Charles Harbison is the talented New Kid on the Block. New York’s ‘ones to watch’ has already received great recognition from editors of many US publications. Style.com,Vogue, Elle all love his sensibilities and color play, which are in fact amazing. Although, getting noticed is a huge step in the right direction, unfortunately accolades never pay the bills. This is a challenge most talented up-and-coming designers are facing. Big retailers are no longer taking chances on new talent because they want to see if the brand has staying power. How one deals with this double-edged sword is what separates successful talent to those being placed in the “remember that designer” category. So, how does one keep on keeping on without having to panhandle on the subway? That is the question Charles Harbison was struck with when embarking on his SS15 collection. After brainstorming with his mentor Patrick Robinson, he embarked on his Kickstarter campaign to help fund his future collections, and get his feet wet in the e-commerce stratosphere. IDOL chat’s with Charles to discuss his Kickstarter campaign, the challenges of being a young designer, and who is the Harbison girl.
Tell us a bit about your upbringing.
I am from the foothills of North Carolina. Working class boy, my mom was a toolset maker in North Carolina. She worked on the line building sets for almost 20 years. My dad was a professional football player, but he injured himself and now works as a football coach for a university. I had a bit of a sporty upbringing, outdoorsy, we spent a lot of time outside, and spent a lot of time in the church. Your typical Southern upbringing. All those things were apart of my upbringing.
How did you fall into fashion?
Growing up as queer little boy, it’s how my mom and I spent time together. We’d go to the mall and I loved those times with her. Basically, she felt more elegant dressed up on the weekends with me at the mall, and I could tell she felt better about herself. I really enjoyed those interactions and came to love shopping, clothes, colours, and all the fun things we would come away with.
In school I was always the smart kid, artistically inclined, and loved math, so I thought architecture would be the direction I would go in. Then when I touched fabric and paint in my freshman year design studio, it just grabbed me in a way that I couldn’t let go. I felt like it started bringing up a lot of those references from my childhood that made me so happy. I was reacquainted with those things. I then transitioned over to Fine Arts and Painting and picked up a Textile and Chemistry degree thinking I would be either a Fiber Artist or a Textile designer. I love to learn! I want my intellect to permeate every aspect of my life. Then I went abroad to study textiles and I just felt fashion was something I wanted to give a try. So, I moved to New York, and enrolled in Parsons.
You’ve had stints at Michael Kors, Jack Spade, and launched Billy Reid’s womenswear collection. How have those experiences shaped you as a designer?
I picked up some really signature things along the way. For example, Michael [Kors]taught me how to make clothes for a customer. I learnt how to think about her, how to cater to her, to really define who she is, and continuously service her. I had this amazing connection to American sportswear. Just the ease, the sporty nature, the ability to live in luxury. From there I went to Luca Luca for a moment and it was wonderful because I got to connect to all this wonderful Italian fabrics that I love, like Jacquards and embroideries, and all those things. I was able to have a connection to that. When I went on to Billy Reid, I was able to touch a younger customer that I related to on a heritage level being a Southern Boy. That Tomboy girl who’s the most beautiful one on the baseball field and the only girl, yet can hold her own. I felt like I was really able to connect to that customer’s sensibility at Billy [Reid]. Walking into Harbison I bring all those things to the table and seek to build it into a cultural connection to colour and pattern that I have as black American.
When did you feel you were ready to start on your own?
I never felt I was ready to go on my own! I turned 30, and felt my quality of life wasn’t on the trajectory that I wanted to be on. I bought a bike and explored Brooklyn, started yoga, travelled, and really wanted to figure out how to be good to myself in the midst of this industry. In taking that time away, it made sense to give it a try now. I wasn’t sure if this situation would ever present itself again. If Harbison didn’t work I could always go back out and get a job, but I’m relatively young, I have an Idea, and I know some stuff. So, why not? I have a girl that I love and felt that the industry wasn’t paying attention to.
Who is the Harbison girl?
My girl is one who is unabashedly connected to the complexities of her femininity. She loves the fragility of being a women, but is really connected to her commanding nature. She’s fun, energetic, intellectual, and focused. She’s a nurturer, but also a leader. I love the combination of femininity and masculinity. I don’t like that those things become engendered. That fragility and gentility is feminine and strength, and direction is masculine. Like, she would wear a dress with a lace-up shoe or heels with a double-breasted blazer and an easy trouser. She will go into the office in an easy silk pajama suit with a jacket on top and define her femininity by her terms while looking expensive and luxurious at the same time.
Talk to me about your inspiration behind spring?
Spring was a fun season. Fall 13 was more serious as were the references. I wanted spring to be more happy. I looked at things that made me happy in that moment, and that was everything Aaliyah had ever done, some Slim Aaron’s photos I found, and Katherine Hepburn in Montego Bay in a Rolls Royce surrounded by locals. That’s where I got the idea about the African Diaspora. On one hand, it’s a clear reflection of colonialism, and on the other hand the irony and wrongness of it was intriguing. So I felt that it was an interesting mash-up and filtered that in. I loved Klein Blue and Yves Klein. Not only the blue, but the trifecta of colours he primarily worked with, which were blue, magenta, and gold. Pull all that together in a mash-up and that’s how you get Spring14.
What are your thoughts on being put in a “Black Fashion Box” so to speak?
