IN CONVERSATION WITH MOHAMED BENCHELLAL
words and interview by MAREK BARTEK
It’s not every evening that I would be walking dressed up into the Rijksmuseum after closing hours. But Wednesday, November 29th was a special night, indeed. Het Cultuursfonds and Dutch Fashion Foundation were awarding one the promising Dutch fashion designers with The Cultuurfonds Mode Stipendium. As I was descending down the stairs into the main hall only filled with a couple of people, the Rijksmuseum never looked so grandiose.
Moments later, we were led to the downstairs auditorium for the ceremony. I sat down only to realize the person next to me is none other than the iconic illustrator Piet Paris (I know, right?!). The speeches of Hendrikje Crebolder, the director of development and media at Rijksmuseum, Cathelijne Broers, the director of Het Cultuurfonds and Angélique Westerhof, director of the Dutch Fashion Foundation were truly empowering. Three powerful women sharing their thoughts and expertise on the current state of culture and fashion, but also highlighting the success and dedication of other women from the times when, as Hendrikje pointed out, it wasn’t even allowed for them to be employed in the Rijksmuseum.
After reading the committee’s reasoning for the selected winner, Angélique continued: “We are proud to announce that the next recipient of the 12th Cultuurfonds Mode Stipendium is Mohamed Benchellal.” The room echoed in the applause and people cheering, as Mohamed walked from the back of the room to the podium. His speech was short but extremely touching and even funny. “I’d like to thank all the women who put trust in me to empower them dressed in my designs,” he opened his speech and then continued: “I would like to thank my parents, Het Cultuurfonds, Dutch Fashion Foundation, Rijksmuseum, my collaborators, friends and family for believing in me and following my journey. I would also like to thank people who did not believe in me. Therefore, I had to believe in myself.”
One more round of applause for Mohamed and he asked us to join him in the main hall of Rijksmuseum. On top of the stairs of the entrance to the galleries, stood a figure dressed in one of Benchellal’s gowns. The quietness of the nights vanished when the figure started singing opera and gestured us to follow her. Slowly she was leading us with her voice to the top floor of the Rijksmuseum, where she finished her solo, and the sound of harp and violin started to play Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals — The Swan.
In the magnificent space right outside the Gallery of Honour full of Dutch masters, we were invited to get a closer look at some of the art pieces of Mohamed Benchellal, the Dutch Master of sculpting fabrics.
You have been on a winning streak. Just to name a few: you are the winner of the 2020 Vogue Arabia fashion prize, you got the top prize for the evening wear at Fashion Trust Arabia Awards in 2021, received the Fashion Innovator Award at the 2022 Emigala Fashion Awards, BoF500 of the year 2023, and now you have just become a recipient of The Cultuurfonds Mode Stipendium by Het Cultuurfonds and Dutch Fashion Foundation. How does it feel being recognised year by year by these organizations and what does it mean to you?
I’m very happy that my work is being recognised internationally but this being the only Dutch fashion award means a lot to me. What is really special about this new prize is that it’s from the place where I was born and grew up. That makes it different from the other ones, it hits really close to home.
Before all this success poured in, you studied at the Amsterdam Fashion Academy, and started the label in 2015, with almost no funding. Many would first go to other design houses and only start their own brand later on. Why did you decide to do this, despite maybe not the ideal situation?
Designing is like breathing for me. It’s something I really need to do, and from a very young age, I saw it as a calling. When you discover as a young kid that you’re good at something, that you can actually do things with your hands, you want to make it your work. Today, it doesn’t really feel like work, it’s really a part of me. I see it as something essential.
Back then, I didn’t know where to start, I never followed any roadmap. I just have been growing very organically and did something that was uniquely me, and for that reason, I just had to keep going. You will always find a way to discover something that you really love, to figure out what works for you, and just go along with it. For me, it’s always been design. It’s that dialog I have with myself when creating these dresses, these gowns, these sculptures. It’s something very personal and I never really thought about how I can make a living out of it, or how to do the business side of it. When you work in the creative field, you just become very resourceful and very creative to find solutions.
You mentioned that this passion links to your experience from a young age. What made you fall in love with fashion in the first place?
I come from the era when we all watched Fashion TV Channel. It always looked very glamorous but also seemed like such a faraway thing. I was just amazed by seeing these models walking down the runway and the theatrical part of it. And that’s something I’ve always wanted to do, to create my own dream world. Fashion really allowed me to do it, and let me escape from reality.
Benchellal is not only your label’s name but also your family’s name, carrying the meaning “son of waterfall.” Has this meaning impacted the way you approach design?
Absolutely! When I look back, I have truly embraced being the son of the waterfall. I really feel like life and the journey is about following the stream of the water, with all its turns and twists. It’s really like in the landscape of design or business or fashion or anything else for that matter — trying to find your own way.
It’s very beautiful that it has that meaning of finding your own way. I sometimes feel like I’m on my own different planet that I’ve created myself. I have come to see life as a waterfall, as the water flowing and I just go with the flow. Literally.
