Face-to-face with top Filipino fashion mogul Ben Chan

FILIPINO PRIDE. Ben Chan, the man behind global fashion brand Bench chats with DAMAN editor Paul dela Merced about how to build a 30-year-old fashion empire and propel it into the future

When I first received the invitation to meet with top fashion mogul Ben Chan, it was hard not to sound star-struck. He is, after all, a national treasure, cultural icon and living legend—and that’s putting it  mildly. For my first encounter with the man, I was expecting he’d be this stereotypical CEO; but surprisingly, he is genuinely warm and friendly.

Ben Chan is a very big deal; he is essentially the Bernard Arnault of the Philippines. Starting with a small men’s T-shirt label founded 30 years ago, the tycoon has built a 360-degree fashion and lifestyle corporation that single-handedly put the Philippines on the fashion map of the world.

Bench, known for its groundbreaking and award-winning ad campaigns and proud celebrity endorsers, offers innovative head-to-toe collections that now includes womenswear and children’s wear. It has also expanded its range to scents, cosmetics, a beauty salon chain and a café. And through its mother company, Suyen Corporation, it boasts a portfolio of global franchises including Paul Smith, Cotton On, Aldo, Face Shop, and Charles & Keith to name a few.

A good 30 years later, there are no signs of stopping Bench—both the man and brand. Just how exactly does someone become a global fashion powerhouse, especially in this day and age? This is the story of why “Bench is forever.”

DAMAN: How does a day in the life of Ben Chan look like?
Ben Chan: No two days are alike for me, but I know it when I am having a good day. The best day is an inspired day. That means being able to access the right information, which leads to inspiration, which leads to right action. You’re in the flow.

My day starts with checking my phone. My mobile is like my portal to the world. Whatever I discover on social media or the news that might spark interest or excitement in me is what sets the tone for the rest of the day. For example, in Japan recently I found out on Instagram that there was a Yoshitomo Nara retrospective in Tokyo. He’s one of my favorite artists. I immediately rushed to the exhibition and surely, I was energized by what I saw. It definitely fueled my creative juices.

DAMAN: Do you think a leader should be a big thinker, a hands-on doer or both? What’s your personal leadership style?
Ben Chan: Both. I see both the bigger picture and I am also a stickler for details. I am a perfectionist. Take our latest television commercial for the “So in Love” Bench Body Spray, for example. I told the ad agency that I wanted a TVC that would strike an emotional chord among viewers, something that would touch the heart. I just gave them a broader vision of what I wanted and left it to them to execute.

To our satisfaction, the TVC went viral right away. The hashtag #amoykita even got its own memes from netizens! That’s when I zoomed in on the details and ordered production of Bench #amoykita T-shirts to ride the wave of the commercial’s popularity. In this sense I was in charge of overall vision and on the ground execution at the same time. This is generally how I work.

“Competition is tough and getting tougher by the day, but I don’t mind. I simply enjoy my work. I won’t give up on it”

DAMAN: It’s not all rainbows and butterflies with entrepreneurs. Was there ever a time you wanted to give up? How does Ben Chan keep going?
Ben Chan: I just love what I do. Competition is tough and getting tougher by the day, but I don’t mind. I simply enjoy my work. I won’t give up on it. What keeps me going is the number one perk of my job—travel. Being in this fashion business is already a pleasure, but traveling for it makes it a joy. I really can’t complain.

DAMAN: They say “Do what you love, and love what you do.” Is this your ultimate passion? Or have you dreamt of doing something else?
Ben Chan: My only other dream was to be an interior designer, which I am also doing anyway through my furniture business, Dimensione, and by doing the interiors of my stores. When I was younger I wanted  to be a flight attendant so I could see the world, and now I am constantly on the plane, though as a passenger! I am indeed very lucky to be in a position where I do what I love and I love what I do, and I am not forced to do anything I hate or that goes against my principles. I cannot ask for anything more.

