From studying architecture to an internship with Michael Kors, new American designer Charles Harbison designs for the woman who embraces her contradictions.
When did you know that this was what you wanted to do with your life? How did you get started?
I entered undergrad as an architecture student in NC, thinking that was the profession that would allow my love of art and math to come together in a lucrative way. However, after painting and fiber arts studios during my freshman year, I knew that working with textiles was the direction for me. My senior thesis project applying my textile work to apparel cemented my decision to pursue fashion in NYC. Soon thereafter I entered Parsons, interning at Michael Kors Men’s Collection.
What effect (if any) do you think your childhood has had on the creativity you display as an adult? What are your earliest memories involving fashion?
I was a sporty kid – boyish, but nerdy. I found art to be a means of escape for me as a child to a land of order and calm. My mother tells a story of me lining up my matchbox cars around the house in perfect succession, and if she or my father would disturb them, I’d scream! My mother and I would also take trips to the mall on the weekend as our special time together. I’d see how clothing would transform her into a more confidence, elegant version of herself, and I know I continue to subconsciously reference that very transformation in how I approach womenswear. My mother is my first muse.
What inspires you?
Everything: art, literature, music, conversations, moments. But more than that, I connect to the women I love. Whether it’s my mom, grandmother, or the slew of exceptional friends, colleagues and muses I have in my life, there is a plethora of women around me who embody the modern, powerful, multidimensional ethos of HARBISON who keep me inspired…and focused.
What is your design process?
I believe genius works within limits, so I like to give myself specific reference points to work from. Not that I’m a genius, but I believe limitations and order are the boundaries within which new, creative ideas come about. I start with my reference points – the things I presently find inspiring – and no matter how disjointed they may initially seem, I work to bring them together through pattern, color, fabric, details, etc. But in the end, I’m simply working to outfit my woman with the arsenal she needs.
Have you ever doubted your talent/work? If so, how did you work through it?
It seems doubt is a chronic distraction for creative people, i.e. everyone. I consistently encounter challenges and buffers that make me question myself. But I have a core group of close friends who perpetually encourage me and strengthen my belief in my talent and the path I’ve chosen. That, and a good dose of prayer and meditation never hurts.
Do you design with a specific client in mind? If so, who is that person?
I love women who embrace their contradictions: their strength and frailty, wisdom and curiosity. My client is the girl who wants to navigate her life in refined luxury sportswear where she not only communicates her vulnerability but also her power and intelligence. This is how modern women dress and live (suiting, separates, trousers, brogues, etc.).
Is there a piece or a collection you are most proud of?
The piece I’ve felt the most proud of was my best friend Kelly’s wedding gown. It was a dove grey silk duchesse satin gown: strapless, fully boned bustier, train, and covered in 17 yards of hand-hemmed, hand-applied ruffles, inspired by a wilting peony. It was a labor of love
Have commercialism and/or the media had any impact on your work? Is this good or bad?
The internet allows everyone to become a part of the fashion conversation, which I find amazing. It opens up the doors for so much newness in the market: personality and nuance. I think it’s a privilege for us as designers to have such a close connection to the buying public, with retail being less of a liaison to the customer and more of an agent of the product.
Who/what is something or someone fabulous that you think is underrated or overlooked?
Avocados. They are the perfect food.
Do you have any words of wisdom for someone starting out in your field?
Do what you do well. Very well.
All Clothing by Harbison Collection.
Photography by Dawn DiCarlo
Hair by Blake Burkholder @ Jed Root
Makeup by Gia Harris
Model(s) Charlee Fraser @ Ford Models (New York) & Lauren Carrie @ One Management (New York)