We Need More Fabric: An Interview with Maker, Charles Harbison

WORDS: Yahdon Israel                                                                                       PHOTOGRAPHY: Julien Roubinet

Some of us reach a point in our lives where we realize that the things we want reside elsewhere. When this happens, we do one of two things: create whatever it is that would make us want to stay where we are; or pack our bags and go. After dedicating the last ten years of his life and career to New York, fashion designer Charles Harbison (who’s originally from Lincolnton, North Carolina) is moving to LA—for love, a better life and more fabric.

I met Charles last year at one of the biggest tradeshows for forward thinking fashion and lifestyle brands, Liberty Fairs. But Harbison, the clothing line Charles launched in 2013, is doing more than thinking for the future; it's living there. By creating gender-neutral clothes from a women’s standpoint, Harbison is expanding our expectations of the way we see our bodies; men and women alike. Perhaps this is why Beyoncé has draped herself in his clothes on more than one occasion. The body will only do what it feels it has the freedom to—and Charles is constantly thinking of and creating ways to give our bodies more of it. 

But freedom costs. Ten years in one of the most expensive cities in the world has made Charles aware of this and before he’d go for broke in hopes of what could be, he’s doubling down on the reality of what is—his relationship; the ability to do more with less; and, once again, more fabric. Since many of Charles’s earliest inspirations for Harbison came to him at Bryant Park, when he was still interning at Michael Kors, it only felt right to bring everything full circle where he talked about his first make, what a Donald Trump inspired piece could look like, and why it's important to push boundaries, even when they're your own.

Charles Harbison.

Charles Harbison.

Charles's First Make: Wedding gown from bed sheets, Age 5

Charles's First Make: Wedding gown from bed sheets, Age 5

What was the first thing you remember making?

I was 5 years old when I made a wedding gown out of a sheet. I would take sheets and use them to make gowns because I thought dresses were so pretty.

I'd take a long sheet, pull it behind me like a train, and I'd march. I remember taking a second sheet and putting it underneath the first one because I wanted my train to be long. That's one of the the first things I really remember making.

Why do you make clothes?

I want to give women and men the tools to aesthetically represent themselves to the world with more intellect and elegance. Clothes were always armor for me. And I also got to see how they were that for my mom.

Shopping for clothes, my mother and I felt really connected and we felt like we were doing something particular to our relationship. It was really special. She would go against my dad's wishes and we would hide what we bought. I just really fell into a really beautiful friendship with my mother because of clothing.

The truest medium for me is clothes. My love of color and pattern needs to be on the body. I want to make the way you feel in the world better.

How do you decide what you’ll make?

I just love the way fabric drapes on the body. I love shapes. And then I also love the fact that I feel like I was connected to, you know, my ancestry in some way by referencing the African diaspora and Native Americans.

But I’m also interested in how to push historical narratives forward while filtering what I love through the clothing. Example: classic American sportswear. That’s the clothing I was dressed in; that I saw my mother dressed in. The propriety my father taught me.

What's your process in approaching clothing?

Lots and lots of images—from basically anything at the time that’s exciting. I go to the Parson’s library. I sift through books I have in my personal collection. I use images from past collections as referencing points because even if I’m referencing the same piece, there’s an entirely different take on it. I use mood boards. Lots of writing.  When you look at my sketchbook, there’s almost more writing than actual sketches. Words and mood matter to me.

I sketch all the time. Then I just pull all my sketches together and try to creative a narrative from it. Try to find where the overlap is and see what the consistencies are.

Fabrics, sketches and mood boards. Courtesy of Charles Harbison/Harper's Bazaar.

Fabrics, sketches and mood boards. Courtesy of Charles Harbison/Harper's Bazaar.

Charles explains the importance of craft.

Charles explains the importance of craft.

What inspires you?

Honestly, I haven't found anything that can't inspire me. You can tell me something that I vehemently hated, or that disgusted me and I could still find something inspiring about it. 

I'm always going back to my muses—my mom, Patty Smith, Erykah Badu, Aaliyah, Diana Ross, Diane Caroll, Claire Huxtable, Diane Keaton, and Lauren Hutton. I'm always going back to those women even for my men because aside from Prince and Bowie there aren't a lot of men in our society that have inspired me a lot sartorially. I have that collective of muses that can also be filtered through anything--it can be filtered through Donald Trump.

I would love to see what a Donald Trump-inspired piece would look like. It will be orange, I know that.

Or not. I mean, even look at his suiting choices.  The, the peacock tie, you know, what does that turn into as a piece? What does a side-swept hairdo turn into?  These are some of the questions I consider as a designer.

Charles's rings.

Charles's rings.

Is there something you wish you would have known sooner as a maker, what would it be?

That I could be a maker. Being a maker isn't something we're encouraged to be necessarily. We're told we should aspire to be attorneys, doctors, or accountants. And those individuals arguably are makers, I don't want to take that away from them, but as far as fostering my own love of making earlier in life, I wasn't stifled but I definitely wasn't told that being a designer, being creative, could set me up. That I could do this for the rest of my life and that would be okay. 

I put a lot of time and energy into encouraging, affirming myself that this was going to happen. And that took three degrees before I could do that. I got to a point where I was like, "Okay, I can." Knowing this earlier would’ve helped tremendously.

Charles's last make: Bi-Color Slip Dress, A/W 16. Courtesy of Charles Harbison.

Charles's last make: Bi-Color Slip Dress, A/W 16. Courtesy of Charles Harbison.

What was the last you made?

Embellishing the props on the Bi-Color Slip dress. There's a button and it's two buttons and like a center element, so you have to put them all together and we fitted them and I was configuring where these little embellishments on the front would be and how they would look together.

What do you need as a designer to do what you do better?

More fabric. Having more fabric options would really push my craft, my eye, and challenge me in a new way to continue thinking outside of the box.

What are some of the things you do to perfect your craft?

I never stop reading and taking in information. Ever. I was just on an interview call earlier today and the interviewer was talking about fashion’s move toward queer culture. Regardless of sexual orientation there is a lot that’s being done with fashion that’s queering sartorial choices. Hearing him talk about that is really great for me so that I know what is exciting 15, 16, 17-year olds, so when they become 27 and 28-year olds, I can speak to them through the collection in a way that relates to their lives. And they can buy more clothes and all those sorts of things. It's all important.

Charles with his Surly bike, Sheila.

Charles with his Surly bike, Sheila.

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