Charles Harbison On Nerds, Peruvian Textiles and Family Values
One of the mottos of the week here at MADE Fashion Week is “Welcome to the Future," and womenswear designer Charles Elliott Harbison hits the mark. He is undisputedly one of the stars of the future–remember that, because you heard it here first. And because the perception of the fashion industry has become increasingly associated with "must-haves," "It Bags," red carpet and the new, new, new, we at Milk Made this season are also celebrating the artistry of fashion. Charles sums that up perfectly too – he is an artist in the absolute sense of the word.
His knowledge on art and fashion history is frighteningly in-depth, but conversely he has a thoroughly 21st century approach with social media. The smartest designers have to these days—Alexander Wang at Balenciaga and the Opening Ceremony kids at Kenzo were all hired largely due to their embracing of it. Harbison interacts directly with his customers on social media, which loops back to how his collections evolve. “I learn what she looks like, what she wants, her lifestyle and I keep honing in on her so I can design more intelligently. I’m noticing she’s lengthy and she loves our longer sleeve cut, our longer leg and she’s languid.” In a way things have come full circle—albeit digitally—it echoes pre-ready-to-wear days when couturiers would work directly with the clients in their ateliers.
Fittingly, Harbison’s first-ever creation was theoretically haute couture: a wedding dress for his best friend. “She wanted to look like a wilting peony, so I did all of these layers of pearl grey duchesse satin. I spent hundreds of hours—I took days off from work, hemming upwards of 20 yards of ruffle. That really sealed the deal for me.” It points toward another full circle: If Harbison continues on the trail he is currently blazing, it wouldn’t be a surprise if he ends up graduating to haute couture someday.
Everything about him is fascinating. As a person, not only is he beautiful to look at, but he’s also an extrovert who is sincere, passionate, articulate and infectiously positive: with him, the glass isn’t just half-full, it is overflowing. Harbison is also big on family values, which is even more endearing. Originally from South Carolina, Harbison’s fire was initially ignited by seeing the transformative effect fashion had on his factory worker mother: “She would come home dirty, like Rosie the Riveter," he muses. "I would just see her transform into something so elegant; particularly on the weekends, or the evenings or church on Sunday."
Colour is one of his USPs, which is so refreshing in the sea of monochromes that often dominate the runways. At school, he was gripped by modernism, color blocking and artist Josef Albers, who himself was famous for his extensive theories on the relationship of colors to one another. “It’s escape…I’m culturally connected to color. Being black, color and festivities were a part of my heritage. Growing up in North Carolina there is just beauty and color everywhere. Watching the seasons change, and all the beauty of where I’m from is unending.”
Art influences him in other ways too. My own ancestor Daisy Fellowes, the eccentric heiress of the Singer sewing machine fortune, was Schiaparelli’s muse, and I point out that his work has touches of surrealism that Daisy would have loved. “Wow! I am flattered you noticed! It is intentional. We actually have a whole blouse grouping this season which is trompe l’oeil – so just really playing with surrealism and tricking the eye…You know, art is the foundation of my schooling and my education. I have a love for newness and nuance in the way art does.” He believes that applying art to fashion is tricky – “because art can be playful and nuanced and directional … but it takes a particular woman to want to garb herself with those items. So you kind of have to filter it in some way.”
The fact that all his garments are made here in New York stems from those family values and background he is so proud of. “Being a working class boy, my life has been surrounded by industrialization in the USA. All my family members worked in factories and mills. My grandmother worked in a knitting factory. As I kid when she would come home I would be pulling the lint out of her hair as we’d watch The Price is Right. So I’m really emotionally connected to things being made stateside….supporting New York made things and US artisans.”
The seed sown from pulling the lint from his grandmother’s hair has germinated into an integral part of the Harbison DNA – “My undergrad was in fiber arts and textile chemistry”. He is such a textile purist…obsessive – expert even – that he has travelled as far and wide as Uzbekistan and Peru to work with weavers and dyers. “I feel a heartfelt connection to fiber…. wools, and patterns, and colors, carpeting by way of Central Asia. In Peru we were just really able to fall in love with the indigenous, cultural connection to alpaca. I want to keep that up….The globe is fucking awesome dude!”
If he is a self confessed "dork" when it comes to the micro side of his work, the macro side is equally complex and intriguing. It is these inherent contrasts that make him such a unique voice. His first collection was inspired by the relationship between Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe – “Her being the stronger of the two and he being more gentile and fragile. I just love that gender play." A subsequent collection was a collision of R&B singer Aaliyah and Katharine Hepburn. “Aaliyah was the muse but then I saw this image of Katharine Hepburn – really preppy in the middle of Jamaica in a Rolls Royce. I was like ‘this is absurd and amazing.’ So I turned it into the idea of prep and diaspora.” It translated into ginghams and plaids for the preppyness, and floral and color being Caribbean, crop tops and baggy pants as a nod to Aaliyah and some Yves Klein blue thrown in for good measure.
Despite the extensive bank of cultural and artistic references and extraordinary imagination, he is still frustratingly, but charmingly self-deprecating and humble. I tell him that big things lie in store for him. He chuckles, embarrassed by the praise. “There’s room for a nerd on the rack right?’ There most certainly is, but there is a lot more to Harbison than just being a mad nerd. The guy is a genius. Watch this space.
Photography by Mario Torres
Photo direction by Erick Ruales