Could you give us an insight into your creative process when creating couture?
It’s kind of a magical world because I never know what I’m going to make. I never sketch, so for me, it really starts with the material. The amount of material dictates the outcome of the design, so it’s a big surprise for me, too. I think it’s really nice to not limit yourself to pre-thought out ideas and then have to make it.
It’s really important to make, discover and allow yourself to make mistakes because in the end you will end up with amazing solutions. There is a lot of magic happening in the design process that is hard to explain. It’s very uniquely mine. For example, all the pieces that I make have been touched by my hands. I never know what the outcome will be but I do know what I stand for and what I like. There is no specific concept or inspiration. In a way I am the inspiration. My eyes, everything I see, everything I experience, the people I meet, the places I visit, it’s very much like a back up in my brain that can lead to design.
This design approach is very specific, however, if you don’t have any kind of defined final product on a sketch or somewhere else, how do you know when the gown is ready?
The thing is, I don’t believe that the dress is ever finished. I can spend 20 hours just deciding where a button needs to be, and I love that dialog with myself. I love to endlessly re-define, and re-sculpt, and take ideas from the creations I’ve made previously and reintroduce them.
Do I present it as finished? Yes! I can take a little distance from it and share it with the world, but for me it’s very much an ongoing story. If I take my last dress and compare it to the first dress I ever made, it’s an ongoing story. It’s never a chapter that finishes, that’s why I also don’t believe in collections. I don’t have a Fall/Winter or Spring/Summer because I think the entirety of the whole body of work is one collection.
You are Dutch born and raised, but something very important to acknowledge is that you have Moroccan roots. How do you get inspired by and incorporate your Moroccan heritage into your designs?
My Moroccan roots definitely play a role in my work. We always work very hard and in a Moroccan mentality, everything we do is larger than life. A wedding lasts a week, or a typical Moroccan dinner is really huge. Everything is very over-the-top, and I can reflect that into my work. If I want to make a dress with a 20 meter train, I do it. So in that way I’m very inspired by where I come from because it keeps reminding me, the sky’s the limit.
Your designs aren’t only beautiful but also sustainable, which all started with you using deadstock fabrics during the beginnings of your label. Why is it important for you to keep this legacy?
I always find it funny because people mention it as if it was a choice for me to save the world, to be an activist. The thing is, I didn’t have the funding to actually buy these expensive fabrics, so I had to do my work with all the scraps of everybody else. And if I wouldn’t have used them, they would’ve been destroyed, burned or end up in a landfill. For me, that was the only material I could afford to do my designs.
That’s how I’ve been working from the very first day, and I kept that because it presents a moment of surprise. You never know what fabric and how much amount of it you get, and I feel like that has a very beautiful influence on the work.
I’d never let money or the funding stop me because if I didn’t have it, I would have to be very resourceful and creative. It became the hallmark of my brand and I can’t imagine doing it any other way. At this point it’s such an important part of my nature, I wouldn’t know what to do with a very expensive piece of silk.
This Award doesn’t come only with the trophy but also a cash prize of 50,000 EUR. The Vogue Arabia Fashion Prize has enabled you to create your first ready-to-wear collection for the retailer Net-a-Porter. Do you already know what possibilities you are going to explore with this award and the money that comes with it?
I never design to sell more dresses. I already found out a long time ago that I don’t need to dress the whole world. These are very unique pieces, and they are not for everyone. So for me, money is really not the goal but rather a tool to be able to do what I do. Regardless, It’s truly amazing to get this amount of money to be able to continue my calling of empowering women and making them feel beautiful in my designs.
When I did the Net-a-porter collection, it was really interesting simply because it was such a different way of working. The collection was truly a success and we sold out in a few hours. But I also found out that I don’t want to measure the success of my brand with sales. I want to measure it by focusing on the design, instead of just stocking the world with more garments.
To understand that, what I’m doing is really my passion. It’s not just a business in the sense of making money. So I would not want to make difficult choices in terms of aesthetics just to make sales. To be able to compete I’d have to produce so much in order to make a profit, it’s not even interesting. I am very happy as long as I can design whatever I want without having to make any concessions for anyone, and especially not for the industry.
Your work has been worn by some high profile celebrities during the events: Billy Porter, Camila Cabello, Sharon Stone, Alicia Keys, even Iris Apfel wore your gown for her 100th birthday. You have also collaborated with Dutch model Marpessa Hennink and it seems it’s only going to get better. What is your ultimate dream when it comes to you as a fashion designer, your brand and your art?
I often get asked: “What is your dream and what will you work on? What are your goals?” And I really found out that I am living my dream. If I can wake up every day and design whatever I want, that is living the dream for me, so I don’t really have a very specific goal to reach. I definitely wouldn’t want to jinx it but I think it’s very beautiful and very organic journey, and it’s full of surprises. For me, it’s also surprising what’s on the other side or what will happen next.