Fashion Designer Charles Harbison on the Books that Influence Him
From Elie Wiesel to Patti Smith, James Baldwin, and the Bible
“In the end,” Patti Smith writes in her epigraph about Robert Mapplethorpe in Just Kids, “truth will be found in his work, the corporeal body of the artist. It will not fall away. Man cannot judge it. For art sings of God, and ultimately belongs to him.” I quote this epigraph because it articulates an idea that has lured as many artists to New York City as the Statue of Liberty’s inscription— “Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”—has brought immigrants. Contained in both sets of words is a promise: a better life, one created from the labor of the body. I am not talking about bootstrap politics when I say this—the whole “If I can do it, you can too” humbug that destroys more than it builds because it deludes us into thinking we’ve built what we have alone. I am talking about something much closer to reality.
I am talking about the artists who came and continue to come to New York City hoping to not only find truth in their work but to create it. I am talking about the immigrants who left and are still leaving their home countries because they realized, some time ago, home has to be made elsewhere. I am talking about a romanticism born of desperation, how these forces conspire to turn multiple bodies into one. Many artists, like many immigrants, come to this city alone. Few have ever survived this way. Fewer want to. This, to me, is the promise of Smith’s epigraph: if you’re devoted to the truth of your body and the work it produces, you don’t have to do it alone. There is help beyond the horizon.
The pursuit of this promise has taken fashion designer Charles Harbison over many horizons—painting, sculpture, visual arts. The first however, was books. I met up with Charles at Little Skips, a café in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn to talk about the books that have informed his aesthetic as a fashion designer, how he brings his readings of these books to the body, and why the clothes he creates for men and women—but mainly women—ultimately sing of God.
Yahdon Israel: What informs your aesthetic?
Charles Harbison: Books really do influence how I see the world. I don’t really know why. It could be that I was more confident in my intellect than I was in my artistic creativity—and not that the two are mutually exclusive. I led with my mind. That was my biggest weapon, my biggest tool. I was very acquainted with words and the value of expressing my thoughts and communicating my thinking and beliefs. With creativity, with art, with visual art—painting, sculpture, fabric manipulation and now fashion—it’s always been informed by some place of intellect. Namely something literature-based because that’s where I go first to find clarity.
YI: What writers or books do you remember first giving you that clarity.
CH: Honestly the Bible. I’m a southern Boy and that was the first place I went to of my own desire to find information.
YI: Do you remember the first verse you read?
CH: Psalm 23—“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” It was this acquaintance with an authority that had your best interest at heart. That’s what I needed to find. I needed to find information that would tell me that there were as an entity that was thinking on my behalf when I felt that even the people and the things around me weren’t thinking on my behalf. That was not so much freeing; it was affirming, emboldening. It granted safety. So I could walk out to go to school the next day being the heady, queer, happy, sporty, insecure, chubby boy that I was. I needed to find a place reminding me that I was good, I was safe, I was protected and ok—and [The Bible] is where I found it. So a lot of the writers I go to provide what I first came to in the Bible.
YI: Move me to the next step in your maturation.
CH: After [The Bible] the next book I remember really exciting me was Night by Elie Wiesel. I’m a working class boy from the rural south. Outside of Charlotte, closer to the foothills of the Appalachians. So intellectualism was not at the core of my upbringing. The intellectualism that we did navigate was based on the Bible. Night, however, was this triumphant ass story. It was beautifully written. Insofar as I could relate to something so unrelatable, I was being helped by the writer to do the work to at least be tragedy adjacent.
When I was in Uzbekistan teaching English and studying central Asian textiles—I love central Asian textiles; I was a textile commission student at NC State—I took a train from Samarkand into the village to take one of my students to visit his family for the weekend. And the train felt like a Soviet era, concentration camp-like train. It was cold, there was no heat. It was freezing. There were five beds stacked because it was an overnight train. I was just lying there, shivering, with all these coats on, crying because I was so cold, and I didn’t know it was going to be this hard. I just thought my North Face parka was going to be enough. And I remember thinking about Night. I remember lying there thinking about those paragraphs where Wiesel described what the travel was like, about the darkness and hearing the sounds and not knowing what was happening. Filling in all the blanks and the terror that that brings on as well.
YI: What did your experience with textiles teach you?
