“you’re only fresh once” — madeline harman and jessica grubiša on growing a label the right way

We caught up with the busiest women in New Zealand to talk luxury, control, and the life of pablo.

by i-D Staff
06 September 2016, 1:40am

Two years ago, Madeleine Harman and Jessica Grubiša set themselves a difficult task: starting a luxury label. In essence, luxury sells for two reasons — the garments themselves, and the brand's heritage. It's difficult, if not impossible, to cultivate the storied history of Vuitton or Gucci in a matter of months. Since Jess and Madeline's eponymous womenswear label Harman Gubiša has only been around since 2014, it's risky business. If a customer invests in a piece, they're taking a chance on them — will the label last? How will the garment perform as an investment?

Young luxury labels are just as much a gamble for the designers. It's a tight market, and when your closest competitors are more than 100 years old, you've gotta be good. Luckily, Jess and Madeleine are.

As the label continues to gain traction (and accolades) Jess and Madeleine are getting busier. Still, they found the time to sit down while i-D was in Auckland for NZFW, a few days after they'd shown their Autumn/Winter 2017 collection, Rococo. We talked about the next logical step for the label — international expansion — and Jess' profound love of Kanye.

The first time you featured on i-D was before you even did [last year's collection] Dakota; you were in our 2014 New Zealand Ones to Watch.
Jess: Yeah, we shot with Derek Henderson in our first office. All those photos went into an exhibition and I remember showing up to the gallery wearing the same outfit as in the photo, because I didn't realise that picture was going to be in it. Like, someone could have warned me! I was wearing this one Chanel jacket that I always wore.

Madeleine: Now the print is up in our office because they were like, "well, we don't want it."

Jess: Plus, it's a really fire photo. It was a hot piece.

That was taken in the old office, tell me about the new one.
Jess: Since then we've opened a store in Ponsonby, and our offices are above — we've got the whole building. We work in the store all the time, I still love dressing women. We do what we do to dress women. And I love selling, there's nothing like it.

Madeleine: She's also very good at selling [laughs]. Someone will come in and they'll say, "I'm not buying today" and I'll be out the back listening. Not long after I'll hear them say like, "Thank you so much for that Jess!"

Tell me about the women that come into the shop.
Madeleine: We dress a lot of working women—

Jess: —Lawyers, working mothers, and professionals who are travelling all the time.

Let's talk about your design process: how many discarded ideas does it take to get to where we are now?
Jess: The design process is always quite effortless. We're really in tune with each other — we certainly don't have countless discarded ideas. If anything, we're bad at letting go of things.

Madeleine: Everything starts as a really big idea, like "Hey, do you want to do pleating?" We'll ruminate on that for a couple of weeks, and then we'll come back — Jess will have done some designs and I will have done some designs. Usually we try to hang onto things for quite a while: we hate to let things go. Jess really wanted to use a specific song for this NZFW show and we got down to like, three days out before we had to finally say "look, it's just not going to work."

I feel like we're getting ready for a return to tailoring after this hoodie moment. Are you ever tempted to do your own take on the bomber, or say "let's do a hoodie?"
Jess: You can never say never in fashion. Maybe the only thing I wouldn't do is like, really low rise pants. But that's just because I've never really seen anyone look good in them.

Madeleine: I think that you're totally right. Your wardrobe has to reflect the way you live. In New Zealand, everyone drinks a lot [laughs] but they also work so hard. Your wardrobe kind of has to reflect that: we go two ways. I always like to do a Yeezy t-shirt with a beautiful tailored jacket.

Auckland didn't get a Pablo pop-up store recently did it?
Jess: We didn't! When he released those locations I was like "Cool, yay — way to forget us again." Last time around I had to fly to Brisbane for the Yeezy store, and I did it alone! I did the Yeezy pilgrimage alone. At the show I was front row, like a metre away from him. I'm actually glad I did it alone because I cried a lot, and I wouldn't want anyone to see that.

Years ago at a festival I waited at the front of a stage for six hours, so I could be there for Kanye.
Jess: I didn't eat or drink anything that day, so I didn't have to go to the bathroom. All these other people had to go to the bathroom and they lost their spots. Chumps. Idiots. Kanye was magical. He's an amazing performer.

Okay, let's talk coming to Australia for a different reason. Where are you at with Australian stockists?
Madeleine: We're really still figuring out the Australian beast—

Jess: We've got to find the right stockist. The great thing about having our own store here is that we can curate everything. We're cautious about that in Australia. We want to find stockists that really understand what we're trying to do.

Madeleine: We're really at home in New Zealand. The wholesalers we've got here have all come back to us and doubled their orders — we know there's a demand for us here. Jess worked at Black Magazine for five years before we started the label, so she had all of these relationships: people understood Harman Grubiša when it came out. They appreciated what we were doing. Whereas with Australia, we have no idea. We need to figure out what our strategy is. We want to be there for a long time, not a good time.

Jess: You're only fresh once — imagine if you did it wrong.

But expanding beyond New Zealand is definitely something you're looking at?
Jess: Australia is a natural progression for a lot of NZ designers, I think. You know, we want to be in a wardrobe in every continent in the world: our clothes should be in every woman's wardrobe.

Madeleine: We spoke with Alison Veness recently, as part of Woolmark. Jess and I explained that it's quite stressful, that there are a lot boutique designers within our price bracket in Australia — more than we expected. It's really saturated: in a department store it's like rack after rack after rack. Alison just said "if your product is good, it really doesn't matter. There will always be a demand for it." That felt nice to hear.



Photography Olivia Hemus for MAC Cosmetics