INTRODUCING BR x HARBISON
Introducing Banana Republic x Harbison, the limited-edition, consciously designed line featuring a range of bold, vibrant, inclusive pieces. BR partnered with designer Charles Harbison to create a collection inspired by the strong women he grew up around and still surrounds himself with. Riding on the wave of this colorful inspiration full of life, Harbison propelled his design vision to the forefront of modern luxury. Genderful. Evocative. Beautiful. Powerful.
We sat down with Harbison and his mother to learn more about his inspiration and his values that influenced these designs. Listen to our audio above - and transcribed below - and explore the full collection at bananarepublic.gap.com.
BANANA REPUBLIC X HARBISON
BR : Charles, it's obviously a pleasure to have you here with your mother and we're looking forward to these questions and answers. So the first question, you mentioned that your mother was one of your muses and your first introduction to fashion. And in the notes to your collection for Banana Republic, you speak about the inspiration and joy that you take from biological and from chosen family. Why is family so important to you? And then as a second part of that question, can you speak to the influence, especially of the women in your life, in your aesthetic and sensibility as a designer?
Charles: When I think about family, for me, it was the initial point of safety that I felt, and I had the privilege of growing up around so much family. We grew up in a neighborhood where cousins and great aunts and great uncles, all lived within five blocks, four blocks even, of one another and all converged weekly on the same church. And we were welcome in everyone's home. Everyone raised me. And so family was, it was an insulation, it was a safety mechanism. It was comforting. It was insulation from the world. And there's a way in which I find that my confidence and my belief in myself really blossom in that atmosphere and in that environment.
Maybe a confidence that would be tried in the outside world, but that space was grooming for a young, queer, artistic, nerdy boy like myself. And then, as I kind of grew in loving art and loving design, one of the most inspiring processes I saw, was dressing and it was something that was really rooted in the women in this family, namely, mom first, my grandmother, my aunt and their cousins. And I saw this happen every weekend. It was such an exciting ceremony of getting dressed for church, particularly because we grew up in a working class, poor community where everyone was a blue collar worker for the most part or working in factories in administration roles. So the day-to-day life was utilitarian.
Charles (cont'd): The day-to-day life was devoted to maintaining your family, getting them what they needed, but there was some sort of excitement and freedom that would happen on the weekends, particularly on Sundays and that was synonymous with dressing. And I think I subconsciously aligned the two mechanisms in my head, that joy and freedom kind of equaled the art of dressing. And that was namely happening either with me watching the women or them involving me in the process. Also, it was a point of excitement that I would experience with mom. I'm sure you remember all of those shopping trips on the weekend.
Charles’s Mother: Shopping trips, especially around Christmas.
Charles: Yeah. And it was like our time to be free. And I used to think it was about me, but now looking back, I think it was really about her and her needing the space to occupy her woman-ness, her humanness in a bigger way. And these two days were two days where the 8 to 10 hours wasn't devoted to a job and the remaining ones to a family. These two days were monopolized more with fun and shopping for us. Beauty...
Charles’s Mother: You would always look forward to that Friday. Because we knew we were going to go shopping on Saturday.
Charles’s Mother: And that's just how it was. You work hard through the week and you get ready for the weekend.
Charles: It was amazing.
Charles’s Mother: And when you talked about family, not only with your family there, but also we lived in an area where friends on that same street was family.
Charles’s Mother (cont'd): Everybody was family. And he was born at a time where there was no other children on that street. So he was the baby of the neighborhood and everybody adopted to him. People would come over in the neighborhoods, can I have him today? Can I keep him today? Can I keep them this weekend? Can I take him shopping? And they would just bring clothes over and keep him. Every day I think he was in a different outfit.
Charles: Oh my God.
Charles’s Mother: And it was just from the neighborhood, people and everybody just grabbed on to him. He was the first baby in the neighborhood.
Charles: On Matt Bay Street.
Charles’s Mother: On Matt Bay Street. And so not only you had family, the friends there that lived there, they were just like family also. And everybody worked. And when the weekend came, that was when we transitioned from the work clothes and whatever.
Charles’s Mother: Yes.
Charles: Like picnics and shopping and church and softball games, And from a beauty point of view, I always found my mom, my aunt…
Charles’s Mother: And we can't not mention Sylvia.
