THE NEXT BIG BEN
A Conversation with Indie Designer BEN CHMURA
Ben Chmura by Tyler Malone
Most reality shows just give us a few laughs, plenty of groans and a bunch of pseudo-celebrities hogging up space on the couches of our favorite late-night talk-shows. Project Runway is different, it has consistently found talented young professionals to feature season after season, and it rarely disappoints. It isn’t a show created so America can watch talentless people get completely wasted or eat bugs or fight with one another, it is a show meant to showcase the up-and-coming stars of the fashion industry. Even designers who don’t win manage to make names and careers for themselves after being featured on the series.
One such designer who just might be one of the next big things is Ben Chmura. He was one of everyone’s favorite designers in Season 7 of Project Runway because he was talented, attractive, interesting, and underrated–the perfect storm for a fan favorite. Many were disappointed when he was cut from the show because they saw exactly what Tim Gunn saw: that the “subtleties and nuances [weren't] being picked up on by the judges.” I decided to catch up with Ben Chmura to discuss the whole Project Runway experience and find out what he’s been up to since leaving Project Runway and what we can expect in the near future from one of America’s most promising indie designers.
Tyler Malone: The first thing I wanted to ask you about was how you feel–hindsight often being 20/20–when you think back on your experience at Project Runway. Do you look back on it fondly? Do you look back on it negatively? Or some mix of the two? And how do you feel it has impacted your personal and professional life?
Ben Chmura: I definitely have fond feelings about participating on Project Runway. It was a great venue for me to grow as a designer and more importantly as a person. I’m always up for a challenge and this is definitely one of the largest challenges that I’ve ever experienced! Not only trying to make it further with each challenge that they presented to us, but also trying to get along with a group of other designers that are perfect strangers. The friendships that I made through the show are incredible and I’m extremely grateful for that and the bonus was that I got to show at Mercedes-Benz last February and that was my goal when they told me I was going to be on the show.
It’s also made a great impact on my fan base. Being a designer in Tampa, FL can only benefit for so long. Eventually, the “big fish in a small pond” theory starts to take it’s toll and there isn’t any room to grow. Through the show I’ve gotten messages from people in Germany, England, Japan, Taiwan and now Australia. You can’t get that kind of notoriety by being an indie designer in the states. The show’s marketing really helped branch out to new demographics for me and that’s very important in order to expand as a designer.
TM: What were your favorite and least favorite challenges, garments, aspects of the show?
BC: My two favorite challenges were definitely the “burlap sack” and the “Marie Claire cover.” I enjoyed working with the burlap and changing the properties of a very bland and unrefined textile. By adding color and using it’s ability to build volume, it ended up being a very influential challenge to me after leaving the show. Being able to design, dye and construct a garment in 12 hours is a major feat. Especially, when you have to dry the fabric yourself using a hair dryer! The Marie Claire challenge was definitely a pivotal moment for me on the show because I came in second and gained some air-time because of it. The most gratifying moment was during my runway discussion with the judges and that was the first time that I felt they started to take me seriously.
My two least favorite were “The Red Dress” and “The Children’s look” challenges. The Red dress challenge became one of my least favorite because we had to figure out a way to incorporate the Campbell’s Soup logo fabric into a look that was appropriate for a red carpet gala. And if you recall that fabric was anything but appropriate for the challenge. It almost made a mockery of what we were trying to accomplish and that was to make these women who had suffered through very challenging times in their lives and make them feel beautiful! For the Children’s look challenge: I’m not very good with children, in fact, they scare the hell out of me. They are so spontaneous and it freaks me out. So, when all these little girls walked out onto the runway I literally almost keeled over from sheer panic! Thankfully, I had a little girl that was very quiet and didn’t run around the room terrorizing everyone like most of the designers had. So, I’m thankful for that, because the challenge would have been that much harder for me to get through!
