Anyone who has been to Istanbul will tell you that there's no other place in the world like it. Built on two continents, here you'll find a cultural blend of European and Asian influence — or Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman. There are some brands that own certain cities (Supreme, New York; Stüssy, LA; Palace, London) and Turkey's sprawling megalopolis is undoubtedly Les Benjamins' town.
Headed up by Bunyamin "Benji" Aydın, Les Benjamins is a family affair (in a literal sense, given his wife, Lamia, looks after the womenswear arm). Now a decade old, its thriving existence is proof that this business is a marathon, not a sprint. Aydın is one of those rare types who lives for the dope things in life — an unabashed nerd who will just as happily bro out over G-wagons, sneakers, and high luxury, as he would on where to find the best döner kebab in town. At the label's store, you'll find the usual bunch of cool kids hanging out, and it's pretty obvious how they've managed to cultivate such a loyal following. When it boils down to it, Aydın and his team are one of them.
This summer, Aydın undertook one of the biggest challenges of his career, having been tasked by Nike to design the uniforms for Turkey's Olympics team. After working with the likes of Coca-Cola and PUMA in the past, Les Benjamins is no stranger to a bumper collaboration. Yet there's something special about making clothes for your country that will be seen by billions across the planet. No pressure, then.
This year's Olympics promises to be one of the most stylish yet. There's Team Liberia, who will wear gear designed by Telfar, while Kim Kardashian's SKIMS has been announced as the official undergarment supplier for Team USA. Competition for the sartorial gold is fierce, and Aydın wasn't leaving any stone unturned in his quest for the medal. He looked to Turkey's past for inspiration, fusing its legendary heritage in rug-making with Nike's cutting-edge technology.
"On my design journey, I've visited Usak, which is a major city center of Anatolian rugs," explains Aydın. "Meeting the local carpet weavers and talking about the heritage and meanings behind each symbol was an insane experience for me. They asked me to sit down and start weaving my own carpet and it hit me right there that, actually, carpet making is very similar to pixel art. Every yarn you see on the carpet has been woven by hand. There is a Turkish saying that goes: 'The kid that has woven this carpet became blind,' which describes how hard it is to make carpets and get each yarn geometrically right. It's art meets math!"
"Beautiful" is an adjective that feels almost grandiose when talking about sportswear, but these aren't your average tracksuits. The tonal mosaic monogram could so easily err on the side of too much, yet they've been executed with just the right amount of subtlety. They look modern and fresh as hell. There's also a cool easter egg where each pattern represents one of four pillars: authenticity, unity, creativity, and diversity.
"Carpets and rugs are essential to our heritage and each region has its own variation and style," continues Aydın. "What I personally love about carpets is that each one tells a story, and by looking at the symbols and color combinations, you can tell where it's from. Researching and collecting carpets have played a big role as a source of inspiration. Les Benjamins' monogram is a carpet pattern and the most identifiable pattern of the brand. Some people don't like carpet patterns on clothes, and it's totally fine. I personally love transforming something old into new by playing with silhouettes, colors, and fabrics."
Seeing your work on the backs of sports royalty must be a cool feeling, but having them appear on the livery of a plane is another thing entirely. Aydın's designs appeared at 40,000 feet when the Turkey team flew out to Tokyo this week, bringing a whole new meaning to the idea of blue-sky thinking. Think of it as the magic carpet.
As for what's next, Aydın hopes his work can act as a springboard for sports brands to be even more daring in the future. "I think that most sports apparel needs innovation, not only in technology and sustainability, but also in how we approach the aesthetic," he explains. "I really think that the sports industry has to redefine and be more daring. I'm so lucky and happy that I got to design the Turkey kit for Tokyo 2020. I'm sure that projects like these will allow other designers to redefine new contemporary forms of sports apparel." Here's hoping.