Charles: Oh yeah.
Charles’s Mother: Sylvia was... That was our running partner.
Charles: Completely. So my mom's cousin Sylvia basically, growing up, she was an aunt to me as well, in addition to my aunt Claudia, and she and my mom ran hard together on the weekends at malls and...
Charles’s Mother: At sales.
Charles: Exactly, chasing sales.
Charles’s Mother: Sylvia would get the sale paper. And we'd go every Saturday, we would chase down these sales, bring back these clothes and it was really, really bad around Christmas time. She and I both laugh at it now because now we don't even... She says, I can't even go shopping anymore.
Charles: Because you’re shopped out.
Charles’s Mother: Yes, yes.
Charles: And they had a similar like kind of brand of beauty, a similar look, they had short hair, both sporty, gorgeous, but not a lot beauty application. It was just, I loved it.
BR : Maybe we can talk about that for a second. I'm going to deviate. And I want to maybe see if we can tie this into your design aesthetic. You have a really great embrace of color and hue in your designs. And I think a really sophisticated and nuanced approach to palette. I wonder, in seeing your mother and the women that you grew up around, was there that same sense of vibrancy of color, pattern, of a joyful expression?
Charles: Yeah, yeah, it was... I mean, when you look at the black Southern church and the dressing process, there's a bit of like peacocking in there and also relegating some sort of joie de vivre or some sort of excitement to that day. So the palette and the colors reflected the excitement, right? For this process, for the ceremony, for this gathering. And then I'm surrounded by brown hued people, brown hued women who just wear color like nobody's business, any bloody color. And they did. And it was... I remember the closet, there was a particular jacket my mom had, my little brother talks about it as well. It had so many, I don't remember how many colors were on this jacket. This jacket was so chaotic, but exciting. It was graphic. It was like Mondrian-esque. But then like with all these shapes on top of it, hilarious, I adored that jacket.
And I think subconsciously, I was referencing all of that or at least cataloging all of that. And then growing up in nature as well, which can't be left out of this, this all happened outside. The beauty of growing up in a rural area, flowers and gardens and trees. And I grew up near a cemetery and I just remember all the flowers on the graves. So these things where just, the visuals and the aesthetics that were home. And I think even now, they're home to me in terms of design. And it's nice to know that I'm drawing on all of those things, even the hydrangea bush outside of my grandmother's window. I remember that bush, I remember that blue. All of that.
She also had a propensity to wear palettes galore. And she had a matching clutch bag and a matching pump that I found so inspiring, but it had like a snake skin and it was sort of like, it was gold and another color. I don't know, it had so many colors and textures in this shoe. That then matched this bag that they've even worn with earrings that have all the same colors in it. And it was just a feast for the eyes. And you take that on one person and then you put it amongst a family on a Saturday at a picnic, right? And they're all doing that. Or on a Sunday, in a whole neighborhood, it's a lot to take in and it's really joyful. And it was a way in which I think there was a preservation of humanness, like fighting for your humanness because you're navigating dynamics that are difficult, right? And so I think that's why there is this dedication to joy.
BR : Maybe this is... We'll jump ahead to question number three, because we've sort of touched on it, which is, when you speak about your collection for Banana Republic you referred to a legacy of joy. And maybe if you can articulate what that means a little bit more, and then also for the collection. And I also maybe want to dial in and sort of, is the hope that when people wear your clothes, they experience this joy and how we connect this legacy of joy to your clothing and your designs and then the experience of wearing them?
Charles: I always say that I want to create pieces that give people, namely women, the tools to aesthetically represent themselves to the world with more joy and confidence, elegance, and a sense of self, that's always been my thing. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that I saw that happen for my mom. I saw that happen for the women in my family, where there was a sense of ease and confidence that came about after the dressing process for special occasions. And you can probably speak to that more, but there was this acquisition of joy that seemed to come through this process.