TM: Did you watch Project Runway regularly in the seasons before you were on it? And have you watched the subsequent seasons? You can be honest, we wont tell Bravo or Lifetime…
BC: I wasn’t a fan in the beginning. In fact, I had seen the promos for it and I kept saying to myself: “You’ve got to be kidding!” But, I eventually watched an episode and I was hooked. I liked the dynamic and I thought it would be a great opportunity. I’ve watched every season before mine, except most of Season 6 because I was working on a new collection at the time and I watched most of Season 8 (even though a few of the designer were really hard to watch from a personality point of view).
TM: Moving away from Project Runway, and on to the great work you’ve been doing since, will you tell us a little about what you’ve been working on? And when and where we’ll be able to see what you’ve been working on?
BC: As soon as I finished filming I immediately came back and had to make a collection for an event that I was cofounder of in Tampa called Sweatshop. From there I got the call saying that I would be creating a decoy collection for MBFW, so I started working on that a few weeks later. After showing in NY last February I came home and a dear friend of mine started talking about collaborating on a new event and it would simultaneously be my “Farewell to Tampa” show. I presented my Resort collection in May at that event and then my husband Bobby and I moved back to NYC June 1st. I’ve been on a bit of hiatus with the move and working full-time again. I’ve sketched my new collection and I’m waiting for the right time. I’ve decided not to rush into anything and really figure out what it is that I want from the fashion industry. I also want to figure out what I can contribute to it as well. I’m working on doing a presentation for the beginning of next year when I will unveil the new look for my collection. I’m taking the time to fully understand who I am as a designer and what’s the next step in the evolution of my brand. I’m very excited about the direction that is going in and in the meantime I will be putting out small product such as graphic tees, bags (totes) and scarves like the one that I wore on Project Runway for the Marie Claire challenge.
TM: You mention now that you’re working full-time again with the move to NY which leads me to my next question: Oftentimes it is difficult to find inspiration when we’re busy and day-to-day life takes its toll, what inspires you on a day-to-day basis and keeps you going and keeps you creating?
BC: I’m ALWAYS inspired by music and literature. Which I know is a pretty cliché answer, but it’s the absolute truth in my case. I can create an entire collection based on one song. I can do the same thing with a character from a great novel. Right now, I’m reading about Sumerian astronauts/aliens and it has definitely made an impact on the direction of the next collection. I love the idea of mixing the elements of past and future together. It’s an important statement to me to make through my work. Thankfully, I never have a hard time being inspired and creating looks. The hard part is editing them down to make them all work cohesively. Right now I’m obsessed with Karen Elson’s debut album and a local musician named Son Lux. I’m always looking to collaborate with other creative minds to produce something that is larger than just one idea.
TM: Who are some of your favorite designers?
TM: If you could dress any celebrity, who would you dress?
TM: What does the future look like for Ben Chmura? What other projects are you working on and what is in the pipeline down the road a bit?
BC: Like I said, I’m taking it all in stride. I want my next presentation to be my best work yet. I have no problem taking a little extra time in order to offer that to the public and my fans. I know they’ll understand when they see the finished product. The next project I’m working on is a fashion film for the new collection. I’ll be presenting that rather than doing a live runway show. That is the evolution of this industry and I love it. It will give me the opportunity to incorporate my inspirations of sci-fi, comic book illustration and music nicely. I’m excited to be able to show my work through a different creative path. The goal is to take all of you back to the future.
Ben Chmura is a designer who was on the 7th Season of Project Runway. Originally from South Meriden, CT, Ben worked in Florida for a while. He is currently working on a new line and living in New York City.
Written by Tyler Malone
Photography by Eli Schmidt and Bradley Valentine / Courtesy of Ben Chmura
Design by Marie Havens
Ben Chmura, NYC, 2010, Photography by Eli Schmidt, Courtesy of Ben Chmura
CHMURA, Tampa, FL, 2009, Photography by Bradley Valentine, Courtesy of Ben Chmura