Christopher Chaun Bennett launched his eponymous label of edgy bow ties under the name Christopher Chuan by chance. What started as a hobby to feed his sartorial style quickly turned into a full-time business after people (who are now clients) began stopping him on the street. But a business takes funds, so to make ends meet Bennett designs out of his studio apartment in Boston while doing ministry and maintenance work at his local church. And that’s after his stint in luxury at retail boutiques like Valentino and some acting gigs along the way. Since then his bow ties have been worn by Beyoncé and he’s been dabbling in handbag and ready-to-wear design. Bennett fills us in on his unconventional foray into fashion.
How did you get into making ties?
Out of necessity. There was a look I wanted to achieve for an event that I was going to…a bow tie was part of that look. I figured if I imagined something that I would find it somewhere. But when I went to look for the bow tie I had in mind, no one had it. I decided to go to a fabric store and I bought some denim and a sewing kit. I just started cutting and that’s it. I had no formal training. I was just determined…very determined.
You are known for your personal style. How did you wear that first bow tie?
The look was a white tuxedo shirt with a pleated front, a black motorcycle jacket where I removed the sleeves and converted it into a vest. Then I wore distressed jeans and I had on solid electric blue high-top Nike dunks. The bow tie was huge—it was 7 inches across.
When did you decide to make it a business?
I wanted a leather bow tie after that—naturally you graduate from jeans to leather pants, or a denim jacket to a leather jacket. I didn’t know where to get leather. I had no resources to pull from. So I went back to the fabric store and I got vinyl instead and bought lace and netting. This tie had lace overlay netting with a draped chain. I was acting at that time and I wanted to wear the bow tie to a screening of a film I was in. That outfit was a mix between premiere and film festival. I wore that tie and everyone loved it. Also, when I was in New York for a meeting and I was walking on Broadway everybody was snapping photos, which doesn’t happen in Soho, because everyone is too cool to pay attention.
Did you know what they were taking pictures of at the time?
At first I was like, “What in the world everybody looking at?” And then it dawned on me that they were looking at the tie, because like the other one it was huge. A man yelled at me from across the street and said, “Yo, man! Where did you got that bow tie?” You would imagine that it was some kind of joke, but he was dead serious. He asked me to make him one and he became my first customer. I looked up to the sky and said, “Ok God, I hear you. I’m supposed to be making ties. I’ll get on it.”
What did the tie look like?
I made it from the sleeves the leather motorcycle jacket that I had turned into a vest. I sold it to him for $60, which was a lot, especially when you wire money to someone you met on a street corner.
Did you officially begin your business after that encounter?
That was in 2009; in 2010 I really started the company. I had gone to L.A. to show a stylist a few of my ties. We had met on Twitter. He ended up taking me all over the city to see showrooms and people from other brands and everyone was really encouraging me to move forward with this. So I went back home and got serious about it and launched my website in April 2010.
Do you plan to expand beyond bow ties?
I am an artist first. Fashion design is simply a medium. Design itself is a medium. But I always had ambition for different things. I’m the type of person who, if I don’t see something that’s what I’m looking for in a store, I will go and make it. Sometimes when I wear things people literary go nuts. They want to take pictures and try things on and it became evident that the spirit of the brand is reaching many people. I recently made a robe to wear and people in the streets were really into it so I decided to start making them.
When are those going to be available?
Sometime this year. I’m also going to be doing handbags. I designed a couple of motorcycle pants in 2013. While I was in the studio and the tech designer is sewing the pants, I started looking at the pants and I began to sketch a handbag based on that pair of pants.
Who did you make the bag for?
I made it for my old boss at Valentino. She is the general manager at the Boston store. She is quite a fashionista, with lot of style. She is a Chanel, Valentino, and Cartier collector. So it was really a compliment for her to take interest in my first handbag, but the way it was purchased was more compelling. I showed her a sketch at a lunch that we had at my friend’s birthday. She made a deposit on the bag just from the sketch before I had even made it. I did a clutch for another client who wanted a bag, so for a while I was selling products through sketching and it was cool how people really believed in the images.
How have you supported yourself as you get the business off the ground?
I’ve been working at my church, Jubliee Christian Church. I went to Morning Prayer one day and there was this gentleman who saw me and said, “I was talking about you to someone yesterday and I hadn’t seen you for a while. We have this job available…” I had never spoken to him about needing a job, but I had prayed about it. I said, “Let’s kick it off!” I wanted to focus on my craft, but everyone knows the biggest challenge is the capital, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. So I started working in ministry and doing maintenance at the church.
You didn’t want to go back to retail?
I had the retail experience at the high-end level. It can be a bit taxing on your spirit because you encounter so many different energies. I didn’t want to work at a place where I needed to fight to maintain positivity every single day—so many folks who work in high-end retail know exactly what I am talking about.
What is your advice to other designers who are out there trying to start from scratch?
There are so many innovators out there who need to hear words of encouragement, because it’s an uphill battle with so many different constraints and challenges. You need to know that someone is in that fight and they see the light at the end of the tunnel. You don’t start on the top. You climb your way up and that gives you the strength to endure until the end. It’s important to stick it out and it’s OK if you are at a certain age and haven’t accomplished what you set out to do. Everyone wants to show the glitz and glamour, but people are really at their studios hiding day in and day out and pulling long nights to make it happen for themselves and for others.