The fashion world can thank the women in Charles Harbison’s family for his love of style. Growing up in North Carolina, the California-based Harbison Studio designer drew inspiration from his mother Dana, a tool factory worker, as well as his grandmother Hattie, a factory knitter. As a kid, come Friday night, Harbison would watch them take off their blue-collar attire and transform into “elegant, confident versions of themselves,” with the help of oversized jewelry and a pantsuit.
“It's a beautiful way to navigate the world where you don't compromise any part of yourself,” he tells Refinery29. “I saw those women do that beautifully.”
It then makes sense that Dana and Hattie, as well as Harbison's aunts and cousins, became the inspiration behind the designer’s collaboration with Banana Republic, out now. The 18-piece collection is a homecoming of sorts for Harbison, who worked for Banana Republic in college, and includes two-piece utilitarian suits, puff-sleeve tops, belted mini skirts, and day dresses.
“The great thing is that we've seen that collaboration grow from something quite small and hyper-focused to something a bit more expansive over this past year,” Harbison says, noting that the range of pieces in the lineup has expanded throughout the process. “And that is a testament to the synergy between Harbison and Banana Republic.”
Since launching in 2013, Harbison Studio has focused on minimal, structured sportswear that was heavily influenced by his training as an architect at Parsons The New School for Design — pieces worn by celebrities like Beyoncé, Solange Knowles, and Michelle Obama. In 2016, Harbison moved to Los Angeles. As a result, the brand went on a hiatus. “I left New York for L.A. to establish a better, more sustainable life for myself, to find a space for self-preservation,” he says.
Harbison believes the first iteration of his brand was ahead of its time but may have not been as well-received back then. “I was really carving out a brand identity that was reflective of this chic, modernist aesthetic but also rooted in themes that were important to me like racial and gender equity, queer affirmation, discussions around class and the Earth,” he says. Inspired by last year’s racial reckoning, the designer got back to work.
“Coming back into the fashion conversation, it's exciting because I feel like we're primed now to have discussions in a more open way through product,” he says. “It's really an exciting time to be back.”
Harbison Studio’s comeback collection debuted last month at New York Fashion Week during the Harlem’s Fashion Row show, which highlights the work of emerging designers of color. Once again, the designer showcased his knack for bold minimalism in the form of tailored mini dresses and high-low skirts, as well as more on-trend pieces like cropped tube tops, opera gloves, and midriff cut-outs. The lineup also included pieces from his collection with Banana Republic, a deal that came through thanks to the guidance of HFR founder Brandice Daniel: “My trust in the [HFR] agenda, and also in looking at the years that [Daniel’s] had this agenda, made it such that I was willing to take a risk in a way that I hadn't in years by putting my hat in the ring for this collaboration.”
Once the partnership was secured, Harbison looked to his past. Inspired by the idea of “Black joy, freedom, and preservation,” Harbison traveled to Pioneertown, California, a community in the San Bernardino desert, known for its movie set-like scenery, that was first established in 1946. Harbison said this space — marked by “contemplation, peace, and meditation” — allowed him to think deeply about his relationship with the women in his family that influenced him to go into fashion. By the time he traveled to Pioneertown in 2020, Harbison hadn’t seen any of them in over a year, which pushed him to dig deep into his memories with them. “I really just imagined this world where we were celebrating the pioneering efforts of Black women,” he said. It all came together in a collection that combines the Southern, feminine aesthetics of the women in Harbison’s family with the Western elements of Pioneertown.
As a Black queer designer, Harbison said he is aware that his identity offers a unique fashion perspective. In fact, it’s the very thing that motivates him to push for collections that celebrate his heritage and challenging what American sportswear has traditionally been. “I'm bringing so many identities and experiences to American sportswear that were really left out during the founding period of this fashion designation,” he said, referring to the rise of sportswear in the 20th century when pioneering Black designers like Stephen Burrows were often eclipsed by names like Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren. With that in mind, Harbison Studio is “centering women of color, queer identities, all while being rooted in something modernist, sophisticated and highbrow.”
The Banana Republic x Harbison capsule collection is available online and in select Banana Republic stores.