CH: I saw on a more indigenous level how beautiful jacquard fabrics, how beautiful embroideries actually happen. From the root of the plant, to dying configuration with berries, your yarn. Multiple women, work on the tapestry, and carpets. And then have these beautiful textiles that have been painstakingly created simply be the base of your life—so you sit on them to eat, you sleep on them. Toss ‘em in your bag. Lay them on the grass. These textiles are precious because they satisfy so many uses.
YI: It’s funny; you were talking about the Bible being one of the cornerstones of your identity—especially in this sense of protection. The way you talk about the Bible seems to match the aesthetic you create for women with your clothes, creating for them a sense of protection. The symmetrical figures and shapes you use in your designs—squares and triangles—create a kind of shelter for the wearer. From place to place, they’re protected by your clothing in the same you credit the Bible’s role in your life—affirming, emboldening and safe.
CH: That’s exactly what I want to do. I found safety in words, obviously, but also in visuals after that. It was a place of escape for me. I color and draw and go into these alternate worlds by way of that process. With Harbison I wanted to create a safe haven for women and men to aesthetically represent themselves to the world with more power, grace, and intellect.
YI: How did Harbison begin, was it always unisex?
CH: Yes. When I launched, my look book was maybe like ten girl looks, four guy looks. And people were like, “Oh you do men’s too?” And I was like no. I’m approaching gender-neutrality from a women’s standpoint. Most collections are set up for women to opt into a man’s wardrobe. But I want to offer men something more romantic. Something more intriguing and intellectual and soft. All the things that women’s fashion really exemplifies. So doing it from “her” point-of-view, it’s less about her having to do a lot of work to move towards a man’s direction and more about having men work in a woman’s direction. Because maybe if men navigated the world with more tactile connection to how a woman navigates, maybe it could interrupt sexism in some way.
YI: There are two things I’m thinking about while you’re saying this. I own a pair of high-top patent leather pair of Maison Margiela sneakers. They took a very long time to break in so, at first, they hurt. And the whole time, walking around in pain, I actually started to think, “This is what women go through.” I’m projecting this coolness to everyone watching me, but my fucking feet hurt.
The other thing is this interview Grace Jones did where she says men have to learn how “take it.” Of course, there’s this overt sexual meaning to what she’s saying. On a deeper level though there’s this concept of being able to accept what the world gives you, emotionally. As men, we’re typically not raised to do that. Many of us are raised to not take shit from anyone, and that puts really puts us in really violent negotiations with each other. Like, “You’re going to let him do that? Aren’t you a man?” Which assumes men are always in control of a situation when in reality we’re not.
CH: It’s interesting that you say this. Right now I’m reading a book, A Convergence of Two Minds by Randolph Croxton. It basically goes through this configuration of the left and right brains, the femaleness and the maleness we all occupy, and how DNA and RNA configure these different physical representations of our gender—how that manifests itself mentally, and how we end up with a range of representations of each of the genders. One of the things Croxton talks about, with the right and the left brain, is how femaleness is typified by creativity and opportunity. The male side is more synonymous with protection and maintenance.
So when you’re talking about Grace wanting men to learn how to take it, it’s that femaleness that says you take the hand you’re dealt and you figure out how to move forward. How to configure it in a way that works for you; how to use these tools to get where you want to go. Whereas a male-centered mind may look and say, this is the hand I was dealt? No, no, no. This can’t be. I’m not moving until you give something different. And there’s value to both interpretations, but there’s so much resistance that comes with the male mind—maleness can pull us back instead of leaning in and figuring out new solutions. So yeah, men need to learn how to take it.
YI: The first essay I ever read of Hilton Als was “Philosopher or Dog” from White Girls. It was an intellectual takedown of The Autobiography of Malcolm X on how Malcolm basically used his mother’s life as an idea to justify his anger, rather than examining who his mother actually was. I remember my blood boiling because Malcolm was the paradigm for a lot of young, poor, black boys from street, and I was one of them. So that takedown of Malcolm, and what Malcolm did to his mother in that book—refusing to reckon with the reality of who she was, instead of what he wanted her to be—was what I resisted because it made me realize how many of my relationships with women were being negotiated in the same terms. The women in my life had always mattered in relation to what they could do for me, not in relation to what they could do for themselves. Coming back to the aesthetic you create for women, you force people to reckon with the women who wear your clothes.