Versatile on-trend styles you can wear wherever and whenever

DAMAN: How do successful people like you measure and/or define success?
Ben Chan: Obviously, it’s not only about money. I do believe that the measure of success is in the lives you have improved and the people you have inspired.

DAMAN: Bench, the man and the brand, are Filipino icons. How do you feel about this?
Ben Chan: To be an icon means you have made a positive impact on the collective psyche and you have influenced people’s hearts and minds. It means you have made a contribution to society and that you have made a difference. Being an icon is about making a mark. That happens because you had an inner vision, which you wholeheartedly believed in, and you did your best to realize that vision. That’s how an icon becomes an icon.

DAMAN: By the way, congratulations on Bench’s 30th anniversary. Today, the whole world knows about the Filipino brand. 30 years ago, was this the Bench you had imagined or planned it to be?
Ben Chan: No, not at all. I didn’t put up Bench for fame. I did it because it gave me personal pleasure to create a brand and to grow a business. That’s all.

It still gives me pleasure to this day. Running Bench still gives me so many unexpected pleasant surprises. Like last month, we flew in Brooklyn Beckham to Manila to cut the ribbon of our new flagship store. In support of his son, David Beckham unexpectedly announced the visit on his Instagram. David has 42 million followers! It gave us a sudden boost in publicity, something we did not ask for nor anticipate. Little surprises like that are what keep me going.

DAMAN: What would you say is Bench’s signature fashion style?
Ben Chan: Casual, youthful and fashionable everyday wear with its own unique flavor. You can say that there’s a Bench version of everything. We are not just basic. We interpret the trends of the season in our own way. We fit trends into the Bench lifestyle vision. We execute what’s cool or sexy now the Bench way. Our definition of fashion is our own.

DAMAN: How did Bench become the global powerhouse brand that it is today? What is the secret sauce to Bench’s power and longevity?
Ben Chan: To be global, your product has to appeal to an international market. That’s the main dish. But the secret sauce of Bench is in the marketing. It’s not enough to have a great product: You have to sell it and promote it right.

Over the years, our marketing style began to take on its own distinguishable identity. You know it immediately when it’s a Bench event, a Bench commercial or a Bench billboard. We developed the Bench touch that makes our marketing activities stand out from the rest. This is what has kept us top-of-mind, relevant and newsworthy. The Bench touch requires that you always offer something unexpected. Keep surprising the market. Keep them excited. That’s the secret behind our longevity.

DAMAN: Bench has done TV, print, and innumerable fashion shows and events. It has even created its very own fashion week—and a café. Is this the key to keeping the vision alive?
Ben Chan: The key is multi-dimensionality. That’s what makes a brand vital and alive. You don’t want to be a two-dimensional cookie cutter brand that just keeps repeating itself and that does not think outside the box. You have to keep pushing past limitations and reinventing yourself. You have to see your brand as multi-faceted and multi-dimensional. There are no limits. You can try anything and be anything as long as your core brand values are strong and true.

DAMAN: Bench is synonymous to iconic ad campaigns. Can you share with us some of the projects you are most proud of?
Ben Chan: Of course, the first one, the Sculler ad with [actor, model and politician] Richard Gomez. It was beginner’s luck, and we are still reaping the rewards of that iconic TVC to this day. The brand DNA of Bench is encoded in that commercial.

Another would be the Bench is Forever campaign that made unusual pairings with celebrities from different sectors of society. We mixed our top showbiz endorsers with politicians, socialites, charity figures, etc. The message of that campaign clearly presented Bench as a brand that appeals to all walks of life and brings people together. It presented Bench as an inclusive brand.

I’m also proud of our advocacy campaigns. A few years back we did a Valentine’s Day billboard campaign called “Love, All Kinds of Love,” which celebrated gender equality. The photos included couples from the LGBT community and it definitely caused a stir! Again, it showed Bench as forward-thinking, diverse and inclusive.

