Business of Fashion with Charles Harbison

Charles Harbison is a fast-emerging young name in the business of fashion. He launched his eponymous brand, HARBISON, in 2013. His modern, gender-neutral designs have already caught the eye of some very big names, including Michelle Obama and Queen Bey herself, Beyonce.

A few years ago, I was staying at the Hacienda AltaGracia in Costa Rica before it had officially opened. Different circumstances had brought Harbison to the same hotel. As two of the only guests, we quickly began to strike up a conversation.

Charles Harbison on Starting a Fashion Brand and the Business of Fashion

A Passion for Passion

Despite working in different worlds, we found that we have a lot in common. We bonded in particular over the experience of growing a brand as a creative professional.

At the time, I was working hard to grow Global Image Creation. As much as I loved the work, the marketing side of my own business was a big challenge. Harbison had transitioned from being a designer at somebody else’s label to running his own label only a few years before, and he was still very intentionally building his own brand.

Harbison told me that his journey to becoming a fashion designer had not been a “seamless track”. He initially started his studies in architecture at North Carolina State before being drawn to fiber arts. Later, when he was working in New York City as a textile designer, his best friend asked him to create her wedding dress. Harbison said, “I just fell in love with the process, and I also fell in love with her reaction.” He credits this as the moment that cinched his decision to become a fashion designer.

 Walking With Giants

After studying fashion design at Parson’s, Harbison worked as a women’s designer for big names in the fashion industry, including Michael Kors, Billy Reid, and Luca Luca. In 2013, he launched HARBISON, a luxury fashion brand designed for men and women who embrace both their femininity and their masculinity.

Harbison’s transition from making clothes to becoming a brand was, in his words, “a difficult and a muddy one.”

“Branding is everything in this day and age. Basically, branding is a story. What is the story that you’re seeking to tell with what you’re creating? What is the lifestyle that you’re allowing a client to opt into? That is of maximum importance.”

“At the same time, you can have a great story and a really bad product and that doesn’t work. And you can have a really great product but no story. The two have to not only co-exist but there has to be a tension given to both of them.”

Harbison’s desire to create a legacy brand adds an element to his branding decisions, “I want to be a brand that lives beyond my lifespan. Because of that it’s been a very particular journey and one of intense consideration to create a story and communicate a story that fills a niche and also has something inspirational and aspirational about it, that women and men would want to opt into.”

One of the most pivotal points in the HARBISON brand was a failed crowdfunding campaign in 2014 that brought him to the attention of Michelle Obama’s stylist. Despite not raising sufficient funds, Harbison was invited to speak on a panel at the 2014 Fashion Education Workshop hosted by Michelle Obama.

For Harbison, “it was a magical experience that came out of a seemingly failed initiative.”

This part of the conversation really resonated with me. I don’t achieve things all the time. But, I’m not driven by a specific goal, I’m driven in a direction. I’m driven by a passion.

I think this is a lesson for creative professionals. At some point, you might reach a tipping point, where you finally home in on something that succeeds, and that the world starts rewarding you for. But, I don’t think anybody can achieve anything without failing.

Each failure gets you closer to your success.