiculous. Who’s going to wear that?” They say, “Oh, it’s just Ben doing his thing.” [Laughs]
OLIVIER ZAHM — The emotion during a fashion show is really important. The clothes carry this emotion, because it’s a part of your life, a true extension of yourself.
BENJAMIN CHO — I’m glad to hear that. Sometimes I’m not sure how successful I am at that kind of thing.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you draw now, too?
BENJAMIN CHO — Yes. Did you see the one I did for Dash? I drew him like in a Robert Mapplethorpe picture. It’s great. One of the best drawings I’ve ever done.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You like to DJ, don’t you?
BENJAMIN CHO — I don’t know if I really like it. When I did The Smiths Night, it just sort of happened because I like The Smiths. Yeah, it’s fun. Especially when I go to Paris and do something there. People listen to such a different kind of music in Paris.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Where does your love for The Smiths come from?
BENJAMIN CHO — I’ve always really liked them. You can relate so much to someone who writes the kind of lyrics they write. There weren’t lyrics like this before. You grow with music, once you start getting really in tune with the thing that’s lyrically blowing your mind. Some people actually credit The Smiths Night with having a lot to do with the popularity of Morrissey, especially in the skate scene. I did The Smiths Night, but I was never a real DJ.
I just sort of picked songs. Now I guess I am a real DJ, because people hire me to do it.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Speaking of being an artistic ambassador, do you still do your radio show?
BENJAMIN CHO — No. It’s kind of hard to do a show every week. Especially when you don’t really like much new music… You always have to play old music all the time. You kind of play the same things over and over again. That was kind of boring. It was fun in the beginning, when people used to come every week, and we would all bring a bottle of wine and just hang out. In the beginning I was really nervous, but as the wine went down my mouth got so filthy! I have such a filthy potty mouth! People couldn’t believe what I’d say, but I didn’t care. They used to broadcast it in the restaurant, but they had to stop it because they said I was too much! [Laughs]
OLIVIER ZAHM — How do you feel about the New York scene now?
BENJAMIN CHO — There are a lot of fads out there.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What do you mean?
BENJAMIN CHO — Trends. Something happens and everyone joins the trend. I think it’s because there are so many cheesy blogs. It’s the blind leading the blind. People think they’re experts because they research things on their computers at home, where they’re safe. Now people can see everything, but maybe that will create a little more individualism. I hope so. Because there’s not a lot of real renegades out there. I’m hoping that after Dan [Colen] and Dash [Snow] the young ones will be more renegade-like. I’ll probably be known as the old guy.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you think that the New York scene is getting interesting again?
BENJAMIN CHO — Not really! Some of the characters now can be very annoying… They have too much access, they know what people like, and they cater to certain things. Back then people created their own cool thing, the way Nikki did, for example — putting her own outfits together in a certain way. Now a girl who wants to be stylish goes online to see what other people are doing, instead of just walking around. She’ll come across a Nikki-like thing and go, “Wow! That girl’s got killer style!” And then try to imitate it. People used to make their own artwork and you could only see it if you knew them. It was very person-to-person. Now people hear about it and Google it. There used to be so many characters, it was exciting to go out. Because there weren’t so many people. You’d walk down Avenue A, and there’d be a few people scattered around, walking up and down. There wasn’t tons of kids, like there is now. So when you saw someone it was like, Oh, hey! Like not running into them all the time. I loved that.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you consider your design as art?
BENJAMIN CHO — When people tell me that what I do is art, I say it’s different. Fashion is not art. I’m always saying that because I consider fashion as interesting as art. Great fashion is as good as great art. So for me to say that fashion is art is to say that it’s only good if it’s called art. That’s totally denouncing what it does. Then why would I do fashion, if the pinnacle is it being called art? Why wouldn’t I just be an artist? But if I make really great fashion, I feel just as satisfied as if I had made really great art. People think that I’m anti-fashion, but actually I revere it. I have a lot of respect for it. That’s why I say that it’s not art, but it’s art’s equivalent.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You told me you would like to show in Paris.