Additionally, in looking at a legacy of joy, it's important to me because the narrative around so many of my identities, whether it's my blackness or my queerness, or the fact that I was raised poor or whatever, so much of that can be a mind with plight and the oppression that befalls those identity groups. But my experience early in the world, while even navigating all those things was full of so much joy. I was allowed to be really queer. I was allowed to be a sissy boy. I saw all of these people, pull resources, live together beautifully and excitingly and joyfully before I knew what the dynamics were outside, that were seemingly on their shoulders all the time. So in my mind, a legacy of joy is important in order to help stave off the marginalization that can befall us…
To be centered on a narrative that highlighted the beauty of these identities and not to be centered on the difficulties. I think that's important because even when you look at fashion, we draw so much from queer people, from black people, people of color, immigrant people…
Dedication to reflecting your own aesthetic self in the world that you really see with people who have less. And that process is so inspiring and artistic and human and honest. And then in fashion, we just draw on it all the time and then we sell it to the masses. But what we don't often talk about is the fact that we are drawing on it. And I wanted this collaboration to allow both myself, Harbison, and Banana Republic and HFR who already do that beautifully, allow us to really zero in on the fact that yes, it is to the benefit of all of us, that we acknowledge women of color, non-binary and queer people, people who come from less resources and even from a sustainability point of view, those people are inherently more sustainable in the world. So there's an honesty there that I think is important that we all acknowledge. I really wanted this collaboration to do so in a really focused and inarguable way.
Charles’s Mother: I was thinking about the clothes and when people wear these clothes for them to see it as a story, it's a story behind this outfit that I have on, there's a story behind this designer and how he came about doing this. So I just don't just have on this piece here, I don't know a story behind none of this I have on right now, but when you put on Banana Republic and this line from Harbison, I kind of want people to reflect back on the story that came behind it. Not even starting with the clothes, but first of all, looking to where a person came from. And if you stick to what you really believe in, and if you stick to your gift, even though you may have to sway off for a while, you still come back to that gift, that this is where it can land you at. So don't think because you have this gift and you came up in this type of an atmosphere, and neighborhood that you can't do anything with it, you can, but you have to continue to press and to keep your dream alive.
And even when you feel like you're hopeless, you have to always hold on to this little bit of hope that this is what can come of it. And so it's like, when you put on... Say you have a young black girl and she's 14 and she puts on a piece and she knows the story behind the piece, it gives her hope, like I can do this, I can create this. My dream does not have to die.
BR : Charles, what do you see as the value of partnerships like those between Harlem's Fashion Row and Banana Republic and the advancement of BIPOC designers, and why is it important to have organizations like HFR partnering with designers? When we speak to hope, we speak of these stories that can be told, you personally embodied them, maybe you can speak to that partnership and how it helps not only you but other designers and generations of designers to come?
Charles: One of the biggest difficulties for me, when I decided to take this chance on fashion was that I didn't really know of designers who had a similar story as mine. And I still was looking to particular icons, particularly iconic designers that I aesthetically related to and who I adored and that was, it gave me confidence to follow their lead. But at the same time, it would have been particularly important for my heart if I had seen stories or knew of designers that I could relate to on a personal level and not just an aesthetic one. And it wasn't until I was further in my career, that I connect to Patrick Robinson personally, who's become a mentor, then made privy to Willi Smith and Stephen Burrows, Tracy Reese, once I moved here, et cetera, Avery Buchanan. And having connections to all of those designers really became invaluable to me as I navigated the industry. If I could offer that to someone earlier in their career, that would be wonderful and initiatives like this allow that to happen.
The sense of possibility is important in grooming expertise in craft. When you know that the possibility is there, then you're more dedicated and focused on seeing the process through. And it really helps eliminate impediments and barriers. So I think initiatives like this really help that process. Additionally, it just makes the market better. Everyone deserves to have work coming from everyone because we all relate to one another in different ways. Creating clothes that are made by a designer with a particular narrative, benefits everyone, regardless of their narrative. It gives men, women and other people, the option to opt into a product that can titillate them in a different way. And when the market is overly focused on particular identities or class experiences, you're making it far more provincial than an art form should be.
BR : What does it mean for you as an established designer to have your collection sold at a Banana Republic store? And I'm not just talking about a Banana Republic store in New York city or Los Angeles, but for it to be accessible to people that live outside of these major centers?
Charles: I was raised outside of major fashion centers and going to South Park mall with my mom on the weekends, these were the stores for me that were aspirational. And again, to partner with them, it means that I am able to take this story and this aesthetic that I believe in and dispense it amongst such a wide group of people. And that's been something I've not been able to do up until this point. I have a real connection to Banana Republic. I worked there in undergrad as a sales associate. So we really relate on ideas around utilitarian aspiration, around covetable heritage, around American sportswear, luxury on the street, all of those ideas are ideas that Harbison shares directly with Banana Republic. So it felt like such an organic and has been such an organic process. And I think that'll be evident in the clothing and in the visuals as well.
