Clad with a two-tone briefcase, multi-colored trainers and smile of relief, Charles Harbison and I sat down to discuss his sophomore presentation at this Fall’s New York Fashion Week. It is in the moment you enter the space of another artist and become transformed by their vision and passion that one realizes is the moment you are also audience to an idiosyncratic genius that cannot be replicated. Officially, Fashion Week began on Thursday, September 5, but a host of designers chose to present the day before, and among them were new solo designer and fashion-favorite, HARBISON, who has hailed from such companies as Michael Kors and Billy Reid. With an inherent penchant for womens wear and textiles, the luxury women’s label has made some considerable buzz among fashion elite with both Ikram in Chicago and Satine in Los Angeles carrying the brand. I sat down with the virtuoso in a heartfelt discussion about his creative process, childhood and shattering gender norms. Fresh from seeing Lee Daniels’s The Butler alongside his family, (who came to New York to support) Charles was full of emotion, vigor, and insurmountable purpose.
Hailing from humble beginnings in North Carolina, Harbison originally studied fine arts and textiles at North Carolina State University, but a career move to Uzbekistan challenged his worldly-otherness. He caught the “fashion bug,” moved to New York and enrolled at Parsons and was unfettered. But for the designer, fashion became a consummate art where he could capture the inner workings of his humanity and realize purpose—for himself, and for others.
But before the New York grind and hustle, there was Harbison’s grandmother. As a child, beaming with love and admiration, he vividly recounts times spent with his grandmother. Sitting down beside her, he remembers removing the lint from her hair one evening after work. The lint, and his grandmother’s hair, became inextricably linked to working-class struggle, kinship, labor and remarkable black femininity that would serve to inspire his career. He pauses, “I was so happy in that memory. And that’s the source between these fabrics, through things being made at home, and this collection.” His other family members also worked in factories, and he remembers being arrested with penetrating emotion when he saw his mother at the tool factory on the factory line, and understood, in a physical way, the labor that took place on his family’s behalf that allowed for his very existence. A raison d’être. His livelihood was directly related to the love and labor from his mother, who never faulted and still had time and a smile for him and the family after leaving work—a woman, beauty, and strength incarnate—as he describes her. Phew! From then on, he was hyper aware of how he needed to maneuver success and tap into immaterial strength.
After showing his first collection in April 2013, which employed thematic elements: BAUHAUS-SPORT-MAPPLETHORPE-SMITH, he transgressed gender norms. He used a similar approach this time. But, he cites the incomparable Aaliyah, as an initial muse for his work. Admittedly listening to “Rock the Boat” 40 times in a single day, he realized, “That’s my girl; that’s who I’m checking for!” And after Wednesday’s presentation, the industry is checking for him as well. But, Harbison didn’t stop with Aaliyah, whose work still carries a deep resonance for 90s R&B culture and black nostalgia. He then drew inspiration from the African Diaspora, the painter Yves Klein, and prep as his mainstays that would bring silks, satins, brocade fabrics and crop tops into a chic statement of luxe flanked by a tense interplay of masculinity and femininity. He wholeheartedly and passionately insists, “We are fully human. I feel that it is important to access that breadth. The girl I design for has access to a humanity that pushes against sexism, because sexism doesn’t benefit anyone.” Upon accessing his work, you see the incarnate connection between his work and the words that emerge through his vernacular. He truly lives a paradigm that “art is fluid, soft and emotional.”
As for Harbison’s aesthetic, the Diaspora was a vision throughout—and we’ve all seen the fetishizing and misrepresentation of race in popular culture throughout the years (and as of recent: shout out to Miley Cyrus, no shade), but Harbison has a unique way of using tension, pain and erasure as spaces for triumph, aspiration and uncomfortable juxtapositions that allow for a certain humanity to emerge—while stomping the pavement in one of his mix-patterned coats or ruffled dresses, nonetheless. It is empowerment that continues to drive his work ethic and contradiction. Raffia blended with silk? Not to fret—the end product will undoubtedly be chic, speaking to our inner contradictions as beings, blurring lines and tastefully delivering artistic pieces fit for the body or the museum.
The presentation on September 4 at Malt & Mash in New York City’s Meatpacking District was widely attended. The cobble-stoned streets that have known to break an ankle or two did not stop him from delivering a powerful presentation. Models clad in ornate fabrics, and billowy shapes all accessed the humanity of womanhood and it was ever-so-present on his models that stood atop white cubes filling the room with the power that Harbison saw in the women who inspired his own life. Among a bevy of designers, buyers and editors one could spy Thelma Golden of The Studio Museum in Harlem who came to support a budding artist who is making heads roll, turn, scream “Yas!,” and move back back, forth and forth over his Spring/Summer 2014 collection.
Inspired by the artistic movements that shaped the 60's and 70's through social change is a mission and ideology Harbison will continue to employ. Fashion week has just begun, but the unwavering designer is already thinking of his next move. What will never change he says is when he speaks to his grandmother or mother, often for encouragement and advice. “It reminds me of why I do this, and there is no reason to stop.” Stayed tuned for Harbison. It’s exciting to see what this designer showcases next as he create an aesthetic that is continually powerful and rooted within his own blackness, struggle and liberation of humanity. And as he reminds us, “Dressing is an opportunity to present your most intimate and intricate self to the world,” all the while embodying the early black women’s clubs of the 19th century, “Lifting as we climb.”