With New York Fashion Week in full swing and international ones coming up, we reconnected with two New York-based fashion designers with roots – and hearts – deeply connected to the Charlotte area.
Charles Harbison and Mignonne Gavigan (known locally growing up as Maggie Gavigan) are seeing their work splashed on the pages of fashion magazines and worn by celebrities. This week, we talk with Harbison, a Lincolnton native and N.C. State graduate, who’ll have a solo show Tuesday at the Standard Hotel in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District. (Look for Gavigan in next week’s Style pages.)
In February, Harbison got his biggest celebrity break when Beyoncé Knowles wore head-to-toe Harbison in the front row of the Kanye West x Adidas fashion show at New York Fashion Week. This followed an emotional triumph last October, when he found himself face to face with one of his muses, first lady Michelle Obama, when he was invited to speak on a panel about fashion education at the White House.
Answers have been edited for brevity.
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Q. What was it like to be a speaker at the White House, for the first-ever Fashion Education Workshop with Michelle Obama?
A. It was life-changing. When I got the invitation, I was thrown off. Why am I getting an invitation from the social secretary at the White House? The first lady’s stylist had seen my Kickstarter campaign (Harbison launched one in 2014 that failed to raise sufficient funds, but got him some high-profile attention.) I spoke on a panel about entrepreneurship. Walking through the White House and presenting what I had built was so surreal. To do it in the presence of one of my muses and one of the most iconic women in the world, the first lady, felt like a culmination of a lot of the work that had come before me and I was honoring the work of my grandmother and my mom. I haven’t been able to dress (Michelle Obama) yet, but I’m working on it.
Q. Beyoncé made headlines when she wore your clothes to the Kanye West x Adidas debut fashion show at New York Fashion Week last February, and then her sister Solange was spotted in the same coat at Paris Fashion Week. What’s it like to see your work on celebrities?
A. (Knowles’) stylist reached out and wanted some clothes and we scurried to have them made and had no guarantee of when or where she would wear them. Every time she wore the collection we had no idea. Her stylist texted (during fashion week) saying ‘She is in full Harbison,’ and there she was, on the front row next to Anna Wintour and Kim Kardashian. She really made a big splash in that look, and I was really, really excited by that. She also wore Harbison to the Manny Pacquiao/Mayweather fight in May, a red jumpsuit I had to run from the factory to FedEx to overnight it in time. (He didn’t know that she would be wearing it to the fight.) She wears the collection as Beyoncé. She just gives a transcendent nature. She’s a hard-working, savvy woman with amazing talent and that for me represents the best a woman can be.
Q. When we had checked in with you in fall 2013, Harbison was getting its first big media breaks, with features in Vogue and the New York Times fashion pages, and your first New York Fashion Week solo runway show. How has your life and business changed since then?
A. We’re in a bigger space. My office then was in a closet in the back of a home textile factory. Our studio is in the financial district. It’s still a party of two full-time (employees). We have additional team members who come on board part-time. Beyond that, it is still a startup – a network of friends and supporters.
Q. Tell us about the collection you’re about to show at New York Fashion Week. What inspired the collection?
A. This collection is inspired by a myriad of things. One is a life-sized underwater sculpture called “Vicissitudes,” which is at the bottom of the ocean and has coral and sea life living in it. It’s a beautiful existence underwater. A renegade surfer girl – Joan of Arc, who attacks the biggest waves she’s ever seen, and though she might not win, there’s a beauty in this kind of loss. This show, at the Standard Hotel in the Meatpacking District, will be a really big deal for me. Mom is coming. I need a dose of home here, at every show.