From Lincolnton to N.C. State to Vogue: Charles Harbison beats the fashion odds

cbolling@charlotteobserver.comOctober 9, 2013 

  • Charles Harbison

    Education: Lincolnton High School, class of 1999; bachelor’s degree from N.C. State, 2004; AAS degree in fashion studies, Parsons School of Design, 2007.

    Family: Mother, Dana Linebarger of Charlotte; dad, Charlie Harbison of Auburn, Ala.; brother, Stedman Harbison of Charlotte.

    Fashion inspirations: Yves St. Laurent, Geoffrey Beene, Cristobal Balenciaga, Azzedine Alaïa from a business perspective.

    Vision for his line: “I think we’re creating an esthetic that lends itself to shoes and bags and even jewelry. I’m excited to hold up a torch for new American sportswear.”

    If he could dress one celebrity or public figure: “I’d of course love to dress the first lady Michelle Obama. She’s the Harbison woman: strong and gentle, nurturing and commanding, arguably smarter than her husband.”

    On Charlotte’s fashion transformation in the last decade: “I love this infusion of artistic luxury lifestyle in North Carolina. It’s great to see how it meshes with our heartfelt Southern roots.”

    Favorite non-fashion-related pastime: “Biking. I have a custom single-speed Surly that I love!”

    More info:

It’s been an explosive fall for Lincolnton native turned New York fashion designer Charles Harbison.

Last month, he hosted his first New York Fashion Week runway show for his womenswear line, Harbison. New York Times fashion writer Eric Wilson named him one of five new stars to watch. And Vogue magazine featured him in an exclusive piece heralding his fall collection.

“That for me was a dream come true. Being in the hallowed halls of Vogue magazine with my clothes was crazy to me,” says Harbison, 31. “It means they love what you do and they want to be the only press outlet to align with you for this collection. For that to come from Vogue … I’m eternally grateful.”

A career in the high-art, high-stakes world of luxury fashion may have seemed unlikely for a child growing up in a working-class neighborhood 30 miles northwest of Charlotte.

But even in his youth, the seeds of a career in fashion design were being sown.

As a boy, Harbison would watch his mom come home from her job on the assembly line of Vermont American Tool Co. in Lincolnton and transform herself from shift worker to a fashionable woman who took care in her appearance, even if nothing big was on the agenda.

“She would go from her work clothes to her evening outfit and her weekend outfit, and there was this process of becoming this more glamorous, confident version of herself. I always subconsciously referenced it,” he says by phone from his Manhattan studio.

On weekends, a favorite pastime for mother and son was to drive into Charlotte for shopping trips at SouthPark mall. “We felt important, and we felt elegant,” Harbison says.

Through grade school and high school, Charlie was constantly sketching – flowers, dresses, anything he found beautiful, says his mom, Dana Linebarger.

His father, also named Charles Harbison, played professional football and instilled in young Charlie the benefits of hard work and determination.

“He was a perfectionist. His room always had to be in order. One year he made a B in school, and he was just freaking out,” says Linebarger, who now lives in Charlotte. “When he set his mind to something, he wasn’t satisfied until it was completed.”

During his senior year at Lincolnton High School, Harbison won a Park Scholarship at N.C. State University, a full scholarship given to students who demonstrate high academic achievement, community service and leadership skills.

Former Park Scholarship director Laura Gail Lunsford recalls her surprise at opening Harbison’s scholarship application. “I’m flipping through and all of a sudden I see these drawings of dresses. They were beautiful,” she says.

“I thought at the time, for a young man of 18 to have that passion and be confident enough to share some of his work ... it told us a lot about who he was. Our selection committee agreed we had to meet him.”

Architecture to fashion

Harbison started at N.C. State as an architecture major, but during a first-year fundamentals class he fell in love with fabric. So he left the architecture program and switched to fine art and textile technology.

Fashion was the perfect blend. “It applied my love of fabric and fabric design, as well as construction,” he says. “Fashion is the best arena to use my right brain and my left brain.”

During college, Harbison sewed many of his own clothes, retrofitting thrift store finds with designer labels and embellishments in a way that made other students envious. For a senior project, he designed and sewed an entire line of clothing, recruited friends to walk the runway and put on a full-blown fashion show in the student center ballroom.

The summer after his junior year, Harbison interned for Jack Spade, the men’s subsidiary of Kate Spade. After graduating, he spent a year in Uzbekistan studying Central Asian textiles, then returned to New York and attended Parsons School of Design. He went on to positions with Michael Kors, Luca Luca and helped launch womenswear at Billy Reid.

He left Billy Reid in summer 2012 and launched Harbison with seed money from his father, now a football coach at Auburn University in Alabama.

Stood out instantly

His 30th birthday, he says, was the turning point when he realized he should try for his own label.

“I started reflecting and realized that I have something valid to say in the industry,” he says, “and I wanted to take some time to give it a try.”

The contacts he’d made over the years paid off. His designs won attention.

His collection, which for fall draws influences from singer-songwriter Patti Smith, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and Bauhaus design, borders on androgynous. The highly structured pieces, made in New York and available only at luxury boutiques Ikram in Chicago and Satine in Los Angeles, range from $400 for separates like pants and blouses to $2,000 coats.

Chioma Nnadi, the Vogue fashion writer who interviewed Harbison for the September article, says Harbison’s collection “stood out instantly” when he brought his pieces into the Vogue offices for editors to peruse.

“He had fantastic coats with a great sense of color and proportion,” Nnadi says. “He told me that he’d studied architecture. There was this beautiful balance and kind of symmetry to his coats, which I thought was really stunning.

“His whole take on androgyny is something that resonates right now. A woman is willing to borrow a jacket from her boyfriend’s closet now more than ever.”

Strong, luxurious fashion

Harbison says he designs his clothing for “a working woman who has luxury taste. I love American sportswear, and I love women who wear it unabashedly. My woman is the director of sales. She’s a VP. She’s an art agent. She’s also a mother, but she’s a mother who wants to live her day-to-day life in clothes that represent her in a strong, luxurious fashion.”

Although his company has just one employee on its payroll – Harbison himself – his recent media exposure has earned him visits from big-name retailers. He plans to one day offer shoes and accessories in addition to apparel.

Will Triangle shoppers one day be able to buy the Harbison label?

He hopes so.

“I love the idea of my home state having more access to what we do.”

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