Photography by Mar-ke
“Fashions fade, style is eternal.”
Yves Saint Laurent
With stints at Michael Kors, Luca Luca and Billy Reid under his belt, Brooklyn-based fashion designer Charles Harbison decided to finally strike out on his own in 2013. HARBISON, which launched its first collection just last year, has already received accolades that many fashion veterans would kill for. From coverage in Women’s Wear Daily to video interviews with Vogue Italia, Charles has been busy establishing himself as a standout and up-and-coming talent, known for effortlessly balancing masculine and feminine forms with modernist lines. His Spring/Summer 2014 collection was recently praised for blending eclectic influences that included everything from singer Aaliyah’s ’90s tomboy style to Yves Klein colors (seriously, who doesn’t love Aaliyah?).
In Charles’ own words, HARBISON “seeks to serve the woman—and man—who sees beauty through the lens of androgyny, modernity, and luxury.” We had the opportunity to catch him in between meetings and fittings at his Brooklyn studio, and couldn’t help but be inspired by his stories. Charles’ journey around the world and back and his search for self-identity prove that you are ultimately in charge of your own destiny.
Bevel Code: Tell us about your first shaving experience and what you remember from it. How did you learn to do it?
Charles Harbison: Well, I grew up with a dad who only used trimmers. So he never shaved and I know now it’s because of his propensity to bump or whatever. So that’s initially how I would groom my facial hair, and then when I was in college, my dad was a barber and cut hair during the time he was out of work. I was like, let me just try to shave and see what happens. And I did, and I didn’t bump or anything so I kind of largely taught myself that whole shaving experience because before then I was just trimming and lining up the way that my dad would.
BC: Is that your regimen now?
Charles Harbison I’ve grown to really appreciate my facial hair because there’s no other place on my body that I’m actually removing hair. You know what I mean. I just kind of grew into appreciating it and finding a place where I felt like I was still being representative of my aesthetic by keeping it trim. And it also comes with appreciating my age a little more being in my thirties, like okay, I’m good with this.
BC: When do you feel like you were really comfortable in your own skin? What helped you get to that point?
Charles Harbison Really, with every day, I’m becoming more and more comfortable in my own skin. I do know that there was a paradigm shift at like age 22/23…I actually graduated undergrad and went abroad to Uzbekistan and was kind out of the context in which I was domesticated. I was away from home, away from the U.S.; I was there for a particular purpose and very focused on myself and enjoying that experience and figuring out things about myself that I just felt like there was so much going on around me and in my head at home that I couldn’t figure out.
It was there that I reconciled that I wanted to be a designer and my sexuality and I reconciled all that with my faith. There was so much clarity that came so when I came back here I felt like things were brighter. I felt like I was different person or I felt more in-tune with my person and that’s when I felt, you know, a really big increase in comfort in terms of who I was and being in my own skin.
BC: What was it about being overseas that helped you reached that epiphany or come closer to who you were and starting to believe? What do you think it was about the time over there that got you to that point?
Charles Harbison: It’s being away from all the things that influence you, positively or negatively. At that point, I has amassed 22 years of information, things that were in my favor and information that wasn’t in my favor. And it’s hard to really take all that information and file it appropriately when in the context of all of this stuff with everything going on around you and being away. Being in an unfamiliar culture where I was the outsider, I was the one spectating. It allowed me the opportunity to step back and to analyze and make sense of everything that I taken in.
I’d taken in information about my faith, I’d taken in information about the arts and what directs that. I’d taken in information about being gay. I’d taken in all this information and I was able to file it appropriately and find the things that were true and honest and the things that weren’t.
And that’s the benefit of going away and you find so many artists, tastemakers, and culture changers, just general spiritual leaders throughout the ages—they go away and there’s the benefit. That silence you can be in…
BC: That brings us to a good segue way, to the design of your pieces. How did that help you discover what you love most or make you feel closer to who you are? Was fashion design part of your process?
Charles Harbison: When I look back at the clothes I designed in undergrad, I can see it guiding me to this place. I’ve always appreciated plays on gender and irony and even when I was, you know, basically not dating and not experiencing a romantic life at all, I still loved those sorts of play on gender.
Being here in New York and living as a gay man here, I can still see those codes being consistent and it’s also how I live. I’m a man so you know I love that, but I also love the benefit of being connected to that softer, more fragile part of myself which comes with a queer identity. You get societal permission to discover that part of that self and let that be operative and I know that’s the clothing I create. I want it to perpetuate the same thing for women and also any guys that want to opt into the collection, just so you can be fully human and you can have clothes that more truly represent that.
BC: The way you phrase it so eloquently…being a gay man, it’s that you’re able to show your full self—the masculine and the feminine. How does that duality or state of mind affect your collections and one’s ability to design clothes for women?
Charles Harbison: Because the women who inspire me are also the women who demonstrate that…they’re the women that navigate the world with a confidence and the dignity of a persevering attitude that is typically representative of masculinity and they’re fully a woman. To break that down in layman’s terms—she’s beautiful in a pantsuit, she loves a flat, an Oxford, a lace-up. She loves fedoras and hats. She likes layers of clothing. She likes a uniform. She likes sportswear and separates, so those things you typically you find that are indicative of menswear or how a man navigates the world, she embodies that as well. And that play on gender norms is what I find very beautiful and what I also relate too.
BC: What do you think has helped you progress in your life the most? What has provided you the fire and motivation—what drives you?
Charles Harbison: One thing: my mom. My mom represents for me an utter commitment. She has just always been committed to getting what she wanted for herself and for us as her children. And the power, the dignity, the poise, the elegance, the beauty, the kindness all of that—I feel like she embodies is the thing that keeps me moving forward.
