Madeleine Harman and Jessica Grubisa are both recent fashion graduates who have decided to jump into the industry head-first by starting their own label. Both of their graduate collections were absolutely incredible (Jessica created a coat out of hand-stitched tincel, Madeleine evoked skeletal etherealism with a particular mesh dress), but selling actual clothes to an actual customer requires a lot more than just design chops. Here, Madeleine explains why they decided to launch a label, Harman Grubisa, and what, exactly, they're finding it takes, ahead of their debut presentation at Stephen Marr's the Marr Factory alongside the likes of Karen Walker, Kate Sylvester, NOM*d and Zambesi.
Harman Grubisa is both of you, working together! How did you meet?
Madeleine Harman: We first met at University - love at first sight!
When did you decide you wanted to start a fashion label together?
M.H: There were at least two big moments before the inception of Harman Grubisa. The first was when we were still studying: Jessica was hand-sewing beads opposite me. It was four in the morning and we were talking, and we decided that we both cared so much about it that we wanted to do it forever (together!). The second major thing was about a year ago: Jess was on the verge of talking a role with an Australian designer in Bali, and I had been offered a full-time design role. It was an impossibly hard fork in the road and after many agonisingly long phone calls we decided that the time was now, and that we wanted to start something in our twenties that could take us to those places, rather than miss the opportunity to ever create our own line.
From looking at your early work, your aesthetics seem quite different: how did you come together to create a cohesive collection?
M.H: People often ask us about this; how we decide who designs what, essentially. But it's never been a clear split like that, and that's what makes it so special; it's all about the partnership. Jess is about the big picture and 'wow' factor, and I'm all about fabric and detailing. Jess is an amazing stylist and often thinks in outfits, creating an amazing vision for the season, and I will labour over fabric choices and think about it from a 'piece by piece' perspective. We often joke about it calling it 'east meets west'. This is our first season and our first test. As individuals we're both satisfied and proud of what we have produced, which is a great feeling!
Do you have a very clear idea of the aesthetic direction for Harman Grubisa? If so, how would you describe it?
M.H: Yes definitely. We want to create clothing that is beautiful above all else. Our desire is to design pieces that are inherently fashion-forward with a dash of frivolity, and clothes that are empowering to the women who wear them.
Your first range is SS2014-15 yeah? What was the inspiration behind it?
M.H: Our summer 2014-15 collection is called 'All that Matters' because it's about sacrificing all of our other roles in the industry and putting all our energy into making Harman Grubisa a reality.
We had lots of inspiration between us. We had been looking at some of Gus Van Sant's watercolours and this became the beginning of two key prints that run throughout. We ended up commissioning a local artist to produce two watercolour works for us with an incredible affinity for colour and this became the back bone of our fabric and trim choices.
We're also just inspired by 'our woman'. In these early days we're spending a lot of time thinking about what our woman wears, and each piece is drawn from her work week, her weekend and so on.
What designers, locally or internationally, are you inspired by?
M.H: Labels we admire include Marni, Prada, LOVE Dries Van Noten. From a retail perspective Opening Ceremony are fascinating: they’ve created an empire and creating an exciting retail experiences fascinates us.
What have been the major highlights, and the major challenges, with starting your own fashion label?
M.H: We have received an unbelievable amount of support and interest in the brand, which has been totally unexpected (and appreciated!). The production process is always a challenge, too. We've both worked in design and production before doing our own thing and we draw on that knowledge as much as possible.
The international fashion landscape is dominated by ‘fast fashion’; cheap, trend-oriented product. What are your thoughts about this and how do you think young, local designers like yourself are being affected? How do you compete with such production, marketing and price power?
M.H: We don't, basically. We both acknowledge that starting now means we're in the privileged position of being able to pitch ourselves as far away from 'fast fashion' as possible, whereas other brands who are more street-orientated are suffering because of the 'fast fashion' giants.
We want to create premium product with longevity; it was never in either of our interests to create 'cheap' fashion. We believe the key to retail success in the future is to find where you fit amid this 'fast fashion' wave, rather than try to compete with it.
What ethical considerations did you take into account when starting your own label?
M.H: As a new label ethical questions came up a lot in our early conversations. New Zealand can feel like the edge of the world and in this way we have spent time overseas sourcing fabric due to the limitations of what is available here. We did however return to make all our garments on shore. There are some very talented manufacturers in New Zealand, plus it gives us the ability to see our whole design process through which is important.
Your showing at the Marr Factory as part of a new gen show alongside Eugenie and Georgia Alice which is super exciting! What can we expect from you guys and what do you admire about the other designers showing?
M.H: We are very excited to be showing at the Marr Factory. It is always an amazing event to attend, let alone show in!
New Zealand is know, even renowned, internationally for a gothic, dark fashion aesthetic but it seems like that is changing, or at least diversifying. What do you think?
M.H: It definitely has been. I think in general New Zealanders tend to live a low-key lifestyle, and fashion here often caters to that. As designers we both have an appreciation for the way clothes can make a woman feel and we definitely hope to inject a bit more glamour into their everyday wardrobes.
The state of the New Zealand fashion industry and the state of up-and-coming designers seems really strong in New Zealand at the moment? You guys are on the ground there, what do you think?
M.H: It sure feels that way. We have a lot of respect for all of the major players in New Zealand who have had long and successful careers, which is no easy feat. We are not naïve to how hard it is and people often call us ‘brave’, which is amusing. When I came home from overseas I felt like there was a drought of fresh designers, and now we've all appeared at the same time! Things are very fresh and it'll be exciting to see how this new gang of designers pan out and assert themselves.
Harman Grubisa will be presenting their summer 2014-15 collection in the 'gatecrashers' show at The Marr Factory in Auckland next week.
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