Charles Harbison's New School

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(NEW YORK) Just three seasons in, Charles Harbison is racking up the sort of accolades veterans designers dream about, from an exclusive profile in September Vogue, to a place of pride at Ikram, which picked him up in his very first season. The North Carolina native’s career didn’t happen overnight, though. A veteran of Michael Kors and Billy Reid, his special brand of Patti Smith-inspired American cool was honed in the fashion trenches.

What’s your first fashion memory?
The first time I remember clothing resonating with me was this really colorful blazer that my mom would wear. It probably had 17 colors in the pattern. She’d wear it with the sleeves rolled up so you could see the black lining underneath on the cuff. Also, my grandmother had this red snakeskin pump and a matching clutch that would make me so happy. I remember those pieces like it was yesterday. I would just stare at them. I could also tell that they felt better wearing them. I probably was responding in some subconscious way to that.

And your first fashion moment in the industry?
I was an architecture major and had just started my first year of studio painting. It was kind of a free studio, so we touched many different mediums. I love manipulating fabrics, and started painting on them. I remember thinking, ‘My parents are not going to be happy with the idea of me transferring from architecture to painting, so let’s see if I can make clothes with this fabric that I create.’ I took a year and went abroad to study Central Asian Textiles in Uzbekistan.

What was that like?
So rad and so crazy! I spent time in Samarkand and Bukhara just seeing the vegetable dying process on these beautiful carpets, the weaving process, and how intricate the work was. My mom sent me some fashion magazines while I was there, and I remember seeing this guy in a yellow kaffiyeh scarf. It was probably something like AnOther magazine, and I was like, ‘I have to go back to New York!’ I applied to Parsons from Uzbekistan.

What was your first gig out of Parsons?
I was a textile designer for Bloomingdale’s luxury bedding. During my time at Parsons I interned at Michael Kors in menswear and at Jack Spade. But being a working-class boy who had to pay the bills, those entry-level jobs were not working. So I went the textile design route for two years before transitioning to Michael Kors womenswear. I loved my time there and, luckily, they loved me. Six interviews and a final review with Michael Kors later, I got the gig and that was the game changer for me. I learned so much from that man. I would just sit and soak it all up.

Do you still keep in touch with him?
Not as much as I would like. His life is crazy. But one of my best friends is the fabric director there, so I’m still very connected to the Michael Kors world. I went from Michael to Luca Luca and then Billy Reid, where we launched womenswear.

What made you decide that you were ready to do your own thing?
I turned 30 and had this moment where I was like, ‘Am I setting my life up in a way that’s going to give me the quality of life that I want at some point?’ So I said, ‘You know what? Let’s just see what happens. I’ll whip up some samples. I’ll take everything I have, infuse it into this, and if it doesn’t work then I’ll just go get a job.’

How scary was it once you’d made the decision?
The moment that I got scared was when Vogue wanted to see me. I walked in and met Mark Holgate, Virginia Smith, Meredith Melling Burke, Chioma Nnadi, and Jessica Sailer—they were all there for the run-through. I’m like, ‘Wait a minute. I guess I’m a designer with a label?’

How did they hear about you?
I’d worked with Kathryn Neale at Luca Luca and at Billy Reid. I ran into Kathryn and I sent her a lookbook, because I was smart enough to do a lookbook. She’s like, ‘Okay, this is good.’ So she sent it to Mark. I had actually met Patrick Robinson over the past year and he gave me some really great advice, so I sent it to him, too. He said he would show it to Virginia [Smith]. Then they both were like, ‘We want to see you.’ They liked it and they offered me an exclusive after that for the September issue.

How did it feel to have that kind of support?
I’m still kind of dumbfounded. When you see the market and press and really important people responding in that way, it’s just life affirming. It’s the thing that keeps me moving forward, because this is hard. As a startup, things are set up against you to weed you out. Those are the moments that propel you through those other moments where the stress and anxiety can be quite overwhelming. I’m very grateful.

What are some of the biggest difficulties?
Production, mainly. The logistics around that, and also delivery, which is a beast all its own. Also, continuing to have enough cash flow to sustain your business. In the beginning, you don’t really see any returns until you’re several seasons in. I mean, I have a Rolodex of designs in my head. I design when I wake up and when I go to sleep. What really challenges me to think and to act outside of my M.O. is the business aspect.

Do you have any muses?
Patti Smith was the first one. I love that she was arguably stronger than Robert [Mapplethorpe] and was the rational thinking, directional one in their relationship. I loved Aaliyah’s interpretation of gender in the late ’90s and early ’00s—the whole crop top with a big pant look. This coming season it’s Sade. I kind of went back to my roots and decided to play on this Native American idea. So it’s Sade, Pocahontas, John Smith, and romanticism. I like women who are unabashed about wearing a trouser, a blazer, and a flat shoe. There’s this casual confidence that’s really beautiful.

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