Entering the Benheart store on via della Vigna Nuova (or indeed the other Florentine store on via Calzaiuoli), visitors are greeted by a friendly ciao and a warm welcome before they notice shoes stuck to the ceiling, bags dangling next to vintage suitcases and plants popping up to add a homely touch. Enticed to dive deeper into the leather goods on show and the tale behind them, we spoke to Hicham Ben’Mbarek and were stunned to learn his awe-inspiring story.
Born in Fes, Morocco, Ben and his mother left their home and travelled clandestinely by boat to reach Italy, where they found themselves in Florence. “On the first night, we slept at the station because there were no mobiles in 1987 and we had made a plan with someone who never showed up. After that, we got help from various people and associations, and then my mother found work, so we got documents and I went to school. I left school very early because my mother needed my financial help and I started working in a bakery. My passion, however, was fashion, and I spent what little savings I had on clothes. My friends would tease me and call me stilista (designer) because I would wear my hair in certain ways and I was always keen on dressing well. Then I started to work with a shoemaker near our home, and I learned how to work leather.”
The leather connection between Fes and Florence made the city the perfect home for his interests. “Fes is known internationally for its leather, as is Florence. I started doing little bits of work, and then unfortunately, or as I prefer to view it, fortunately, I had a heart attack and collapsed on a football field. The good luck is that the ambulance had a defibrillator. After that, I spent seven months in hospital waiting for a heart transplant that saved my life. I always like to say that it’s true that I was born in Morocco, but I do fashion in Italy, and my heart comes from an Italian.”
The success story truly started when, bit by bit, he saw interest in his work grow. “I opened my first shop in via il Prato, paying 800 euro a month in rent. I called my store Ben, my name, which means ‘son’, and then ‘heart’ because of my story. The logo is a key with a stylized heart that represents the opening up of the world, a key that opens up destiny.”
His Florentine patriotism is clearly felt, and even visually expressed through the tattoo of the giglio (Florentine lily) he proudly shows off on his calf. “I’ve always been Florentine. There’s never been a time I’ve felt so Florentine. For me, there is Florence and then everything else.”
With handmade in Italy bags, belts (custom-made on the spot), shoes and more, I was curious to find out their most-loved creation. “The first product I began with was a jacket, so that’s certainly significant, but sincerely I couldn’t pick what’s our most popular product. One important aspect is that we do things to measure, maintaining our philosophy of traditional artisanal craftsmanship. If a client wants a particular jacket, we’ll make it for them in their size, and we do shoes up to size 51. We made a jacket for Tim Duncan, a former basketball player, and we also made one for Mike Tyson and Barack Obama. We offer lifetime assistance and a 60-day guarantee, and we’re happy to add or change any detail on your chosen garment.”
His determination to succeed in a difficult city, given the stiff competition and long-standing tradition, was a significant hurdle. “Hard from one point of view, but almost impossible from another. It wasn’t easy, but my desire to overcome the difficulties of my life from when I was a child opened my eyes to the world. I put into practice everything I knew, with great results. From one employee, we went to two, and then three, and today there are 35 employees at Benheart, and 250 who make their living thanks to Benheart. I’ve done television interviews and spoken to young people to encourage them to follow their dreams. For me, this is a dream that I get to experience every day. It’s not a business, it’s a passion. We have 12 stores across the world, including Beverly Hills and Tokyo. The next one we’ll open will be in Paris, and the dream is to open one in New York.”