New York-based Benjamin Scheuer is best known for his heartbreakingly personal and boundary-pushing one-man musicals (his latest show The Lion just closed a wildly successful Off-Broadway run and is soon headed for a national tour). While the singer-songwriter-producer’s creative output includes six awards, two albums, a photography book, and performances on multiple continents, he is also a self-educated expert on tailoring.
The serious-minded dandy opened up to The Aesthete about his complex and subversive relationship to style, the roots of which lie in England at Eton College (the alma mater to many British kings and heads of state), Savile Row, and hospital rooms.
Mary Fellowes: You are subverting a Savile Row-esque three-piece suit with fetish boots today — it kind of reminds me of that lyric of yours ‘Inside my paws I have devastating claws.’ Talk me through the look.
Benjamin Scheuer: I like subversion in clothing — a gentleman in the country suit and pairing it with S&M boots from The Leather Man, a sex shop on Christopher Street in the Village. We needn’t only self identify in just one way. We can belong to many different groups — everybody does, and our clothing can be demonstrative of that.
MF: How would you describe your relationship to fashion and style?
BS: Fashion has never particularly interested me, but style interests me very much. I don’t buy that many clothes — I’ll get a suit or two a year, and that’s really it; but it’ll be the most beautiful suit, where I choose every detail, and it fits perfectly. It’s exciting for me to make things because that’s what I do for a job: I make songs on the guitar, I make stories with words, I make theatre, I make records, I make films, I make books; so it seems like such a natural revolution to work with people that know how to make clothes.
"Through tailoring I learned to become a better songwriter."
MF: Who are the biggest influences on you sartorially?
BS: At the moment, my two biggest inspirations fashionwise are Frank Loesser and Trent Reznor. Frank Loessor wrote Guys and Dolls and I love his whole motley crew of sharp dressed, checked coated men, denizens of New York. And Trent Reznor is the mastermind behind the band Nine Inch Nails. I love how clothing can help create that world along with lights and instrumentation, lyrics, and what you play on these instruments.
MF: Totally. Even in the animated video of your track “The Lion” where you sing about the generations of your family, the lions themselves are partially dressed. One in tailored pinstripe pants, one in a necktie, and so on. Was that an autobiographical nod?
BS: Yes, absolutely. The song goes through four generations of my family: my great grandparents were murdered in Auschwitz, my grandfather died of alcoholism, my father who died of a brain aneurism, and I got cancer — but didn’t die — I was the first of the four generations to not die. Because the video is animated and monochromatic, just cardboard and black sharpie, costume was very important for each character as defining characteristics… And clothing also has a lot of power because when we can’t choose what we want to wear, part of our ability to create our own identity is taken away.
MF: I read recently that you felt engaging with clothing really helped you when you had cancer. How was that?
BS: I was photographed once a week by Riya Lerner through my chemotherapy, and in [the] hospital everybody is wearing their green gown so you look like a hospital patient. Whereas when you can choose what you want to wear, you can look a bit more like yourself. One of the things I could do during chemotherapy was choose what I was going to wear; one of the only things I had control over. I started taking extraordinary pleasure in the knot in my tie or the color of a button hole. It was during that time, in the middle of chemotherapy, that I met Kirk Miller, who was the first person to make me a suit. I could go and pick buttons at his shop so I could focus on the small things. I realized that the details in a suit were much like the details in a song — the more minutia you could focus on, the more of a piece of art it became. Through tailoring I learned to become to a better songwriter.
MF: What about growing up? Have you always had a keen eye for style?
BS: I love dressing up and have since I was a little boy. Halloween was always my favorite holiday, because it allows us the opportunity to pretend in front of the whole world and they don’t think we’re crazy. One of the reasons I like theatre is that you get to pretend — even when I’m playing myself, part of me is still inhabiting the character of Ben and that’s kind of pretending. So style and costuming are linked. When people say that they have nothing to wear, what they really mean is that ‘I don’t have the right clothes to be the self that I want to be.’
MF: You spent part of your childhood in England, notably at Eton where the all male pupils still wear tailcoats. How much did that period influence your relationship with style and taste? Surely there is a connection between that and all the suits and tailoring you love.
BS: Yeah, the first time I was told what I had to wear was at Eton. I didn’t like the trousers they gave me, so I went to a tailor and had a pair of school trousers cut in cashmere, because I liked that material better.
"When people say that they have nothing to wear, what they really mean is that ‘I don’t have the right clothes to be the self that I want to be.'"
MF: How did that go down? I don’t imagine that well, as that place is rigid and about as formal as an institution gets.
BS: Well nobody knew that I wasn’t wearing the school issued ones, they looked the same, the material was just a lot nicer… Another time we went on a school choir trip to Florence in Italy. I tried on a shirt in Gucci and it was beautiful, grey-green thick material, with solid angular geometric cuffs and beautiful gasoline-colored buttons and a fabulous shape. When I put it on I looked better, felt better, stood up a straighter and smiled a little wider… So it was a conversation piece; people would say ‘Where did you get that? That looks cool.’ And that happens everyday as I walk down the street. The other morning I had a woman ask, ‘Do those boots take a long time to put on?’ and I said, ‘Yeah they do take a long time to put on.’ And we had a conversation about it. It was nice. I make friends.
MF: I know you only perform in suits. How are they made so that you can move?
BS: The suits in which I perform are cut specifically for me to be sitting in a chair. The left leg of the trousers is cut differently from the right leg of the trousers because the guitar always rests on my right leg. The left pocket of the trousers is sewn shut but the right pocket is open because I need guitar picks in there. The sleeves are attached differently to the body, the right arm and the left arm attach themselves differently because I hold my arms differently when I play guitar.
MF: And what about how the suits sit in their environment? I imagine you pay a lot of attention to those details too.
BS: For The Lion, we sent a swatch of the fabric that we thought might make the suit in to the set designer, and to the light designer, and to the director. The set designer needed to work out what color paint the set was going to be painted, so he helped us choose the fabric color. The light designer wanted to see how the fabric would reflect light. Similarly, the button holes on the suit are bright purple, which in person looks a little strong, but on stage and under the lights look elegant and beautiful.
"I sang in a funk band called FinkFankFunk. I was really skinny, I did makeup. I had purple hair and a pierced bellybutton."
MF: What are your other style signatures, off stage and on stage, that might not be so noticeable?
BS: Well, clothing, for me, is a way to feel closer to the people I know. My grandfather’s brother, Jim Scheuer, was a congressman here in New York City for 13 terms, back when congressman used to dress really cool. He used to wear pocket handkerchiefs; when he died I got his collection of them. When I wear one of them, I feel connected to my family and my family history. So clothing allows that. And after my father died I’d wear my his clothes, which allowed me to feel connected to him. I buy ties for my brother Adam who works at the London Stock exchange. Whenever he wears them he feels connected to me and feels happy. Sometimes I’ll buy two of the same tie, and we’ll wear them on the same day and that’s fun.
MF: You seem so sure of yourself with your style. Are there any times where something stylistically didn’t work?
BS: Oh yeah, I sang in a funk band called FinkFankFunk. I was really skinny, I did makeup. I had purple hair and a pierced bellybutton. I thought I was soooooo cool. But it’s very possible I’ll dye my hair again for my next show, which is about forbidden sexual desire, about how the things we want most are the things we’re least comfortable asking for. I’m going to look at kink and BDSM, that’s an aesthetic that I really like as well. These boots are hinting at my next show.