Merrill at 17As a teenager one of my favorite films was Great Gatsby. I watched it countless times which may have advanced my maturation process by ten years. When Jay tossed his multicolored French cuffed shirts on the bed for Daisy to admire, I was sold on Fifty Shades of Pink…..! (This was 1974 when hippies and Mad Men were not merging well). My father was in the textile industry and allowed me, once every other year, to get a suit and a few shirts made by his Hong Kong based tailor. When Gatsby came out, I knew I had to have two things before my 16th birthday:

A) A vintage Rolls Royce
B) Robert Redford’s 3-piece Irish linen winter white suit and lots of pastel shirts

I accomplished “B” quickly. “A” took two years. Finally my father took me to Sam’s Tailor in New York and we got to work on my dream wardrobe. I pulled out my GQ magazine and noted my requests and the quality of shirts. He allowed me to order the exact suit from the photo and four shirts in exquisite fabrics of pinks and powder blues.
Can you believe it?!

IMG_535341 years later, I am fortunate enough to be in Hong Kong and find Sam’s tailor shop down an alley in the middle of Kowloon, slivered in the street with a few million people. It’s really smaller than my drawing room in Charleston, but the bees hummed and the tailors tailored and the fabrics were a candy land of a designer’s passion of elegance and selection. After India, my interest fell back to the bright finishes and textures of solid cottons and stripes. So much is re‐introduced from decades ago and back in vogue, but style is always in style! The two President Bushes and Clinton had their clothes made by Sam’s Tailor along with hundreds of other famous folks. In fact, I noticed a photo in Sam’s dressing room of Churchill having his girth swaddled in Italian wool and Chinese silks, taking him onward and upward in style.

After selecting a knock off of Tom Ford’s blue silk tux with striped silk lining, they started to write up my order and asked if I was a returning client. I shared the story about New York and the beautiful clothing I had purchased several decades ago. The kind gentleman helping me left for a moment then delivered a chilled local beer and asked for me to wait. He returned with a worn, yellowed note card with the name John Kuykandall Benfield, Jr. for son, Merrill IMG_0793A. Benfield. I couldn’t believe it, they still had my account number on file after all these years from my father’s original order for my 16th birthday! When my tux was ready for fitting SIX hours later, the man noted that my information would be updated on the account and my personal number added after my father’s passing. The next day my faux Tom Ford tux was ready, my 41‐ year‐ old number stitched inside my jacket (As only Sam’s does), and off I went to Jamaica for the Sugar Cane Ball with grand memories and my hand‐tailored tux. The value of the bespoke suit is they really create a private masterpiece that understands “your body”… And prices are very fair over the price of rack clothing, thus great value. MY CREDO is always “spend well, once!”

I hope you’ve enjoyed this trip down memory lane with me. One more travel installment to come, stay tuned… this one will be the best yet!
Sent from Heaven,
Merrill

Over the school loudspeaker (we’re talking 1962 high-tech), the broadcast would come…”Merrill, come to the principal’s office now!” Not always a good omen, but fortunately most of the time it was my mother waiting for me in the office. Bebe, as my mother was affectionately known, had a penchant for pulling me out of school often, just like Auntie Mame, it was her way of “dealing” with life. She would tell the school principal she had a family matter to attend to…The family matter was shopping for plunder for the Kennedy White House .

Bebe had a style and elegance she inherited from her mother that flowed with classical ease.  Along with various other textile manufacturers in and around the South, she was on the fundraising and acquisitions committee for the Kennedy White House. Dressed in her Montaldo or Chanel, a pill box hat, kid gloves, and an oyster colored ostrich bag and matching shoes, she would toss my books in the back of her custom-ordered blue Imperial with silver leather seats and jet set off to wherever there were items to investigate.

With all her style, she was never afraid to seek out a tiny town in Virginia or North Carolina to inspect a piece that may be suitable. Dressed to the nines, she would rough it through warehouses and dusty shops, and with her Georgia manners and voice, seduce the owner into either giving the item to the project or making a grand price for purchase. This could go on for days or even a week.  When it came to me, she always said “Schools have books and they can be read anytime!”-Auntie Mame’s motto.

We were best friends and I was the sponge to any culture that she openly and patiently exposed to me.  Fabrics, antiques, wood, period design and most importantly understanding style. Our shopping trips continued even after I started  my design business at the age of 21.  She would go with me to many locations and help shove a chest in a van, haul an oversize box or give me her seasoned opinion. We had a blessed life together and she truly gave me all I know today in so many ways .

I love you and miss you Mom,
Happy Mother’s Day