Charles Harbison has always colored outside of the lines in his career. While in undergrad, the North Carolina-native left an architecture program to pursue a double degree in fine art and textile science. There he went on to fall in love with fashion studying indigenous fabric design in Uzbekistan.
After graduating from the Parsons School for Design, he became a top designer at Michael Kors, Luca Luca, and Billy Reid, before starting his own line, HARBISON, somewhat by accident after experiencing industry burn out.
Over the years his work has caught the attention of Michelle Obama, Solange, Beyonce and Ava Duvernay, who are fans of his luxury, gender-fluid brand. Harbison will be designing a sustainable fashion line for Banana Republic in partnership with Harlem’s Fashion Row, available September 2021.
We asked Harbison a few questions about fashion, sustainability, and starting and running a creative business. Watch the full interview right here:
Or read on to learn about his creative process and what he has learned as a business owner:
Charles Harbison: I spend copious amounts of time outdoors these days, particularly with COVID happening. It's an opportunity to hike alone, to walk alone. And in LA, I'm at the beach regularly. All of these things are incredibly enriching for me. I find it to be the closest way in which I'm engaging with God; that's the central creative force in my life. So it makes me really happy.
The second way, honestly, would be YouTube. It's served as a place where I get access to people, craftspersons, personalities around the world that I don't think I would inherently interact with. I’ve learned new skills; it’s encouraged me to paint more, because I haven't painted since undergrad.
Charles Harbison: I'm really inspired by my late grandmother Hattie right now. With all the solitude and time alone, I've been doing a lot of thinking and really looking into her life, and mulling over the arc of the work that she took on and what she accomplished in her life. That has been incredibly inspiring. And it dovetails with the story around a freed slave woman from Tennessee who pioneered across the country and garnered land in Oregon on the Homestead Act. I'm using this woman's story as the inspiration for my Banana Republic collaboration collection.
Then I'd say my friend, Michelle. Michelle is my creative partner in business. Just looking at how she navigates life as a woman is inspiring and beautiful.. She has this kind of gravitas and energy that is often not appreciated in the feminine. (There is) something about that I find really intriguing, particularly as I, as a man, want to navigate my masculinity differently, in a softer way.
Charles Harbison: Lesson number one, make the deal work for you. It's been important for me moving forward as an entrepreneur to make sure that the deal works for me. Particularly as a creative entrepreneur, because everything I’m dealing with begins and ends with me. I'm the source of the creativity. I'm the source of the vision, so it has to work for me. That can be hard because you'll find a lot of people who want to partner with you under the premise of it working for them and using you as an opportunity, but I think it's really important for us as creators to know our value.
Additionally, I'd say make your business “product first”. As much as margins are important, and profits are important, again, it doesn't go anywhere unless the product is right.
Charles Harbison: First it's a song called “Afraid” by Amel Larrieux. (It) gets me amped. Then a “Whole Lotta Choppas,” (by) Sada Baby and Nicki Minaj. It gets me incredibly lit in the morning. Nicki is a force; she's a feminist force. I love how much her femininity triggers everyone.
Charles Harbison: Success for me as a fashion designer first starts on the form. It's first about realizing this vision, materializing this vision from the sketch to a form that's three dimensional, and making it make sense to me, and finding it to be well constructed and beautiful. Then the next part of being successful is watching that three dimensional piece make it onto someone's body. It changed everything for me the day that I saw pieces that I made living in the world on someone's body that I didn't know.
Interested in hearing more from designer Charles Harbison or looking for more advice on how to build a business as a creative entrepreneur? Join the Parsons Entrepreneur Academy Network to view the full interview.
Meet the author:
Lenora E. Houseworth is a writer, journalist and social media strategist with a passion for Black culture based in New York City by way of Chicago. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @LenoraSheWrote.
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