Designer Charles Harbison is the creative force behind luxury womenswear line, HARBISON. The North Carolina native offers a unique perspective on design that stems from his studies in architecture, illustration and textile design, and a resume that boasts work in accessories, menswear and luxury womenswear at Michael Kors, Jack Spade, Luca Luca and Billy Reid. Touted as one of the newest designers to watch, Bushwick-based Harbison recently received a coveted spot in Vogue’s weighty 2013 September issue following the launch of his first solo venture earlier this year. Harbison is unique in the sense that as a relatively young brand he knows exactly what he wants to communicate.
Growing up in North Carolina, what were your early fashion influences?
My earliest fashion influences were definitely my mom and her love of clothes and beauty. Watching her transformation into a more confident, elegant woman after dressing up made a strong impression on me. Her look of choice was a colorful pantsuit and a strong brow (it was the ’80s!), an aesthetic that I wholly draw on now. Also, weekend trips to the mall were the special mother-and-son times we spent together.
Did you know from a young age you wanted to be a designer?
I knew at a young age that I loved art and beautiful things. I was really aware early on that the presence of beauty made people happier, and since art was a means of expression for me, there was always a positive reaction to the things I created, the pictures I drew, etc. I also had a streak of anal retentiveness in me – my mom tells a story about me perfectly lining up my matchbox cars around the house and having an absolute tantrum if the perfection was in anyway interrupted by an innocent passerby (i.e. her or my dad).
What did your experiences at Michael Kors and Billy Reid teach you about launching your own collection?
It was an absolute dream to work for Michael and to watch the methodical nature with which he approaches sportswear design. He knows his woman, her body, her luxury lifestyle, and the things she needs and wants in her life. I try to approach HARBISON with a similar methodology – giving my woman fresh, modern luxury offerings in which she can live. Luxury on the pavement.
Also, working alongside Billy to launch his women’s collection taught me more about creating a definitive look, signatures, and communicating a story through the clothes, which Billy does so well. It also helped me to learn how to do a lot with a little, being that we were building something from infancy.
As a man designing for women, how do you connect to the HARBISON woman?
I connect with the women that inspire me, with the women I love. Whether it’s my mom, grandmother, or the slew of exceptional friends, colleagues and muses I have in NYC, there is a plethora of women around me who embody the modern, powerful, multidimensional ethos of HARBISON who keep me inspired…and focused. They tell me what they want!
Jeannie Lee of Satine picked up your Fall 2013 collection. She is known for identifying up-and-coming designers early on – how did she describe the collection? How do your pieces translate to the LA woman?
Having Jeannie’s support is amazing! And being able to deliver my debut collection to Satine is an exceptional start for me. LA fashion is identifiably fun, full of personality, and color driven, a reflection of the LA lifestyle. Knowing that I, an East Coast boy, could capture some of that in my debut to the liking of Jeannie was a huge note of confidence.
What are the challenges of producing in New York?
I love having production right around the corner, since it offers the opportunity to tweak and redirect far more easily than overseas production does. I work with wonderful partners in the Garment District. However, we need to collectively see the value in NYC made goods so that factories and services here gain more support and more business, hence encouraging a more streamlined and skillful production process, which is happening.
Can you describe the inspiration for your SS14 collection?
SS14 was another mash-up in the way that I like it. It was described as “AALIYAH-KLEIN-DIASPORA-PREP” in the show notes, which is a collection of things I was inspired by: the masculine-feminine late ’90s sexiness of Aaliyah, the blue/magenta/gold color trifecta of Yves Klein, and a 1953 Slim Aarons photo of Katharine Hepburn in Montego Bay which embodied a visual marriage of contrasting lifestyles – American luxury and Afro-diaspora living.
Why did you decide to present for this season?
It felt like a natural progression. I also wanted to effectively and respectfully make good on the early support of Vogue, Satine, and Ikram in Chicago, which meant a lot more people were watching this time around – editors, buyers, financiers. A presentation was the best way to better tell the story.
You have already introduced pre-collections – why did you make this decision so early?
I’ve found as a young designer that I need to take the opportunity to communicate my brand message as often as possible. Pre-collections are another opportunity to do that. It’s a calendar that I’m familiar with from all my years of working, so it never seemed like a difficult decision to make. It also helps me to better get a handle on the market, by seeing buyers often and taking note of their reactions.
Is it too soon to identify your signatures of the brand?
You know, I don’t think so. The collection is evolving and maturing, but there are certain fundamental aspects of design and wardrobe that I’ve loved for a long time: suits, overcoats, uniform separates, easy tunics and sheaths. And being that my art studies were under the umbrella of modernism and the Bauhaus, color blocking and utilitarianism will definitely be a HARBISON signature moving forward.