Harris Reed is building a fantasy world for gender-fluid fashion
Harry Styles’ go-to designer discusses his first post-grad collection, creating for art’s sake, and how haters fuel his vision for gender-fluidity.
Photography Jenny Brough. Courtesy of Harris Reed
Last June, Harris Reed became a member of the “Class of 2020” -- the crop of young fashion talent who graduated into an industry on rocky ground due to the pandemic. Over the eight months that have passed since earning his cap and gown at Central Saint Martins, Harris seems to have done a good job of finding his feet. There was, of course, that Harry Styles moment back in November, when the popstar wore a hybrid suit-cum-ballgown designed by Harris -- an artful mash-up of a sharp-shouldered peak-lapelled dinner jacket, a voluminous crinoline decked over with cream tulle, and a huge, flouncy fuchsia satin bow -- on the pages of Vogue.
As big an achievement as that might have been for Harris, today marks the reaching of not one, but two more career milestones. The first is the launch of his beauty collaboration with MAC Cosmetics. The other, and arguably the more sentimental of the two, is the release of ‘For Now, Unexplained’, Harris’ first full collection since graduating from the CSM BA programme.
A continued meditation on gender-fluid dressing and the malleable nature of identity that he began with his graduate collection, it’s a collection that balances a sense of whimsical playfulness with technical rigour. Savile Row tailoring tropes are fused with flamboyant spans of ombré tulle, conveying feelings of fantasy and freedom that couldn’t be more welcome right now. “I want to give people something that's quite far out, a projection of my version of a kind of safe space where I feel comfortable, heard, accepted and loved, and allow people to see how they can create that for themselves in their daily lives,” says Harris.
We caught up with him to find out how he managed to do just that.
How does putting out your first collection since graduating feel?
Not quite real! It feels amazing, but definitely still very surreal -- I've never been more excited and it feels like a dream come true, but at the same time, I'm asking myself if I'm still sleeping, or if this is actually reality. It's a bittersweet sort of excitement, you could say.
What’s the impression of the Harris Reed world you wanted to convey with this collection?
Well, I struggled a lot when I was deciding whether or not to show a collection. There were all these questions, like whether or not it made sense to do a ready-to-wear collection right now. But when I got down to it, coming off the back of the piece I created for Harry Styles’ Vogue shoot and the controversy around that, it really hit me that this needed to be a pure artistic expression of the Harris Reed world. For me, that meant fluidity at its most extreme; maximal over-the-top decadence. I didn't approach this from a commercial perspective, thinking about whether people could wear the clothes -- it was really about me expressing my vision for the first time since graduating. I wanted it to be an extreme vision of what I think fluidity could be in order to help society's pendulum swing back to a middle ground where someone can feel comfortable putting on a bit of lipstick, or wearing something that allows them to truly express themselves.
I'm not saying that people need to be dressing like this, but I want to show people that you can have fantasy and that fashion has a purpose; to bring a sense of fluid escapism, make people dream a bit, and hopefully bring back a bit of that London grit that, in my mind, has been somewhat missing. I miss the [Alexander] McQueen days, I miss the [Vivienne] Westwood days — I miss clothes just being something that made you think, disturbed you, upset you. Not just think 'Oh, can I get that in a small, medium or large?' That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with that format, per se, and it works for so many people. But as a young graduate designer with so many friends in the same position, all figuring out what the fuck we're going to do, I really felt that I needed to start to build the Harris Reed world.
The collection’s title is the rather enigmatic ‘For Now, Unexplained’. What’s behind it?
I've always been someone who has an elevator pitch for whatever I’m working on, whether that was back at CSM or when I’m working on a project for a client. But with this collection, I didn't have one, it just kept changing. I was speaking with a good friend of mine, saying how, for now, it's unexplained — the work just is what it is. It just kept embodying something new every day, changing with the different lockdown rules and limitations they brought, and my friend said that the title encapsulated just that. It was also about saying that I know what I stand for, what I love and what I want to express, but I don't want to state exactly what that is in concrete terms.
For your graduate collection, there were some pretty specific historical reference points — Henry Paget, 5th Marquess of Anglesey, for example. Was that the case with this collection?
For me, this collection was kind of a continuation of my graduate collection, and of the exploration of fluidity I started there. Some people have seen my work and been like, 'Oh, so it's dead in the middle between menswear and womenswear?' Or 'Oh, so it’s half-man, half-woman?' And I found this sense of people just not getting it whatsoever so interesting. So I wanted to bring references and techniques traditionally associated with menswear and womenswear together in new ways — the back of a mermaid dress, for example, is tailored to a tee, and features really rich menswear detailing. But then that’s then all mixed in with intricate corseting on the inside. All the pieces bring these archetypical menswear details in the mix, and there's a sense of juxtaposition of 'male' and 'female' — but in a very tongue-in-cheek way.
You've discussed the idea of making clothes for the sake of artistic expression, rather than for the production line. It seems to be a way of working that more young designers are turning to. Why does it appeal to you?
It's something that I hope people keep asking. I graduated alongside some incredibly talented designers, and the way that some of them (Bradley Sharpe, for example) express themselves is through clothing as art, as much as it is ‘fashion’. And I think that if you look at what I do, it's the two together. I've been asked if I'm taking this demi-couture approach now, to then do something more ready-to-wear next season. But I want to steer my brand similar to how McQueen did, by building a world and a fantasy that people can really relate to, and then finding a way to create products that sustain the brand. On Instagram, there seems to be a big movement of people releasing collections that really dance more on the artistic side of things than on the commercial side, and I think that’s definitely the way that I see my brand moving forward.
This may be your first full collection since graduating, but your work has been in the public eye since then -- largely thanks to the piece that Harry Styles wore in his Vogue shoot. How have you found creating this collection under that spotlight?
I've been using it as fuel. It's interesting how people take criticism — I think that sometimes, people can let it ruin them, but I hope that I've been able to use people’s issues with seeing men in dresses or self-expression or even who I am as a reason to make it that much fucking bigger, louder and fluid. The fashion industry has been so welcoming to me — my messaging, my designs and the people I've worked with — but I'd be lying if I said I'm not a bit nervous. I think there's probably going to be criticism around whether it's wearable or not. But, at the same time, I know that this collection was completely genuine to who I am, where I'm at with my brand, and where I want it to go. If it’s received that way, that's amazing. But if not, I'm not going to change who I am and what I do -- just as I didn't conform to be in line with the other kids when I was nine years old. I'm just going to keep doing what I do.