In 2016, designer Charles Harbison did what for many would be considered the unthinkable. With his eponymous clothing brand thriving and climbing, frequently worn by the likes of Beyoncé, Solange and Michelle Obama, he decided to walk away. The daring move towards a healthier mental state could have meant the end of the North Carolina native’s tenure in fashion, but his recent comeback is proof of the magic that prioritizing one’s self can yield. Five years later, Harbison’s brand is making a full comeback, and it’s accompanied by a collaboration with Banana Republic.
“I walked away five years ago because I was unhealthy,” Harbison tells ESSENCE. “I had de-prioritized myself in the midst of my own dream and my own endeavors to the degree that there was no source for it anymore. There was a way in which the industry had convinced me that I needed to be the last thing that was sustained. Eventually, the artist in me was broken down so much that I had no more creative energy to infuse into this thing that was fully predicated on my creative energy.” That said, the fashion aficionado packed up his things, moved across the country and poured into himself like never before. “Coming to LA was really about getting my footing and reestablishing a firm personal foundation and prioritizing personal sustainability and wellness,” he says. “Then, you know, COVID hit.” Harbison shares that the initial relaunch was actually planned for two years ago until the global pandemic, however, he views it as a blessing. “Because of it the world was able to take a look at itself in the wake of BLM,” he says. “Now the public and the industry is far more prime to understand what I do and what the Harbison agenda is.”
So what is the Harbison agenda? It all comes down to three kind of aesthetic points of view: style, play, and intellect. “We’re all about affirming black femme perspectives and fashion,” Harbison explains, segweying into another important aspect. “Eco-sustainability is super important for us, but then also cultural sustainability is,” he says. “We’re made up of individuals who are Black, queer, persons of color, immigrants, working class, poor-raised people, artists, women and femme people. Using all of that in our products doesn’t only benefit the cultures that we’re a part of and that we are mining, but it benefits the fashion consumer at large.”
Pulling inspiration from the most influential women in his life, Harbison continues to be just as moved by them now as he was in his formative years. “They’re still my peers, they’re still my cousins, they’re my friends, they’re the women I work with, the women make our clothes, who help us market and sell our clothes,” he says. “I still navigate as a working-class person no matter how aspirational we are in our business endeavors.”
It explains why the collection with Banana Republic, in partnership with Harlem’s Fashion Row, is an 18-piece collection that draws from the nostalgia of the women in his life. “I largely benefit from the fact that there’s so much shared sensibility between Harbison and Banana Republic,” he says. “This idea of creating classic, sustaining pieces and legacy items. There’s this balance between quality, relevance, classicism and modernity, uh, that shared sensibility gets to be the real honest foundation for the pieces.”
The most important lady in his life, his mother, is at the forefront of the Harbison X BR collaboration, giving it her stamp of approval. “Mom has seen the collection, we shot her in the campaign images for it, and she was dressed in a few looks for her birthday was just two weeks ago,” he shares. “She wore one of the dresses at her little birthday get-together. She’s very excited about it and it’s a really nice contradiction, right? This is a woman who is overly acquainted with nurturing others and labor, and I’ve been working in my life to get to a point where I can further release her from that. This is a nice leap in the right direction where I’m able to center her story, her beauty, her sensibility, and let her feel all of that discomfort because that’s good discomfort. Making this woman and women like her understand that the centering of themselves and their story and their desires is, not only important to her, but to the world at large.”
Shop the entire collection at Banana Republic and check out some of our must-haves ahead.