interview: meet fashion designer charles harbison of harbison collection

April 4, 2014

I stood in the lobby of the Ace Hotel… my meeting was set for 11:30 am on March 14th with New York-based designer Charles Harbison. Afraid that I wouldn’t spot him in the crowd of people in the hotel lobby, I was suddenly approached by a warm smile and handshake, and it was indeed Mr. Charles Harbison. I was excited to sit and speak at length with him about his innovative visions and the development of his line, HARBISON. HARBISON is a brilliant and refreshing line that truly transcends the fashion world – simple while intricate, both feminine and masculine… encompassed under one idea and concept. He spoke with such passion and confidence about himself and his work while still keeping this very humbled and southern charm-like demeanor. After our conversation I was invited to stop by the HARBISON showroom, a few blocks from the Ace Hotel, to chat further about the HARBISON Fall 2014 line. I am truly inspired by the unique innovation of Charles Harbison and excited to see his line successfully grow!

By Aliyah Blackmore, AFROPUNK Contributor *
Photos by Tyler Dean King (Pre-Spring collection) & Amy Genao (Fall 2014 collection)

You were born in Lincolnton, NC did your neighborhood or upbringing influence your work in any way?

Yes! I’m a bonafide working class country boy and everything that goes along with that… you know the connection to being outdoors, family, good food… a village kind of mentality — all of that definitely influences my work and influences who I am.  Even in building HARBISON I’ve taken this village approach because that’s where my capital lies – my growing up with a strong connected family unit. 


How would you describe your own style?

Easy… languid… very layered with a fair amount of irony. I think a lot of this comes from how my mom dressed. I think is a very nice way to navigate the world.. Restriction does not appeal to me at all…I don’t understand it. I find a lot of luxury in that too. Presently luxury is sort of relegated to labels and specific materials, but there is actually something quite luxurious about the ease you can experience in the clothing that you are wearing. Dressing for insouciance and dressing for yourself is luxury.


What artists/music/designers inspire you?

There’s a ton of artists, musicians, and designers that inspire me. In terms of music, I am all about Solange, Kelela, Twin Shadow…George of Twin Shadow.  Recently, I attended a benefit event for Tibet at Carnegie Hall, Philip Glass was there, and Patti Smith. Philip redesigned the classical music genre and Patti Smith for me redefined femininity and both of them have an impeccable ease that I love. The influence of Glass and Smith are definitely at the core of HARBISON… the vision. 

Modernism is at the foundation of what I do… it is the design philosophy under which I was schooled– I address design from order and cleanliness—I am influenced by the works of Josef Albers and Anni Albers. Let’s see, designers… Geoffrey Beene, Yves Saint-Laurent and I would say Stephen Burrows… he brings the festivity and color—that is the cherry on top of the trifecta (laughs).


You spent a year abroad studying Central Asian textiles—how has that added to the aesthetic vision of your collection?

Yes! I studied in Uzbekistan. Fabric for me is at the core… it is part of culture and within Central Asia where much of culture is built on the back on textiles. I took from my studies abroad, the idea of communication occurring through fabric — so coming back here and producing HARBISON, I get to tell a story through fabric and I know that was largely influenced by my time in Uzbekistan.

What inspired your collection?  I love that your line embraces both the feminine and masculine of womenswear—the idea of “vulnerability and strength”—there is something very empowering in that idea—dressing tastefully but also confidently! Can you go into more details—what is HARBISON (is there one word to describe the line)?  I see a bit of Patti Smith in this line – a sort of androgynous look… but there are still remnants of femininity.

Why is there such a defined line in terms of gender in fashion? So I thought “let’s try it under the nomenclature of Harbison”, this idea of blurring the lines of male and female within fashion.  It feels modern, you get to have everything on your terms, gender included. My clothing reflects that.

Yes to Patti smith, she definitely plays a role in my work. Through reading Just Kids by Patti Smith…you know, I stopped working in 2012, I was 30, traveling, and I read Just Kids— and I felt so connected to Patti’s experience with Robert. I loved their union. She was the more confident and directional and Robert more gentle as a creative New Yorker… Smith, Mapplethorpe, Basquiat… that is the heritage I was apart of, I knew HARBISON was something I should try because if they did it with the conditions they had around then, “I mean come on Charles”, I told myself, at least give it a try. 

Patti and Robert… I mean I have a mother who did the same… under maybe tough circumstances… she would pound the pavement looking like ten billion bucks!

What would you say is one of your favorite pieces within Fall 2014 line?  

Hmm, for Fall 2014… I  just love outerwear. It is a great place of uniformity around everyone, I really get to drive home this ethos of gender neutrality. I did this alpaca wrap coat – oversized – I think they are to die for.

(Shows me a picture)

That is absolutely stunning!!! That is definitely to die for.

Coats… that I want to make especially in this era of disposable fashion. I want my stuff to be made out of beautiful fabrics and materials uptown, where I know people are being paid fairly and doing well… and then take I take it over the top in some way. 

What is a suggestion for a female wearing masculine clothing—how do you remain feminine?

I don’t like that men get to take credit for blazer and trousers. If you want a wardrobe of separates and more masculine pieces I think that is an opportunity to be face forward and that is sexy.  

That kind of wardrobe is an opportunity for intellect to come forward which is something that is so appealing and alluring.

A lot comes forward when females wear masculine items… all of those things that get to pop when I’m not thrown by a lot of skin exposed. And keep the proportions — think about shrunken proportions and oversized proportions, making the pant a little too long or too short, all of those things project a sense femininity and nuance. I honestly believe it!

What are your plans for the future in regards to your clothing line and generally?

Grow my business… I’ve had the opportunity to design for different companies.  

I am thinking branching out to accessories, evening wear and knits… I’m excited about that.  

I want to increase my exposure – exposure and connection to women and clients allows me to develop my connectivity. 

Small business is a beast… so I am hoping that more money will come through.

Finding appropriate partners from a business perspective, partners who really believe in what you are doing who have resources to expand my exposure.  

And lastly, you worked on a film Transcend: 5 Black Artists by 5 Black Artists and the film explores race, religion, sexuality and politics. Can you speak about your work with the film and your thoughts on labeling art or fashion as black—does that sort of limit room for a broader interpretation?  Should art be labeled as black or white?

My friend Jessica created and directed the documentary and I wanted to offer my support to her initiative… I signed on to help her with that launch. I appreciate the conversation of art – black art – I appreciate the effort.  My culture, race, and heritage influence what I do – I have a connection to color and festivity that are within my clothing. Do I think calling it black art marginalizing? I think it is the intention of the artist – if that is their goal – then hey call it black art. I am a designer that is black… I am a black designer… but I don’t design black clothing. I don’t think my people want that for me either.

Follow Charles Harbison:

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Facebook: Hrbsn Collection

Twitter: hrbsncollection


* Aliyah Blackmore on Tumblr: