AFM

Fashion for Track and Stream: Ross Bennett

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What do Amazon.com, homemade dog food, a little pink dress, TV reality programming, Formula One, and fly-fishing have in common? If you can answer that question, you must know Ross Bennett.

Bennett is a native Texan who has led what could be described as a charmed professional life as a fashion designer. Taken outside of his studio or his professional arena, you might not peg the guy flying down Lamar in his scruffy shorts and cap on that sweet Felt bike as one of fashion’s rising stars. Bennett, who prefers such “functional exercise” to a gym workout, is a self-described “outdoorsy guy” who enjoys spending time at the family’s ranch, fly-fishing with his wife, and hanging out with friends.

img3But for all that “regular guy” stuff, Bennett is also the high-powered, wheeling-dealing, creative force behind the Ross Bennett Collection, a smartly tailored and impeccably designed line of women’s couture. He does have men’s items in his Haberdashery collection, such as his signature bow tie, but what has drawn attention to the 29-year-old has been his form-loving, figure-hugging outfits: a little pink dress (20 percent of the proceeds go to Komen Austin); the inaugural Grid Girls outfits for last year’s Circuit of The America’s debut as Formula One’s new American Grand Prix; and a lingerie set in Episode 6 of NBC’s “Fashion Star,” which was snapped up by international retailer H&M.

Many designers talk about growing up knowing that fashion was their future. Not so Bennett. “I got into fashion because I didn’t want to go to law school,” Bennett said laughingly. His defining moment came in college; he had started summer school at the University of Texas in 2002 and was (by his account) “spending a lot of time being a frat boy” and struggling with what he wanted to do. Bennett grew up modeling—he started at age 4 and continued through high school—and had enjoyed it. When he struggled with selecting a major, his mother suggested, “Why don’t you go take a fashion class?” Bennett thought that retail merchandizing might be interesting, and what sealed the deal was the first day of class: “It was me and 500 women, and I thought, ‘This is for me.’” At that time, there were only two men in the program (Bennett, who still works closely with the UT Fashion School, said “the program is now more like 50/50”). Later on, he moved from the business side to design and took his first sewing class, a result of his interest in tailored garments. He found a mentor in one his professors, Dr. Ardis M. Rewerts: “I’d be sleeping off a frat party on the sofa in the lounge so I could get up and work in the studio early in the morning; she’d come in and wake me up, stick me with a pin or something…she taught me about math and angles, the physics of fashion…” Rewerts passed away in 2007, and Bennett said, “I knew right then that, over those six years together, learning, all the fussing and bitching and the hard stuff, that this was what I wanted to do…it was all worth it.”

img1That love of math, angles, and physics has meant that there is always an element of the bespoke in Bennett’s work. In 2008, he was watching the Oscars—it was raining, everyone was carrying umbrellas, and he thought, “Why has no one done something beautiful that can withstand the weather?” He found some Gore-Tex, constructed a fully corseted dress (“there were 67 pieces in that garment”), and took it to show at Dallas Career Day, one of the nation’s largest venues for fashion students to present designs. “I made it, out of some 400 [designers], down to the final about 48,” recalled Bennett, “but no one was really wowed. And then I heard from Rhonda Chambers.” Chambers, a well-known face in the Dallas fashion scene (a former model and owner of RSC Show Productions) and emcee at that 2008 runway show, told Bennett she was “obsessed” with his dress. She’d even tried it on and it fit “like a glove.” That’s when Bennett and his wife Erin decided to recreate a moment from the movie Sex and the City: “Remember when Carrie gets the wedding dress from Vera Wang, in the big box with the bow on it? We found a big box, printed up a label, put a bow on it, and sent it to her. She wore it to DIFFA [Design Industry Foundation Fighting AIDS event] that year.” That dress led to a call from the Texas State Fair; they were interested in having Bennett design an “all organic, eco-friendly” line for an eight-week installment and it was that exposure that led the people from the new TV reality design show “Fashion Star” to Bennett. Though Bennett was out before the final (his vintage-inspired hunting jacket failed to inspire the show’s judges and buyers), he picked up national exposure and incredible connections in the form of John Varvatos, Nicole Richie, and Jessica Simpson.

