What inspired you to start your clothing line, Heather Harlan?
Heather: It's been a dream of mine to have my own line since I began designing in 2000. But with a family and great full-time design jobs over the years, the time was never right. Until I lost my job at the beginning of the pandemic. That time was a gift to me, and allowed me to finally spend time figuring out what I wanted to make, what I wanted to say, and start very quietly doing it.
How has your culture/experience influenced your craft?
Heather: My family culture did influence my interest in making things. My grandmother was an incredibly talented, self-taught seamstress. She raised 7 children (5 of them girls) on very little and made many of their clothes. She sometimes took beautiful adult-sized pieces and tailored them down for her little girls. My mom also sewed, and taught me when I was a teenager to follow a pattern, to use the sewing machine. That's when I started to make things for myself.
My experiences in fashion, especially my early years working with Diane von Furstenberg, had a huge impact on my craft. There I learned everything--how to source fabric, how to work with patternmakers, sewers, cutters, how to collaborate with other designers. She sparked my interest in print and color. And in the idea of not just designing clothes, but in telling a story.
Can you describe this season's collection?
Heather: This fall collection is all about relaxed elegance. I try to use mostly natural fibers like cotton and wool, and design things that are seasonless (or seasonal but timeless), and easy to adapt to your own style and to different occasions. Lately, I'm inspired by menswear and have been very into buttowndown shirts and shirtdresses that give traditionally mens-y fabrics a feminine twist. Every piece is a blend of comfort, ease, utility and style. The shirtdresses have pockets and can be worn alone with tights and boots or over jeans as a top. You'll also see some military and workwear influence...I love a sharp shoulder, epaulets, a boilersuit....these pieces can be your daily armor. I think of women as the soldiers of every day. We need to be able to do it all!
Have you always been a creative individual? Where did your love for fashion come from?
Heather: I've always been a creative person. I grew up loving and playing music, dancing, singing, sewing. But I was also very much a natural leader, did well in and enjoyed school, and was raised in the very practical environment of the midwest, so learned to balance my right and left brain. I loved fashion ever since I can remember, and had strong opinions on my clothes and how I wanted to present myself. Fashion was always a really important means of self-expression for me. I can recall all my favorite looks over the years, the outfits I felt most myself, most powerful in. My older sister and her friends used to tease me by calling me a "fashion plate"--do you remember Fashion Plates? You could mix and match the clothes, shoes, hair, etc and rub the looks on to paper.
What impact do you want your brand to achieve?
Heather: I want a woman to feel capable and confident in my clothes. I want her to be able to do all the hundreds of things a woman needs to do every day....to roll up her shirt-sleeves, stuff things in her pockets, to be a boss, a mother, a leader, a do-er--whatever it is she wants and needs to be. I want the clothes to feel right for right now. Casual but elegant. Versatile. I would like to create a community with my brand where women feel inspired, encouraged, supported, understood....and most importantly, empowered. I think there are many ways to achieve that, and I'm working through that all the time. This season I designed and produced a handknitted sweater with a group of artisan women--a sisterhood--from Southeast India. In the rural villages where these knitting hubs have been set up, knitting offers women financial independence for themselves and their families. Their work is beautiful, all done by hand, no machinery, no waste. With each sweater comes a photo of the knitter, and a link to her story. I love the idea of our mutual support of each other.
I also just genuinely want to share my love of fashion, of getting dressed, of finding joy and strength in personal style. I never get tired of designing new things, of discovering, and creating, and it's incredibly gratifying when others want the same things I do. And feel great in them.
Can you describe your thought process when creating each piece of clothing?
Heather: It happens in so many different ways. Sometimes I find a fabric I love and have to try to figure out what it wants to be. I do a lot of visualizing, draping fabrics on myself, on a mannequin. Sometimes I'm trying to update a design that sold well, experimenting with different fabrications, colors, changing details. I am really my own muse and try things on all the time, I cut things up, play with shapes and volumes on myself, adding and subtracting details. My husband is an artist and gets paint all over all of his shirts....so we recycle them and I cut them up, saving collars, cuffs, plackets, etc to play with.
I also really try to be sensitive to seasonality of style and fabric. I love things that can be worn more than one season. I like classics with a twist. I like to feel like a boss in what I'm wearing so I look for that feeling when I'm making things. Versatility is key. A lot of what I design can easily adapted to dressing up or down.
What specifically do you love about vintage clothing? Why is it so inspiring?
Heather: I love nostalgia and have always enjoyed looking back for design inspiration. There are so many interesting details to be found on vintage pieces, things we often don't do today because of cost or just a sort of homogenization of style. There's such great material to mine from every decade. I have a pretty decent archive of research built up over the past 25 years. I used to spend a few days every season at the library at FIT combing through the old Vogue and Harper's Bazaar issues (from 1930 onward) and also the now-online-only Picture Library at the NY Public Library. Now I try to make the NYC Vintage Show at the Metropolitan a couple times a year. Last few times, I picked up super-inspiring vintage French workwear. Which inspired my overalls, among other things.
We see you reference the"FIGHT" image on your branding. How does it resonate with your overall brand ethos?
Heather: The FIGHT image is a painting I commissioned my husband, artist Ricky Mujica, to do, inspired by a photograph of a 1935 Garment Workers strike in Chicago. These were women fighting for fair wages for themselves. After participating in the 2017 Women's March in NYC, I became very interested in women's rights. and suffrage memorabilia. I started collecting images of the women who've fought for our rights over the past century, reading their stories. Getting inspired by the way they sometimes used fashion as part of their resistance strategy. I became obsessed with protest signs past and present. The signs, to me, represent the importance and the power of using our voices to make change.
For me, this FIGHT image is also a personal motivator. The original painting sits on my desk, I look these women in the eye every day, and am reminded to fight for my dreams, to forge ahead in my own endeavors as well as in the continued fight for equal rights for women. And my hope is that the image inspires a sort of sisterhood.