Albertus Swanepoel's hats hit the international Bench mark

SA-born milliner, Albertus Swanepoel, who is best known for his hats, has created a special collection for major fashion retailer, Bench, in the Philippines. (Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images)

SA-born milliner, Albertus Swanepoel, who is best known for his hats, has created a special collection for major fashion retailer, Bench, in the Philippines. (Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images)

Albertus Swanepoel is a designer who does high and low fashion with confidence. The South Africa-born, New York-based milliner is on Carolina Herrera’s speed dial, not to mention Alexander Wang’s, Diane von Furstenberg’s and Lazaro Hernandez and Jack McCollough’s of Proenza Schouler. He once did a hat collection for mass-market retailer Target, and uptown purveyor of chic Barneys regularly stocks his line. And now Swanepoel adds another feather to his cap.

Bench, one of the Philippines’ leading mass-fashion retailers, with a reputation for being a respected, if provocative, trailblazer in the field of fashion marketing, recently launched a limited ­collection designed by the South African milliner, in time for the ­end-of-year holiday season. The 14-piece collection is sporty, spirited and very South African in sensibility, something the everyday Filipino shopper is not exactly familiar with, considering that their sporting and even style references are heavily influenced by American culture. 

Basketball, for instance, is wildly popular, and cricket is sometimes eaten as a delicacy, but never played as a sport! But that hasn’t stopped shoppers from thronging the Bench boutiques to discover the Albertus Swanepoel x Bench collaboration collection, described as bearing “the spirited drumbeat of his native South Africa and the sporting life it celebrates”.

There are pinstripes on vintage red and blue cricket caps, gingham and camo patchwork bucket hats, in addition to old-world straw hats and porkpie hats with ethnic stripes and neon African prints.
And there is an equestrian hat studded with military insignias and a varsity letter “B” for Bench, obviously. Ben Chan, the visionary entrepreneur behind Bench, confessed to being a long-time admirer of Swanepoel. 

The man behind the designs
“I’d been seeing his hats in select stores in New York for some seasons already,” he said. “And I’d also been hearing his name from a common friend. One day I saw him at a trade show/fashion exhibit and was even more impressed to meet the man behind the designs. The next day we were already off to lunch to introduce him to Bench and discuss a ­possible collaboration.”

That was around a year ago. Swanepoel, for his part, was enthusiastic about the project. Like Chan, he is a tireless traveller, and the prospect of going to the Philippines was an exciting one. He’d long heard of the country and its famous beaches from Filipino friends in New York, among them accessories designer Rafe Totengco, the man behind the Rafe New York label, and Inigo Elizalde, the creative director of Inigo Elizalde Rugs, a rug and textile design studio that is making waves in the interior design world.

“I’ve been wanting to go for years,” he admitted. “It just seemed like one of these very special destinations where the nature was still unspoilt and spectacular. What I didn’t expect to discover was how cosmopolitan Manila was, and how vibrant the retail environment was.”

Expanding the brand 
The Bench retail network spans the entire country. In Manila alone, Swanepoel’s collection debuted at the Bench stores in two premium malls, Power Plant and Glorietta 5, and rolls out soon to 25 more stores. The reach of Bench is not only limited to the Philippines. Chan has overseen retail expansion in international markets, mostly where the Filipino diaspora has a presence, such as San Francisco, Dubai,

Guam, Singapore, Shanghai and Beijing. Hollywood stars, Asian pop sensations and local celebrities regularly grace the brand’s ad campaigns, serving as “endorsers” or brand ambassadors – people such as Bruno Mars, Nicole Scherzinger, Taylor Lautner and Korean superstar Lee Min Ho.

The creative collaboration with Swanepoel could be regarded as Bench “boldly asserting its global stance”. Said Swanepoel: “I’m honoured to collaborate with Bench, a modern and very cool chain of stores in Manila. To be able to expand my brand internationally has always been a dream of mine.”

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