So I'm really excited and grateful because it's also the first time I'm getting clothes to so many people in my neighborhood, when growing up, to so many people in my family. I create pieces at a particular price point based on the quality that we seek to hit as a small company. The great thing about Banana Republic and the scale is that we can hit amazing quality, but at a more price conscious point of view while infusing it with ideas around sustainability. And it's such an invaluable and exciting and paradigm shifting partnership for me and I think for the market, I think it's going to serve as a great example.
BR : Fantastic. Thank you. All right. As a mother, what does it mean for you to see your son as a designer succeeding through collaborations like this with Banana Republic and in his career as a designer?
Charles’s Mother: What it means to me? I can't explain it, what it means in one word, but I can say that it means to me, it's just incredible. I mean, it means to me just seeing beauty come alive, it means to me seeing struggle come alive. It means to me, it's just joyful. It's just joyful. That's really about the only way... I'm proud. I'm really a proud mom. When I look back at all the struggles and I can feel things that I wish would have been better, I wish I would have known to do, but when I see him get to this point, it makes me feel just proud.
Charles: We're all living amongst one another. So why shouldn't we all be channeling the stories of one another. We all learn from one another. We all partner with one another in life. So in our imagery and in our products, it doesn't make sense that we wouldn't be thoughtful of one another. And again, I have the benefit of being several of these quote-unquote others. And so of course it is inherent to me to tell these stories that are particular to me, that may feel like it's coming from an inclusive point of view. For me, it's coming from an honest point of view, a personal point of view.
And then even looking outside of myself, I'm with people from around the world all the time. My friend group is full of people from around the world. My customer base is full of people from around the world, of different gender identities. And I find personal narratives so inspiring and so exciting. So it inherently is infused in the product. As artists and designers and creatives, that should be baseline for us in my opinion. I don't think it takes a special initiative to be thoughtful in the way that our craft should set us up to be.
So, yeah, it's just about being honest and comprehensive.
BR: Sustainability, it's at the forefront for Banana Republic design initiatives, but most importantly, yours as a designer too. And obviously hearing you reference growing up in the countryside, being inspired by nature, I myself am immediately getting more understanding of why that's so important to you. Can you share and speak to what sustainability means to you and why it was important, and I was very much aware of this, why it was important to ensure that it was integral to your design process for your partnership with Banana Republic?
Charles: Definitely. For me, sustainability is important because the earth was my first palette. It was my first canvas. I lived in nature as a child, growing up working class, being farm to table wasn't a special thing, it was just how he lived. So, picking strawberries with my grandmother, shucking corn on the front porch, watching those things go from the earth into the kitchen, into our bodies. Re-usability was inherent to who we were as people, passing things down. So there was a natural respect for things in the earth. So when I came to sustainability as a notion, it just made complete sense to me. But in order for it to mean as much as it means to me today, I had to look at it in a different way. So we look at it at Harbison in a three pronged fashion.
So we look at personal sustainability, where the sustainment of oneself is important. The sustainment of oneself is central. It has to be the nucleus of every life. We look at it as cultural sustainability, where you're seeing through the sustaining of cultures and identities and groups of people, knowing that that is where the human experience really thrives. And then we look at environmental sustainability, where if those two things are present, then it's natural that you would care about the earth and be thoughtful of it because you're caring about the people of the earth and you're also caring about yourself. That has been helpful in us framing a conversation that feels less rooted in a trend and more rooted in the foundation of who we are as a company and who I am as a designer.
With this partnership, I wanted sustainability to be central because it's central to us. And it's a way that I could continue moving the needle forward. Not only from an identity point of view, but in something that's even bigger than identity and that's our existence. As an industry, we are not doing our part. I'm trying to do what little bit I can and do so increasingly over time, this is a first step. We will get better. It is imperative that we get better
BR: If you could describe Harbison in one word, as a brand, as a design, what would that word be?
Charles: Harbison is a brand experience that promotes a sense of style, play and intellect. And if I were to sum all that up into one word, I'd say joy.