When I was a little boy, my mom told me, “Charlie, you can be whatever you want to be.” I was dumb enough to believe her and that idea has carried me through my entire life. That I can actually figure out to have whatever it is that I want to have, regardless of the circumstances.
She also is a woman of faith. My mom kind of embodies all of those things and I now have tried to instill it in my life. It’s something that keeps me moving forward.
BC: So you would say it’s a combination of the influence of your mom and seeing her as a role model and instilling those qualities in you to persevere…and you said faith is also a component of that.
Charles Harbison: Completely. Perseverance, faith, and belief…
BC: What kind of advice would you give to emerging talent and young professionals as they prepare to take on the real world and the paths that they choose to pursue?
Charles Harbison: The overwhelming piece of advice that I always give is to do what you do very well. Do it as well as you possibly can because I do believe that even though in a market in a commercial such as in an art world, it permeates every aspect of society.
There’s just a lot of BS, but I have to believe at the end of the day, that if you are putting beautiful things into the world with as much personal integrity as you can that will shine through in the end.
BC: If you go back in time and tell your younger self anything, what would it be? What do you wish you would have known back then that you know now?
Charles Harbison: I wish I would have known back then that I was going to be okay. There are so many moments like when I was a young adolescent teenager, even in my twenties, where it just felt like the cards were stacked against me and the situation just looked so bleak that I felt like I was going to die. And then like there’s no way I can find my way out of this, but it can end up being okay. And I’ve been able to accumulate enough situations where it has turned out okay and I figured it out to where now I can trust that will continue. So if I could let him [my younger self] know anything, it would just be, “Don’t worry. You will be okay.”
BC: Your bio mentions that you became interested in fashion because of your mother and from observing the transformative impact that clothing had on your mother’s persona. Can you speak to how clothes impact us, both internally with our own outlook and confidence, and externally, with how others see us?
Charles Harbison: I think that it’s such a privilege that every day, we get to get up and be involved in the creative process by aesthetically representing ourselves to the world in the way that we want. And it is something that precedes you speaking to someone or someone getting to know you, something so that others can glean information about you by what you look like and I think that’s a wonderful opportunity.
I want to give women the tools to aesthetically represent themselves with power and confidence, but at the same time represent ease and fragility as well. Those are the seemingly contradictory things that make up the woman that inspires me and that’s what I sort of do for my mom as well. And that’s what it does for me; at least with HARBISON, that’s my goal. And as far as transforming yourself, I don’t like the idea of using clothes to transform who you are because I don’t like the idea of transforming who you are. I like the idea of exploring new facets of yourself and new aspects of yourself and using your clothing to bring that to the forefront.
BC: So it’s more of a projection of who you are?
Charles Harbison: Exactly. Precisely—otherwise, I feel like you’re lost in the dressing process. One of the most heartbreaking things is to see someone who clearly got dressed that morning or whenever and were not thoughtful of themselves at all. She looks uncomfortable, she looks full of effort, and not in the best way. Don’t lose yourself in the dressing process because it’s all about you. There’s no other point.
BC: HARBISON is womenswear that’s all about the balance of contradiction, mixing the feminine and masculine influences to reach the sweet spot between the two. How do you strike the balance between those elements in your designs?
Charles Harbison: There’s not even a methodology for me around it. It’s just being thoughtful for me about contradictions. For example, if I’m thinking about colorblocking a piece…blocking is intrinsically hard-edged and a bit rigid and I’m thinking, how can I bend on the opposite end and represent fluidity and drape in a colorblock piece? And I think that, for me, is the way to represent the masculine and feminine and the seemingly contradictory things. If the piece is very fluid, how can I instate some form and construction in this very easy languid piece? Once again, I think that is the thing that brings home that multidimensional nature I’m talking about.
BC: Do you find that no matter where you start, whether it’s the form and the structure or with the fluidity and free-flowing aspect, that you always find yourself exploring the counterbalance? Is that kind of the equation—you always look for the counterbalance?
Charles Harbison: Exactly. It’s also a bit foundational to the Bauhaus, which is the art movement under which I was schooled in undergrad. With form and function of sorts, the beauty of something so that it operates well. And any overemphasis on either part is like you’re missing the mark.
BC: Do you have any go-to sources of inspiration for when you’re kind of stuck or simply want to create something new?
Charles Harbison: I’m always taking in information like we all are; the benefit of being a creator is that you get to be thoughtful and cognizant of that information you’re taking in. I get to record it and I get to keep track of it. If there are moments where I don’t feel like I don’t know where to go, I can go back to the log of my sketchbooks and take a look through like, “Oh yeah, I was really feeling this moment…I was really feeling this art movement.” I saw this beautiful thing and I keep record of it. I can also go to music. Music really inspires me. My friends…just watching them and how they navigate the world and how they dress. I find that really inspiring. I’m just always taking in information and I just try to keep record of it.
BC: Do you have a love story or any love advice you want to share with us?
Charles Harbison: Well, you know, there is one love story of sorts that I really love. It’s the story of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, and I love it because they made a relationship of their own. He was gay man and she was a straight woman, but yet they have this love and they both just figure out how to dovetail one another. The places where he was weak, she was strong, and vice versa—the places where she was weak, he was strong. And they kind of represent that transgender idea. She was arguably stronger than him, he was more fragile than her. I loved their commitment to one another.
For me, love is so much about commitment and loyalty and letting another person know as unabashedly as you can that I am devoted to you and receiving that same message from another person. That reciprocity—I could start crying right now. It’s just the most beautiful thing.