Harlem’s Fashion Row and Banana Republic have selected Charles Harbison to design a sustainable capsule collection, an accolade that takes the designer full circle.
His eco-friendly styles will debut in Banana Republic stores and online in September.
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That is kismet, since the American designer spent three years working at a Banana Republic in a shopping mall, while in college. His final designs are still under wraps, but the designer spoke candidly Thursday about how his career has evolved.
This spring, Harbison plans to reintroduce his own Harbison label as a direct-to-consumer brand via social media and e-commerce — a first for the company. Wholesale distribution will come at a later time, since he and his partners plan to be nimble and flexible without getting in over their heads, he said. Using a pre-order format and deadstock fabrics are some of the ways Harbison will manage inventories and limit raw goods.
For the limited-run HFR x Banana Republic collaboration, he received a competition winning, but declined to specify how much. “Hopefully, I will be able to broker additional ones going forward, where I have a bit more of a stake. Right now I’m just grateful, and the check that I get is not a bad one at all.”
After starting his company Harbison in New York in 2013, the designer relocated to Los Angeles four years ago. In addition to frequent hikes, lots of solitude, more space and milder weather, being based on the West Coast has also enabled him “to still make stuff happen” he said.
“It was largely for the business’ health and for my mental health,” he added. “It’s been a really amazing transition. Being client-based over the past few years and not doing full collections has been good on the pocketbook. I’ve been able to maintain the brand’s voice but in a different way.”
At the onset, the plan was to take the ideas he loved and related to — namely gender neutrality, race, class and queerness — and infuse them into American sportswear.
“The shift for the brand has followed my own personal shift. At some point, I realized that I had to prioritize myself, because the dynamics of the business in New York were not good for me or to me — the speed, the amount of product that I was expected to create, the dynamics of sales, marketing and shows, and investing so much with very little return,” Harbison explained. “Being a collection-based business, the environment in New York, in my opinion wasn’t set up to serve emerging brands that were American and sportswear and separates-driven.”
Relocating led to a more joyful and optimistic aesthetic, which “merely mirrored” what Harbison was experiencing in his own life, he said. It also led to a more sustainable approach to business, instead of making a 100-plus-piece sample collection and only seeing only a few of those designs end up in stores, as was the case in New York.
“There was a way that we weren’t really being responsible from an ecological point of view. Moving to a client-based model means that we don’t make more than we actually sell,” he said. “I’m able to work with the women who I enjoy and respect, and who have an emotional connection to the brand. I am able to materialize something that satisfies me as a designer, and the brand, as well as them as individuals. It’s not just women. It’s men as well.”
In the past few years, Harbison has freelanced for such brands as Cult Gaia, where he helped launch women’s wear. He pitched in with Nicholas The Label, and consulted with Emanuel Ungaro, when the company had been exploring a foray into contemporary sportswear.
Born in the foothills of North Carolina in the small town of Lincolnton, Harbison earned his undergraduate degree from North Carolina State University, and then studied world textiles abroad in Uzbekistan before attending Parsons in New York. He later worked at Michael Kors Collection in textile design and women’s wear before venturing out on his own.
Asked about the racial bias he has faced, Harbison said, “That’s not just relegated to the industry. That’s relegated to our society. Obviously, being a fashion designer that’s Black and was raised working class in rural North Carolina, it was definitely a journey uphill to find a voice in an industry that has been monopolized by whiteness and wealth. That was a riddle that I’ve always been resolving, because I love the medium too much to be deterred from working in it. So my focus has always been to be as skilled as possible and to be relentless. Of course, that’s taxing and takes a toll. But also I don’t demote the strength that it has built in me.”
After working in the ruthless fashion industry in New York City, Harbison said he has sworn off competitions and vying for money and significance in those platforms.
“I had really grown quite disillusioned. I felt that I was overlooked a few times for things that we were quite set up to win. Judges would even come to me to tell me that, and to inform me about politics that were outside of my knowledge that we’re determining a lot of those decisions.” Harbison said. “It felt like it wasn’t about the work. For me, it’s the work first — the product first.”
Well aware of where Harlem’s Fashion Row founder Brandice Daniel’s heart has been for years — “championing young designers of color,” Harbison said that made the group’s Banana Republic-supported competition attractive. He also had a personal connection to the national retailer, having worked as a Banana Republic sales associate for three years, as a double-major undergrad at North Carolina State University. His job at the Crabtree Valley Mall was a “safe space,” Harbison said, as he was coming into his own in fashion, grappling with queerness and growing up. “There are people there that I met who I am still friends with today.”
Beyond that, the designer spoke of the retailer’s appeal. “Aesthetically, there’s always been a devotion to classic American, utilitarian sportswear.…If there’s a competition to enter, let it be one where I genuinely relate to the judging entity. And I guess that was a good decision.”
Looking back, Harbison said the first incarnation of his company’s aesthetic reflected the life he and his friends were living in New York — favoring clothing that was marketed to men and to women, navigating race and gender politics in their relationships, and having those conversations on a regular basis at a time that was the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement. Despite shoppers posting positively about his products on social media, “there was a chasm between all of that and getting those clothes into their hands, because the dynamics of stores and wholesale didn’t quite align with where we were,” he said.
The upcoming launch of the sustainable HFR x Banana Republic capsule collection will be the first time in the designer‘s life, when he will be able to get the clothing into the hands of so many people.
“I believe in good design, and in access to good design,” he said. “I’m able to take this digestible, beautiful legacy platform of Banana Republic and infuse it with modern, innovative, forward-thinking ideas. And that‘s not just presented to a select few.”
Given the chance, Harbison said he would have told himself, “Don’t be disheartened by some of the losses because in the end, you’ll definitely net positively.”