“To be an icon means you have made a positive impact on the collective psyche and you have influenced people’s hearts and minds”

DAMAN: There is a movement in retail and fashion: Diversity and inclusion—a theme most apparent in your recent perfume commercial that’s gone viral. Is this a mere strategy or something embedded in the brand’s DNA?
Ben Chan: If you look at Bench’s advertising history from the beginning we have always celebrated diversity and inclusion, probably more than any homegrown Filipino brand. Many times we might have been ahead of our time, but it’s a wonderful development that the millennial generation is embracing these values now.

There was a recent survey made amongst millennials regarding brand awareness in the Philippines, and Bench came out second only to Samsung as the brand most accepted by millennials. For us, this is a sign that millennials can relate to Bench’s brand values. I think they appreciate our brand’s celebration of diversity and inclusiveness.

DAMAN: In today’s ever-changing and ever-competitive world, how do you separate Bench from local and international brands?
Ben Chan: You have to be true to your core identity. I advocate #LoveLocal because that’s about loving who you are and not trying to be something you’re not. That is true of a person, of a brand and of a nation. I really advocate Filipino pride because I think that loving your own is the key to our country’s success. If we can only be consistently proud of who we are and how far we have come, we can do more great things as a people. I want Bench to be a model for that.

DAMAN: Retail vs. E-tail or both?
Ben Chan: Both. Your brand should not just be a trademark, it should be a total immersive brand experience. Whether you are in a brick-and-mortar store or on a brand’s website or social media account, you should be sucked into the brand’s universe. Your brand has to convey energy, and its own unique vibe. That’s the key to winning customer loyalty. That’s how they keep coming back for more.

DAMAN: What are your thoughts on the current trend of sustainable fashion initiatives?
Ben Chan: 30 years in the business and we have seen how sustainability has slowly come to the forefront of the global fashion industry. Bench has always been sensitive and responsive to developments in sustainable fashion. We keep abreast of new policies, new ethics, new consumer demands. I think it has come to a point now that you can’t be fashionable without being sustainable and vice versa. They’ve become inseparable, and we at Bench have happily accepted and absorbed this development.

DAMAN: Who are the international celebrities we can expect to see in Bench soon? Are Bench x global designer collaborations happening in the future?
Ben Chan: We’ve got some big ones in store this year that we can’t divulge yet, so stay tuned.

Our recent ones, Brooklyn Beckham and Cole Sprouse, have been enormously successful and have brought Bench closer to the millennial market. They are excellent examples of how Bench reaches across generations: Brooklyn, because he is the son of a wildly famous and successful Generation X couple, David and Victoria, and Cole, because he stars in a new TV series that reinvents the Archie Comics, which has been enjoyed by several generations already. We feel that we got it exactly right with these two, so we are excited to unveil a few more.

DAMAN: Is Bench penetrating into the Indonesian market soon?
Ben Chan: Sure. I think Bench Online would be a great way to start in the Indonesian market. We ship to Indonesia. I can see our Fix hair products doing very well there. Let’s see how we can expand on that.

DAMAN: Do successful people like you still have dreams to chase? If yes, what are they?
Ben Chan: Yes, but I wouldn’t call them dreams. I would call them visions. They just come to you in the form of inspired ideas, and it’s up to you to materialize them. There is no greater satisfaction than seeing an inner vision come to life and exceed your expectations. It gives meaning and purpose to your life. It’s a way of life for creative people, and no matter how much success you have already attained, if you still have visions and inspirations coming to you, it’s your duty to make sure that you make them a reality. At least that’s true for me.

One of Bench’s bestsellers—ultra comfortable underwear in luxurious fabrics

Photography Tony Narotama
Styling Paul dela Merced
Styling Assistant Primawan Hakim
Grooming Arimbi
Models Laurens Tolenaars and Paulo Damazio/Merry Models