Tastemaker Ben Chan: On Building a Retail Empire
Without exaggeration, it can be said that Ben Chan has influenced countless Filipinos in terms of how they regard local brands. For a generation that grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, when the so-called “colonial mentality”—where everything from abroad was instantly considered better—was at its peak, Ben turning his fashion label Bench into a household name was no small feat. Though appearing shy and soft-spoken in person, Ben has always had big ideas and the drive to go along with it. Asked if he ever expected his “baby” to be a smashing success, he modestly treads the middle ground, answering both yes and no. “On one hand, I was just so busy just trying to get the business off the ground, but at the back of my mind, I think I wanted it to be as successful as possible, since it had my name on it. And because my parents were able to turn Liwayway Cornstarch into a household name, I suppose, unconsciously I wanted to be able to try and achieve that kind of success.”
The master retailer at his work desk. The chairs are from MDF Italia and Herman Miller. An Andy Warhol painting hangs in the background.
Ben’s first stint as a retailer was with the furniture store Dimensione, which he put up in the mid 1980s, not long after returning from his design studies in San Francisco. He even became a partner in an art gallery, helping Evita Sarenas and Sylvia Gascon establish Finale Art File. Then, in 1987, he ventured into fashion, selling his T-shirt designs at a department store. Within a few years, Bench was big enough to attract big name celebrity endorsers. In 1991, Bench won multiple awards for one of the most memorable ads of all time, “A Day in a Sculler’s Life.” For those too young to remember, it was thoroughly groundbreaking for its time. On the open sea, a young Richard Gomez slowly comes into view, gracefully pulling on the oars of a skiff, the small logo on his shirt the only visible branding in the 30-second shot. Coincidentally, it was conceptualized by Ricky Toledo and Chito Vijandre, previous T&C Tastemakers from 2012—Ben is in very good company.
Today, Ben oversees a growing armada of brands including Paul Smith, Repetto, Karen Millen, Cappellini, and MDF Italia under the Suyen Corporation banner, spanning many industries and reaching vastly differing demographics, from the gleaming headquarters in Bonifacio Global City. Having one’s own corporate tower might be the ultimate dream for many businessmen, but for Ben, it just means “we had arrived at the next chapter of our journey. We had reached the next level. After 25 years in the family compound in Pasay, moving to BGC had a big psychological effect on us, the Bench family and all our employees. We left our comfort zone and expanded to new horizons."
A small treasured portrait with his mom sits on Ben’s work desk
As disparate as the brands in Suyen’s growing portfolio may seem, they all have to pass Ben’s exacting standards. “I have to personally like and enjoy the brand and the product. If it grabs me, if it excites me, and if my gut instinct tells me the market will like it too, then I will go for it. Our intention is to give the market the best options and alternatives, so that we have a diverse retail landscape that caters to everyone. Our brand portfolio should reflect that,” says Ben.
Expanding his horizons also meant tapping into previously unexplored territory, in Suyen’s case, going into the restaurant business, which Ben enthuses greatly about. “We were overwhelmed by the public response to Paul, St. Marc Cafe, and Maisen. The market loves top quality and the highest standards, as we have seen, and we are ready and willing to deliver more. The market deserves it!”
A section of his wall to wall bookshelf
His thoughts on taste can apply to all aspects of his businesses, from food to fashion, from the beauty industry to home interiors. “Good taste is the art of appreciation. Half of it, you are born with, and the rest of it, you develop through the years, through curiosity, education, interest, and as a way of enjoying life. Your taste keeps evolving with your experiences. Good taste is an ongoing journey.”
Source of inspiration?
Travel. The eyes have to see.
Biggest professional influence?
Most used tool for work?
My mobile phone
Things on your work desk?
Books, magazines, my favorite writing instruments, files, more files, a jar of sweets.
Favorite thing you’ve created or designed?
Bench. I even put my name on it.
Favorite way to start the day?
By checking my Instagram and e-mail.
Favorite way to rejuvenate?
By discovering new things, nice shops, good restaurants, and interesting cities.
Core Kinesis, whenever time permits.
Favorite city to visit?
I have five, at least: New York, London, Rio, Tokyo, and Stockholm.
Place you’ve never been to but would like to visit?
This year, I’ll be traveling to Bratislava, Slovakia, for the first time.
Favorite city hotel?
The Peninsula Manila.
Packs of Bench wet wipes, my black shirts, a jacket.
Any city that’s full of life, possesses a culture with character, enjoyed with good company and great food.
The Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Works of art?
Anything by Fernando Botero, Ronald Ventura, Claudio Bravo, and BenCab.
Eddie Redmayne was great in The Danish Girl.
Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine.
Lately, discovering the publications of Assouline at their maisons has been a romantic, Old World experience. Also, the Fashionable Filipinas book published by Bench about the history of the terno told through a century of photos and research.
Biggest style influence?
The Japanese aesthetic is always a good study of style.
I collect basic black tees from different brands and designers.
Favorite shoe brand and style?
The past few seasons, loafers and slip-ons with rubber soles from Valentino to Gucci to Common Projects.
Favorite fashion accessories?
A light pair of eyewear and a reliable watch.
Way to discover new products and designers?
Travel, magazines, word-of-mouth, and Instagram.
Favorite blog or website?
The Bench blog (benchblog.ph). It’s current, local youth culture online.
Favorite room in the house?
Most used item at home?
The communal dining table that can seat anywhere from two to two dozen.
Favorite piece of furniture?
My Fritz Hansen leather Egg chair and Cappellini Bong coffee table signed by its designer Giulio Cappellini.
Most treasured possession?
A portrait of my parents.
Favorite charitable causes?
I support a few. These are 6200: Mission Possible of Leyte representative Lucy Torres Gomez, which provides livelihood to the displaced Ormoc fishermen who are victims of Typhoon Yolanda by giving them boats; I Can Serve, which supports women with breast cancer; and the Philippine Red Cross. I help them with their initiatives for the Blood Bank.
Best gift you ever received?
A life well-lived.