How Odile Benjamin, creative director of Raoul, learned all about fashion
A background in mathematics and management sciences is not an obvious route into fashion, but that hasn't stopped Odile Benjamin becoming creative director of Singapore-based fashion brand Raoul. In fact, it helps.
"I am a mathematician. I did maths and advanced maths and was accepted by Cambridge, but my mother said to me: "What are you going to do with maths?" She was right, I love it but what could I do with it? So I studied management sciences at the London School of Economics. I delve into the logical and theoretical side of things and think fashion is really about that. I use a lot of my analytical ability when putting together Raoul's collections.
I always had a big interest in fashion when I was young, but I had a long chat with David Sassoon of Bellville Sassoon [a former London couture business] who is a distant relative and he said, "Please don't, it's the most difficult business to get into". This was long before I met and married Douglas [Benjamin] and moved to Singapore in 1992.
Within a few months of moving Douglas asked me to join the company [FJ Benjamin Group, a fashion manufacturing and distribution business - he is chief operating officer] to start a multibrand store. So I jumped into the thick of things and learned the fashion business from the bottom up. We had stores in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia and brought in brands not available here. We then started Rachel B, our own brand, and hired an American designer who taught me everything. I had a very expensive learning process, although no more expensive than five years at art school.
We stopped Rachel B during the Asian financial crisis and I switched to the creative and licensing division of the group and started designing for Baby Guess and Guess Kids. This eventually led to the launch of Raoul.
Raoul was Douglas' brainchild and started as a men's shirting line in 2002 using European fabrics and Asian manufacturing. We created modern stores with bespoke music and a Harley-Davidson on display. We started noticing wives and girlfriends coming in and buying the shirts for themselves as well as for their partners. So we took a corner in the stores and created a small range of shirts for them, which they were picking up like candy.
As demand grew we introduced more styles, then skirts and shirtdresses. It grew organically from consumer-driven demand and we had fun showcasing white shirts with big ball skirts. The whole DNA of the brand is that it is very feminine and elegant and reflects my aesthetic. I find the 1970s is the most iconic fashion decade and I dive back into it every so often, along with some late '60s for its haute feminine flair for cocktail wear. The '70s and '90s are the decades that have the aesthetic I love. I have designers in Singapore and London, where we hold our design meetings, and an archive of 1,000 vintage pieces, which we delve into for details, shapes or prints.
It is 10 years since we launched the women's collection. We have four children, including a three-year-old, and Singapore is a small, convenient city, so it is easy to juggle things. I was born in Beirut and my family moved to Milan when civil war broke out in 1975 and lived there until 1979 before moving back to Beirut, where I had one summer to learn to speak and read Arabic again before going to school. My father died in Beirut when I was 12 in the shelling during the war so my mother, brother and I moved to London in 1984 where I finished my studies. All that travelling as a child really broadens the mind: it has been an eventful life."
As told to Francesca Fearon