CH: It’s true. I want to highlight women for the reasons they don’t get highlighted, and this idea of housing them is really resonating with me on a personal level. The core of this for me is my mother. She is my first reference point for a dressing process. I saw what dressing did for her, and how she turned into a more confident, elegant version of herself by going through the dressing process in the way that she wanted to. She was a working class woman on a set building line in a tool factory. On the weekends she’d be beautiful and elegant. We’d be at the mall, and she was at church being beautiful and kind to everyone, and looking far more centered and peaceful. She was waking up at 5:30 in the morning during the week, Monday-Friday, to go the factory. Dropping me off at my grandma’s house, coming back home with dirty nails, and sometimes having to shave her feet with the pumice stone.
It was amazing watching that process. I want to replicate that process for women. What my mom did for herself with dressing, I want to help women do for themselves.
YI: I remember you telling me that Patti Smith was one of your favorite writers. What do you remember her giving you?
CH: I read Just Kids while in St. Croix visiting with my best friends. I had been working in New York for six, seven years. I’d just turned 30, and I wasn’t happy with the trajectory that my life was on. At that point, I was working 15 hour days as the women’s wear director at Billy Reid. I was working sometimes seven days a week. Tirelessly working, traveling a lot, with lots of responsibilities and small team, overworked and underpaid but all because I loved the craft. A lot of things are able to persist in fashion because you have people who just love the craft, so we end up eating crow just for the opportunity—not to work, but to do this thing we love.
Eventually I was just like—my life was just not going where I wanted it to go. I wasn’t healthy. I didn’t see this taking me to the quality of life that I wanted to have. So I quit, did yoga, became a vegan, started taking care of myself, and in this six-month period I began traveling for myself—because I hadn’t ever traveled for anything besides work. I went to visit my best friend, Kelly, in St. Croix. While I was there I had Just Kids with me because I’m a “Brooklyn kid,” I’m a hipster.
I came to Brooklyn ten years ago with that romanticized reference point of Patti and Robert and how to be an artist in New York. I was lying in the sun reading it and was just enamored with how complicated and complex Robert and Patti’s love affair was, how fully devoted to each other they were no matter what state they were in, and also how this was largely led by Patti. She was arguably the stronger, more aggressive one who took more initiative in the relationship. I found this so beautiful.
On top of that, her brand of beauty, aesthetically, was fully her own. It wasn’t conventional. She wrote about Robert with such care and love all these years later. There’s so many passages. I remember loving the passages about the handmade jewelry, how they were able to find things, and when they lived in the Chelsea Hotel and how they had nothing but one another, hanging out on the fire escape, interacting with all the other artists of the time. I remember thinking, if they could have the reckless abandon in New York for their art and for one another, for their craft, why am I thinking I have to do this through the filter of a job.
They came from nowhere to come to New York. I’m from Lincolnton, North Carolina, but I’m in New York. I wanted to be recklessly devoted to my craft and my dream. When I came back from St. Croix, I made some samples just to see what would happen and to buy myself some time. It took a lot to get to that point—I had to spend the money I’d saved. But I needed to take that risk for myself. It felt like the next step, and it was all based on a woman’s words.
YI: There’s a particular piece in your line I looked at—the turtleneck midriff sweater—and the first thing I thought was, “I could never wear that.” I bring this up because we’re talking about this idea of the disruption in misogyny that could possibly occur if men embraced their bodies the way women do, and men’s resistance to this—and I’m thinking about how much of my response, how much of my comfort, is linked to that resistance.
CH: There’s ways to wear that piece though. Like that can be a layering piece over a shirt. Even over a tall tee-shirt, with jeans and a boot. That’d be epic.
YI: But you see what you just did? You looked at something as it was presented in one way and embraced it in another way that transforms it. I never would have thought of that, particularly because of that resistance I’ve been talking about. This is why women have influenced my wardrobe more than men. They’re constantly rearranging the few things they have in ways that make the old new. I’d watch the women in my family do this. I’d watch them take one piece and wear it so many ways, you’d thought they were shopping every weekend. That was a testament of their ingenuity. It was also a necessity because so much of our survival depended on my mother’s ability to take one thing and turn into 12—food, money, clothes.