What’s given The Ross Bennett Collection an international presence are his Grid Girl outfits. Formula One has a huge following, and each Grand Prix has its own bevvy of beauties who act as ambassadors and guides to racers, owners, and the public. Their outfits are well documented on numerous fan sites, and each is distinctive to the particular track. Try to find race day photos that do not include Grid Girls holding lane signs or parading through the grounds. Imagine, then, the attention give to CoTA’s opening. Bennett researched what other Grid Girls wore and then worked to bring some of the Southwest to CoTA’s primary uniform (there are actually several different outfits worn, but the uniform can only be worn on the Grand Prix track): the winter white outfits (which are fully lined, three-piece suits) include fringe, leather, red cowboy boots, and statement necklaces. In a departure from other venues, CoTA is actually reusing these uniforms for the 2013 race but there are plans for a new outfit in 2014, which Bennett is creating. “The girls will look like a team,” Bennett said. “We’re designing five uniforms for that year, for on and off the grid. In addition to the grid uniform, there will be rain and travel outfits and a couple of dresses.” The 2012 outfits included a red dress that has been a huge hit both on the track and elsewhere, and was even used as part of the audition for selecting the 2013 Grid Girls. The 4-ply, 4-way stretch Spandex dress is worn for appearances off the grid and comes in one size, which fits sizes 0 to 6. “The grid outfits are so tailored that we can’t use them for tryouts,” Bennett explained, “so the girls come dressed in business professional for the first round; for the second round, we put them in the red dress. Women know how to hide their flaws with clothes, but that dress reveals everything.” The 2013 Grid Girls made their first appearance at the American Le Mans race series on September 21, and Bennett was involved in a tornado of tailoring as he worked to get all 50 women fitted into uniforms.

img2Though it might seem a 180 from the worlds of F1 and fashion, Bennett’s next foray is fly-fishing. He has a new line, Maven Fly (“Tackle the world in style”), which was introduced in August 2013 and contains outdoor wear for women. Erin Bennett, his wife and business partner, explained the inspiration for the line: “We have a friend who comes from that world—her family’s business is in boats—and the three of us sat down to talk. She complained that a woman’s shirt for fly-fishing was simply a smaller version of a man’s: big, boxy, with pockets on the chest, and when you cast, the shirt would ride up over the belly. Who wants that?” Bennett designed a “fashion first, function second” garment that keeps with his tailored aesthetic. All Maven Fly products are made in America, which is very important to Bennett—not just from a patriotic standpoint, but from a business perspective. He said, ”It makes sense; I can order 300 shirts and my U.S. manufacturer will have them back to me in three and a half weeks. If you get them from China, it takes months. Our tailors are a $250 round-trip plane ticket away, and they speak English.” In addition to being made in the USA, Maven Fly pieces are constructed with moisture-wicking thread, fabric with 50 plus Ultraviolet Protection Factor (this blocks ultraviolet rays, which is different from SPF, or sun protection factor), and Bennett’s trademark French stitching (this takes more time and fabric but provides better protection against unraveling). The fly-fishing shirt has two sleeve options (city vs. casting); pockets have been moved to the sleeve to remove bulk from the chest; and, like all of Bennett’s pieces, they are designed to specifically fit the female figure. There are pants, skirts, and vests as well as accessories.

The Bennetts learned how to fly-fish for a trip to the Provo River in Utah and have become regulars. Bennett finds it be relaxing and likes to tie his own flies; he showed off several, made from turkey and chicken feathers he’d collected on Erin’s family’s ranch in South Texas (“Tying flies is like meditation; it’s very creative”). Erin is a native Austinite; she and Ross met in 2002 at UT, started dating seven years ago, and have been married for three and a half. She’s a co-owner in the business and explained, “I keep his eye in check,” providing that valuable female feedback on designs. “He’s like a little kid when it comes to building collections,” she laughed. “He gets so excited.” When the two aren’t working hard on their business, they visit the ranch and love on their three dogs, two Cavalier King Charles spaniels and an American boxer. The eldest, almost ten years old, has a heart condition, which prompted the couple to make their own healthy dog food. “We’re looking forward to deer season and having some venison, “ Erin explained. “It’s nice to have that plentiful, inexpensive meat for them.” She showed a picture of the dogs’ food—and it looked pretty tasty. They had stayed up after a grueling day of travel, a family funeral, and work negotiations to make their pets’ meals.

Both of the Bennetts are excellent models for their clothing; he often looks dapper in stylish suits with his own bow tie, and she stuns in their creations. Though Bennett may pat his belly and describe himself as “skinny fat” (“What he means is, he’s not toned,” Erin responded, gently rolling her eyes), he logs around 100 miles a week riding his bike around town from their South Austin home. He’s in the process of looking for new studio space, and he’s had his eye on a building on Congress Avenue. He’s also undertaken a new role as a style ambassador for Amazon.com, and you can find his Blue Avocado-Ross Bennett bags there, though as of September 13, the popular lunch attaché was out of stock. If you see Bennett riding around town, he’s more than likely got the line’s messenger bag in red and blue strapped across his back. In November, he’ll be wrangling Grid Girls at CoTA as part of the American Grand Prix. At some point, he wants to create a line of hunting apparel. He’d like to get back into running. No matter what the future holds and where his designs may lead, one thing is certain: Ross Bennett is most certainly going big places.

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