Surrounded by powerful matriarchs who wore clothes to express their individuality, Charles Harbison grew up with a love of fashion. The connective tissue between his inspiration and what he creates is truly ancestral. Harbison launched his eponymous line of bright tailored pieces and sleek eveningwear in 2013, but after a 2016 move to Los Angeles, he put the brand on pause. Still, the change of scenery and shift to a more sustainable way of living only helped to strengthen the tie between his sense of community and work. Now, he’s back with Banana Republic X Harbison, a limited-edition collection that pays tribute to the Black women who helped shape his idea of style.
“About a year ago, Harlem’s Fashion Row put out a call for designers to throw their hat in the ring for a sustainable capsule collection with Banana Republic. I personally despise competitions, but I felt confident in this one because I love and relate to the brand on a personal level,” Harbison tells TZR about how this collaboration came to fruition. “In the end, it was [worth it], and it's been nice to see it all take shape over the last year and grow into something deeply personal to me.” The 18-piece capsule takes the classic aesthetic that Banana Republic is known for and adds a fashion-forward Harbison twist. The collection, named “Legacy of Joy,” first debuted alongside Harbison Studio pieces at Harlem’s Fashion Row show during NYFW in September 2021.
For the collection, Harbison looked to his own community and family for inspiration. Growing up in North Carolina, Harbison’s mother and grandmother worked as a tool factory worker and a factory knitter, respectively. But, in stark contrast to their practical workweek uniforms, he also saw his mother and grandmother transform into glamorous fashion plates on the weekends. “The women in my family were my first examples of the power of fashion and it's become so fundamental to my process because those were my earliest images,” says Harbison. “Those were my first muses. I aspire to be as elegant as my mother. I aspire to be as exciting and well-dressed as my grandmother.” Their technical knowledge of craftsmanship and penchant for style inspired the designer to study art, painting, and textiles at North Carolina State University’s College of Design, before traveling to Central Asia to study textiles for a year abroad.
Harbison then honed his skills at Parsons and later on began working for globally renowned brands like Michael Kors and Billy Reid. In 2013, he launched his eponymous brand, incorporating structure and minimalism into sportswear pieces worn by Beyoncé and former First Lady Michelle Obama. After a five-year hiatus, Harbison’s vision was back on the runway in September 2021.
Harlem’s Fashion Row has been in the business of bringing more Black and brown designers into fashion’s fold for over a decade, and Harbison knows the power of the organization and its founder Brandice Daniel from firsthand experience. “She's had a relationship with me for seven years at this point,” he says. “I trust the intention and the integrity, and I see it working for the sake of all of us. We deserve products that are expansive and excellent.”
Returning To The Runway
“Runways are always exciting because you see the story behind a collection enacted in a kinetic way,” says Harbison. “We live in clothes, we walk in clothes, and clothes come alive on bodies in motion.” After all his time away, Harbison found himself reemerging with a sense of optimism. “It was a great time to present both my main collection and this collaboration because so much of what the collab and my brand stand for are things that are more top of mind today than ever.”
One priority for the designer is inclusivity, a foundation of the Harbison brand that has helped shape every aspect of his work. Harbison’s imagery showcases different ages, hair textures, and figures, and his clothing extends to a size 20. “I've seen the extent of the inequity and the lack of representation,” Harbison explains of his 15-year career. “Representation isn't important only from a marketing point of view. It's important that the products are as diverse as the individuals who move this industry forward, from customers to craft people, models, owners, designers, and marketers.”
Again, Harbison attributes his passion and commitment to diversity to the women he grew up with. “They represented gender equity in that they were strong women who did strong work, but also they transformed into these feminine versions of themselves,” says Harbison. “They ran the gamut of what a person could represent in the world and how a person could move in the world. They represented body diversity and body positivity in that they loved how they were shaped and they sought to highlight it. There’s just so much about our collective cultural language today that I saw in real time, early in my life.”
Towards The Future
Designing his collaboration with Banana Republic, Harbison wanted to examine the shift towards comfortable dressing over the past year and a half. “The great thing about American sportswear is it's always been about taking luxury and making it work in the lives of active people,” he says. “It's always important for me that duality be present in every design. ... We've become far more focused on comfort over the past couple years of difficulty and now that gets to be reflected in the product that I want to create.” To Harbison, it’s a move towards sustainability, not only from an ecological standpoint but also in sustaining personal lives “where the items that we're buying are making our individual lives better and easier.”
As a small business, responsible practices have been integral to the brand from day one. “Even if we're not creating organic or naturally derived fabrics, most of the time we're using things that already exist in the world,” he explains of his choice to use deadstock fabric. “That in and of itself is more responsible because we're not using more raw materials. With my latest Harbison collection, we've used a lot of deadstock and vintage buttons and there's no compromise on quality or beauty.”
Harbison also partners with innovators like Textile Exchange that are creating fully circular ways of approaching fabric and textile recycling. “You can take old garments, break them down to their fiber level, and then reconfigure them,” he says of the method. “It’s a fully circular intra-industry process, which is really exciting. All of that is because we're nimble, we care, and fabric for me was my first love even before fashion. That's how we approached it with Harbison and we were able to touch on some of those things with the Banana Republic collaboration as well.”
As for what’s next for Harbison? It all comes down to one word: growth. “I'm quite addicted to it — growing as a person, growing our team at Harbison, growing the kind of code of product that we're able to design and put out in the world, growing our collaborators,” he says. “I love growth. I believe in myself and the team and everything we stand for. I've been at this for a while so I’m grateful to be at this place where there's a new kind of attention on [the brand].” Harbison is betting on himself and his team in 2022. And honestly, so should you.