CH: You get access to so much more of your brain when you do the work to counter your natural response. That’s the beauty of being human. And the amazing thing about being a man is that you’re already in a privileged place in society. So then to be able to get greater access to your intellect and to look at more possibilities around it: there’s so much power to be had.
I find myself wearing more color when things are hard and I’m wondering if that’s one of the reasons why women often opt to wear color. To brighten up the darkness. It’s an energy thing.
YI: Tell me more about the writers who influence your aesthetic.
CH: Augusten Burroughs. He wrote Dry, Running with Scissors, and several other books I’ve read. Burroughs is a gay man, so that helps. His memoirs are witty, self-deprecating; they’re very transparent. He plays up the drama in his life which is kind of indicative of what many gay men do. They kind of become a caricature of ideas in a lot of ways—not all of them—but it’s one of our coping mechanisms. The thing about me that makes you uncomfortable: instead of me removing it, I’m going to intensify it so that it overwhelms you, and you get out the way. That’s how many men in gay culture deal with homophobia. Augusten’s writing is much like that. Running With Scissors, even that title is a dramatic representation of his upbringing, but he leans into the drama—and I appreciate that. It hits hard, it’s punchy. and there are levels, but it always goes back to 100, which I find wonderful.
YI: Interestingly enough, all of my favorite male writers are gay—James Baldwin, Truman Capote, and Hilton Als. I think about them in the context of how I first learned to “read” by watching my mother. I don’t mean necessarily mean reading books. We’d be watching a television show or a Disney movie, and she’d intellectually tear that shit apart. She’d tell me what messages were really being sent when I watched certain shows, how to decipher what was meant from what was said and use context as proof of meaning. This was how I became literate. And it wasn’t a fun process. It required me to look at things too closely. Something I hated to do, but that’s what each of these writers do. Thinking about my mother, I imagine that Baldwin, Capote, and Als didn’t necessarily like reading so much into things, but that they had to in order to survive—that’s why there’s that vindictive tone in their writing sometimes. I’m sure my mother would’ve liked to turn the television on and laugh like everyone else, but she’d see some shit that would would set her off, and she’d let us know.
So if the coping mechanism for many gay men is to play up, to dramatize, then “reading” is that thing which keeps the drama in check.
CH: Yes! Totally! Because that’s how we encounter one another. That’s beautifully put because Baldwin definitely does read people. I just got finished reading Nobody Knows My Name, and the way that he even reads himself is beautiful. But the read he does of Richard Wright in “Alas, Poor Richard”—there’s so much shade in there.
I try to lay “reads” into my work. I try to start some conversation around or exposition of what misogyny, homophobia, and class do to us, particularly to the body. I like to do reads across the board—I like seeing how my clothes read on the bodies of men and women of color, then I like seeing how my work reads on white bodies; I like women in trousers, I like men in shrugs. We should be able to talk about stuff in fashion. People have rendered fashion to be so superficial.
I just had an interview last week on how, as a young black fashion designer, how I am influenced by the Black Lives Movement—or if I am influenced by it at all—and I was just like, “Black lives have always mattered to me.” I don’t need a movement to confirm what I already believe, live, and do.
I’m just looking to move the needle in a positive direction.
YI: So tell me what you’ve noticed about your different reads, and how different bodies change them.
CH: Irony is key in my work. I’m not really interested if there’s no irony. I like to step back and think about what a look does. Like, on a black woman, am I offering a new take by way of this look? If she has natural hair, curly and I put her in a red suit and a heel, does that give me church? If I put her in a white sneaker, there’s some irony there. She’s cool in a different way. She’d wearing a red suit, but she’s wearing it with a sneaker so she could’ve actually just jumped off a skateboard.
And I think about that. Have we seen that visual before—a chick in a red suit—a black chick, big curly hair, sneakers, on a skateboard? Have we ever seen that? No. I haven’t. But that can happen. That’s important for me because the marginalization of people of color means that the images others see, but also the images they see of themselves, are convention.
This heaviness, for me, helps me to create visuals that are new and fresh. I know all of the weight behind it. I don’t expect you to. I love the opportunity, when I get to talk about it. But just the sheer fact that I’m offering a new visual vocabulary, I think it moves us all forward. At least I feel like I’m doing my job.
Feature photo by Marcqui Atkins.