"Your personality has many different aspects, and you need to find out what they are. It's a part of self-examination," says Cliff Benjamin. It's a California ethos (remember "finding yourself"?) for a home-grown nonconformist.
So far, the Many Faces of Benjamin have turned to art--painting, curating, teaching and, most recently, sales. As director of the Mark Moore Gallery at Santa Monica's Bergamot Station, Benjamin specializes in the unexpected; the gallery showcases artistic innovators from around the world and startling local choices such as Russ Meyer.
Russ Meyer? Yes, that Russ Meyer. A recent show of the auteur responsible for B-movie classics such as "Faster Pussycat, Kill, Kill" is among Benjamin's favorites. "Earlier in my career, I worked with very cerebral people like Ed Ruscha and Vito Acconci," he says. "I decided I wanted to work with people who were younger than I was, or people like Russ Meyer. Everyone in the world has lifted from Russ."
As it happens, it's the pop-culture aesthetic of underground visionaries such as Meyer and Andy Warhol--who introduced America's masses to the look of bikers, rock 'n' rollers and petty criminals traditionally marginalized by the high-culture world--that informs Benjamin's style choices: leather, vinyl or denim jeans; close-cut slacks; heavy boots; tight T-shirts and form-fitting sport shirts; and big, dark shades.
Call his fashion credo Cerebral Rebel. "I really can't see myself in Versace anything," Benjamin says. "It's not that it's bad, but it's too fancy for me." He can be coaxed into a suit if the occasion is right, though. "I do like Armani, because he fits tall people. I'm 6-1 and I have long legs. I'm hard to fit right in pants." But Benjamin's favorite designer is a bohemian local light with a store on Sunset Boulevard. "I love Henry Duarte because his clothes are very wearable, whether you're doing Up, Down, High or Low," he laughs. "They're unbelievably sexy, and he draws from so many sources that come out really clearly."
Asked to classify his own look, Benjamin says, "I sort of wear nighttime street life, I guess. I really like black. It's a cliche in the art world, but it's very comfortable for me. I wear red, white or black, mostly." He does admit to the occasional sartorial misstep. "I bought this one pair of red pants that are so low and so tight," he laughs. "You really can't wear them many places at all."
Does Benjamin ever worry that his maverick wardrobe could alienate potential customers? "I'm sure it has occasionally," he says. "But life is too short to spend your time trying to accommodate other people's expectations."