I don’t appreciate the marginalization of that terminology. Fashion is fashion and people from different cultural reference points use fashion in different ways, but I am not a designer of black fashion. I am a black fashion designer. My blackness is a definite reference point for me. I bring it to the table and the beautiful aspects of that aesthetically. I fuse all that into my work. That’s just one part of my experience in the world and it need not marginalize everything that I create. I’m a fashion designer, a designer of fashion, and my blackness does not define the fashion that I create, but the designer that I am. If we are going to have that conversation then we should discuss what Asian fashion is, what white fashion is, and what Hispanic fashion is.
Where do your strengths lie as a designer?
My strengths lie in the things I really love. I really love colour, fabric, easy tailored-shapes, and I know those are the things I really do well. I bring about a really strong colour sensibility. I love appropriating interesting fabrics. For fall, we used menswear fabrics, and some home silks. This sunburst here [points to a print trouser] is from Jim Thompson Thai silks, who typically works in home and drapery. I think I’m really great at doing those interesting appropriations in my collection. My girl is intellectual enough to get that. Really, tailored, easy shapes. I want you to be comfortable in my clothes. You will be able to live in my clothes. You will be able to breathe, eat, and live in Harbison.
Have you had any mentors or IDOL’s?
As cheesy as this may sound, my first is Michael [Kors]. I remember seeing the Equestrian collection. It was my last year in high school and I really started to look at fashion and clothes. I remember thinking, “Oh my, these clothes are so chic!” He was always a reference for me. That sensibility my mom was a reflection of as well, so that really resonated with me. When I got the opportunity to work with him it was a huge deal for me.
I also really love Geoffrey Beene and what he was as an American designer. That whole moment of ease, layering, sporty fabrications, and things of that nature; I love it! Patrick Robinson, is a present day mentor of mine and who I’m able to bounce things off. He’s been really good to me. I love how Patrick has navigated the business particularly as a designer of African American decent. Unfortunately, I never got to meet this person, but what Yves Saint Laurent did for this industry; he gave women the license to be sexy and luxurious in a suit, and I will forever be indebted to and reference that mans work.
Mark Hollgate and Virginia Smith have been really good to me. Mark will sit with me and give me his ear. That’s a million dollar ear because it’s heard a lot.
Milk Made has given so many designers a platform to show their work. In what ways have they helped you and your brand?
What Jenne Lomardo and Kelly Frances did in seeking us out gave us a bigger stage to show our work and save our asses. The start-up life at this level in the market is really difficult and to see an entity of that nature give us their stamp of approval is so encouraging and affirming. We are confirmed for spring as well in September. They’ve had so many people come through there and some are now on the verge of being household names. Both of them are just really chic and cool as hell.
Support is wonderful and important for us, but support and encouragement also needs to come from the retailers. It used to be the retailers who were so devoted to young talent and really giving them a platform. Now there is so few. That’s why I’m so indebted to Ikram. She was our first stockist for Fall 13- my first collection. Finding retailers in this market is really hard. There has to be some way that the fashion zeitgeist, the CFDA, or someone can really give retailers incentives, or encourage, or have it make sense for retailers to give a quarter of floor space to young talent.
You’ve been called “The Next Big Thing” by Style.com and caught the attention of Vogue. Do you feel more pressure because of the notoriety so early on in your career?
No, I’m just so damn grateful for it. It doesn’t weight on me because I know I’m working my ass off. It’s feels like a humungous blessing for me. I hope that’s not too cheesy but it’s really how I feel. The only pressure I feel is to get more resources so the business can grow. I know I have volumes of material of designs in my head, my phone, in boxes . I’m good on that end. I’m going to continue to have my point-of-view as a designer, so, I don’t feel pressure to create good shit. I feel the pressure to find the resources that can allow me to continue to do so.
Is that one of the challenges that you’re facing since being on your own?
Money! Cash flow! I’m not a contemporary designer so I really love to use the best I have access to create these clothes. That costs money. Then also building a brand I have to find these women that get it out the gate. I’m finding them but it takes time. My client list isn’t as extensive as I want it to be. Their isn’t a crap load of money coming in. The beginning stages of informing the market about who I am so they get it more and more, so, we can have a long standing relationship is hard. It’s that start-up life!
You’ve started a Kickstarter campaign to assist in funding your next collection, which is a very modern approach to funding a project Why have you decided to go through Kickstarter and not seek investors in a traditional manner?
I have and continue to seek them out in a more traditional way. My mentor Patrick Robinson has successfully launched his own independent luxury sportswear collection last year. Maria Pinto also had a successful campaign last fall. Kickstarter has been a destination for clothing, new clothing, and fashion projects. For me, it’s an opportunity to try out this land of e-commerce and I get to continue building this business the way it was built in the beginning based on relationships. I didn’t walk into this with a lot of money. It was my life savings and some money from my dad. I want to let the customers demand dictate what the retailers do.
Can you tell me about the collection you are funding via Kickstarter?
The Kickstarter campaign gives the public at-large exclusive pre-order access to my Fall 2014 Collection, with the funds raised enabling me to produce a HARBISON online store for continued access to future collections and supporting the development and presentation of the upcoming Spring 2015 collection shown in September.
Where can women get their Harbison fix?
Via Special Order on my site, Ikram in Chicago, Seitne in LA, and in the fall Matches London.
Interview with Charles Harbison by Editor-at-Large, Ryan Davis, 19, June, 2014