BENJAMIN CHO — I was also thinking if I showed in Paris and I had this really big, financially successful line it wouldn’t be the same as if I had conquered my town. I love New York. If I made it somewhere else, I’d be thinking, I wish I’d done it in New York.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You can’t live anywhere else?
BENJAMIN CHO — No, but I would definitely like to do something in Paris. I wish I had another line I was doing over there. If I was doing Scaparelli, I could have the best of both worlds, showing there and here.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Like Rick Owens who left L.A. to develop his collection in Paris and used to design for Revillon?
BENJAMIN CHO — He’s a cult designer. He became huge in France. I would never have guessed that would happen to him. But now he’s honed his aesthetic, and it’s much nicer than before. Before, it was kind of like ripped-up t-shirts and stuff like that. Everyone was saying, he’s becoming huge in Paris, and I thought, I should show in Paris. But then I thought, “No, New York. I have to conquer New York first.”
OLIVIER ZAHM — What do you love so much about New York?
BENJAMIN CHO — The people I know here. The attitude here. It’s easy to be — I don’t want to say myself — but it’s easy for me to be no-nonsense in New York.
OLIVIER ZAHM — To go into your own world?
BENJAMIN CHO — Yeah. It’s easy to ignore something, or to jump into it. It’s so broad and so diversified that there are no mannerisms. There’s no protocol. You can mix it up here. There are no class levels. The perfect example is people who work in art galleries: if someone walks in with sweatpants and a dirty t-shirt on, they have to treat them well, because that person could be a huge buyer. You can’t be thinking that someone is a scumbag — you never know who it might be. That’s what I like. I can walk into a fancy place and nobody’s going to ask what I’m doing there.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Are you still anti-fur?
BENJAMIN CHO — Yes. I don’t even use leather. I don’t even wear leather. That’s why I always have the weirdest shoes on. You know what I noticed? I always have my shoes covered in tape because I would buy these weird plastic shoes at Fredericks of Hollywood. I had to cover them with tape to make them look cool. Now down on Orchard St. and other shitty places in New York you can get a pair of $20 plastic shoes. I had to search everywhere for these shoes. I got them in a ghetto in Korea. It was a shitty shopping place but I had to find my non-leather shoes. I saw a little hut with plastic all over it, and I thought, this is the place to get shoes.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But you’re discreet about not using fur.
BENJAMIN CHO — Yeah, but I’m ready to go if someone gets cavalier and asks me why. It annoys me. People are condescending when they say I’m just carrying on from when I was a teenager. When I started, people said I’d be different at 20 or 21. I’m 31, and I’ve been a vegetarian since I was 13.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Would you consider working for another designer while at the same time continuing to do your own line?
BENJAMIN CHO — I would definitely love to take over another house. When I was younger, I used to dream that I would take over Balenciaga… Now I’m thinking about Pierre Cardin. Because Cardin uses the same weird and unusual materials that I do. So I think that I would be the best one to take over Pierre Cardin.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You should try and meet Pierre in Paris.
BENJAMIN CHO — He invited me to a dinner once in New York — this big party. But we got there so late. When we walked in he’d already left. Why would Pierre Cardin invite me? It was huge!
OLIVIER ZAHM — What about your love for Scaparelli?
BENJAMIN CHO — I feel like I could also take over Scaparelli. That was suggested twice: once in The New York Times and once in Fashion Wire Daily. The deer heads of my last collection, for example, are totally Scaparelli. The hand-knit thing is a Scaparelli kind of style. It’s right up my alley. Surrealist, whimsical sorts of things. I wouldn’t make it so kitschy, but a little more poetic. It’s also humorous, which I can relate to. I would never take over Bill Blass or Versace or a house like that. I’d like something more from the past.
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