The political situation in Turkey is headline news around the world now, but it's been a fact of Umit Benan's life for at least the last decade, as the Ottoman essence of the Turkey he loves has steadily drained from public life. For him, that essence embodied a cosmopolitan elegance, a gentlemanly liberalism, and he wanted to pay it suitable tribute. It was a testament to Benan's ability as a designer that his clothes managed to carry the weight of his serious intent so successfully. That was because they fully communicated a sense of the life lived by the men who might wear such stuff.
In that respect, Benan's best friend was his sense of theater. It's always been that way—his presentations have unfailingly provided some of the most memorable moments of Milan's menswear weeks—but there was something special, more felt, less studied, in today's show. Its title, Efendi, referred to an old Ottoman honorific, something like "sir," and Benan re-created the atmosphere in which such a character might socialize, a kind of gentlemen's club, with raki flowing and traditional music provided by renowned percussionist Burhan Öçal and his band.
Benan re-created the characters, too, commissioning La Scala to model masks after faces he remembered from old Turkish movies. Each of them had a fez and a mustache, which fascinate Benan as almost cartoonish clichés of Turkish masculinity. True, there was an element of cartoon, but mostly the masks were a macabre-ly effective way to enhance the theatricality. They also helped to highlight the character in the clothes: Here, the formality of a three-piece suit in a Prince of Wales check worn by a gray-bearded gent; there, the slouch of a boldly striped duster, its wearer a man whose mask looked a little less reputable; then the substance of a bonded blouson in a deep garnet red sported by a young(-ish) buck. Both aspects of Benan's own design personality—the tailor, the dandy—were in full effect.
Last night, Miuccia Prada showed a collection that also had a political heart, and it, too, was staged with the same kind of cinematic flair that we saw in Benan's show today. The substance, intellectual and emotional, that both designers brought to their presentations has added some desperately needed muscle to the week in Milan. It may even have thrown down an interesting gauntlet for a city that seems ready to give itself a good shake, fashionwise at least.