Where: London, United Kingdom
As a kid…I always wanted to have my own T-shirt making business. That was the one consistent thing. And it kind of changed along the way. I thought I’d end up working for someone first and then start my own business.
Early beginnings…My favourite subjects at school were art and science and I was good at maths naturally. I had an amazing art teacher in my first year of teaching GCSE art and she was so enthusiastic and got me into art and design. After school I did an art and design foundation course, which included photography, fine art, visual communication, art history – a bit of everything. At the time, I wanted to do a degree and further my drawing skills and become a painter. Then I went to art college and didn’t particularly like my tutor and didn’t like the whole set up of the fine art studio so went into printmaking, silk screening and etching.
The road to fashion/accessory design…After college, I knew I didn’t want to be a painter so I started doing a few different work experiences. One of them was for a company who made printed T-shirts. They weren’t very hi-tech but their T-shirts were selling really well in Urban Outfitters and quite a few other places. They created their designs quite primitively – running to the post office to photocopy images and they used a lot of Tippex! Their office was a makeshift space and the experience made me realise that running a business was something I could do.
At the time, one of my friend’s was doing an internship with a photographer who worked next door to Russell Sage. I’d seen Russell on a late night show and liked his collection ‘So Sue Me’. My friend knew him, introduced us and I ended up working for him for a bit.
Then I went on a complete tangent and went halves on some silk screening equipment with a friend who’d been on my course. We started a printing studio and created studio spaces in the space and rented them out. My idea was that I’d end up using the silk screening equipment to do my own work but in the end I was just a glorified landlady who collected rent and worried about having all the spaces filled. And my friend and I went our separate ways because neither of us was very happy after running the printing studio for about two years. Initially, I didn’t want to start a business on my own but decided to stop faffing around and just get on with it. It seemed really scary at first but I knew I had to do it.
Conquering the fear…My DIY instinct kicked in. I found a brilliant financial advisor who helped me out in many ways and introduced me to the owner of a little shop on Redchurch Street called Made by Hands. I showed her my embroidered jumpers and she ordered a few. And I showed another shop called Wink my stuff and they ordered 20 embroidered jumpers, which took ages to make! And I applied for funding from the Princess Trust, which helps young businesses, and that’s how it all started.
Confidence tricks…After I saw the way the T-shirt company ran their business out of what was basically a shed, I knew it couldn’t be that difficult. They had stockists all over the world and didn’t even have a printer or a scanner. The fact that they were so disorganised gave me faith that I could do it.
The hurdles…Lacking confidence in myself and my work. I always think everything I do is a bit crap. That’s my biggest obstacle. And I’m a big procrastinator – I’ll clean out the freezer or make cushion covers when I should be doing important things. Another big thing is that I didn’t know what I wanted to be called for ages. Russell Sage was the one who gave me some great advice – he said that you need a name with a story behind it. And he liked Bena the best. It’s my mum’s Anglicised nickname – people in Maidstone couldn’t pronounce her real name. And Pete over here helped me too. He said, “Right, you don’t like your logo or the look of your label” and designed my logo, the brochure and pushed Bena to the next level. That was probably the best thing ever. If he didn’t do that I would have still been faffing around with a shit logo feeling embarassed.
Life-changing advice…Don’t be so negative. I’m always underselling myself. But I’m getting better. Any experience, whether positive or negative, can give you something to take away and teaches you something valuable.
Inspiration…I’m a hoarder and very sentimental although trying to be less so. Binning stuff is good therapy. But my inspiration can be anything, vermin for example. When I first moved to London I became obsessed with rodents and pigeons. I think it was because coming from where I studied, which was a very clean and twee place, London is full of rubbish and crap so I think I got a fascinated by that.
I like going to charity shops, markets and junk shops. I’m a bit obsessed with hoarding imagery. I like collecting 1950’s magazines for their illustrations. I used to like going to the V&A library and Barbican library, which are both very cool. You can easily get a temporary visitor’s pass and photocopy galore. But now I tend to get an idea and think of a word and just Google it and see what comes up. And that’s how I end up going on tangents. One thing leads me to the next.
I tend to go to a lot of art exhibitions and wonder around London a lot too. Just wondering around here is great for inspiration in itself. I like people watching in town, walking along the river, going to the British Museum, Oxford Street (which I love and hate). If you work at home on your own all day it’s quite nice to get out and wonder around in the madness.
To follow in your footsteps…Anyone can do something creative. After seeing how the first company I worked for did things (and were really successful as a result of very little), I don’t think it requires much effort. I’ve seen really impressive fashion collections then gone to the designer’s studio and been disappointed because it wasn’t as grand as I imagined. Sometimes people you admire are so disorganised and not as talented as you think. It’s all an illusion. You can do anything you want from wherever you are.