Harman Grubiša designers on their success and being NZ made

Madeleine Harman and Jessica Grubiša

Harman Grubiša designers Jessica Grubiša (left) and Madeleine Harman (right). Image supplied.

Talented designers Jessica Grubiša and Madeleine Harman launched their contemporary womenswear label Harman Grubiša in 2014 and their label has risen rapidly thanks to their beautiful aesthetic and sharp eye for design and luxury. Jessica and Madeleine met while studying fashion design at Whitecliffe College of Art and Design and after several years of doing her own thing, they came together and created Harman Grubiša which presents their collective vision of the modern woman’s wardrobe.

Their debut show at New Zealand Fashion Week 2015 with their Dakota collection caught everyone’s attention, with the designers being awarded the prestigious honour of Mercedes-Benz Presents designer and opening NZFW 2016. They were also nominated for the Woolmark Prize for the Australasian region in 2016, going on to win the Australasian region prize in 2017, which meant they competed at the global final in Florence in January this year. All of which before their label was barely four years old.

We caught up with Jessica and Madeleine to find out more about their brand, what success means to them and why it’s important to them to manufacture their elegant collections in New Zealand.

Take us back to the beginning, what was the original plan and vision for your brand?
Jessica: We wanted to create a brand that facilitated beautiful design, that stood up on a world stage, we wanted to empower women and make them feel beautiful – still do.

You’ve had a great deal of success and grown a well-respected brand in just three years but how do you personally define success and what does it mean to you? 
Madeleine: Success for us is when we achieve the above. Success is when out of all the brands out there – she wakes up and chooses to wear Harman Grubiša.

Conversely, how do you deal with failure and what have been some of the challenges of growing your brand?
J: There is no such thing as failure at HG – sometimes you win, sometimes you learn. Failure is such a fruitless concept.

How do you balance the creative and business demands of your role in your brand? 
M: Not easily. No single designer/business owner does I suspect. At the end of any given day you have one foot more in one camp. Maintaining that equilibrium is hard and personally I have a kind of design body clock — I start to get restless when I haven’t given it enough attention – I can’t sleep or I have a latent energy that I can tell isn’t being satiated. That’s when I try get in some studio time – but its often outside of usual hours (which are already long) so then you have to factor in that third factor – life. People help – delegation, and outsider expertise.

Harman Grubiša

Looks from Harman Grubiša’s current collection Edina. Images supplied.

How do you maintain a personal connection with your customers and how does social media help you to connect with them? 
J: We both work the floor and have wonderful relationships with the women we dress.

M: That is the joy of it.

J: Social media is a window for us to connect with our HG women globally.

How has having your own store changed your thoughts on fashion retail and where do you see its future?
J: Having our own store has informed our product tenfold. It has given us hands on experience that has informed our design discipline and made it really robust.

M: I think there has been a return to boutique and bricks and mortar retail — Look at SSENSE, historically online retail only – has just launched a physical retail concept space, Net a Porter — have Porter a physical print magazine component, these are world leaders in retail making hugely strategic moves ‘back’ to physical retail touch-points – you cannot fault a one on one human experience, ultimately we see retail as a service – as an experience, it’s a become a big part of our brand identity/dialogue.

Among the many changes in fashion has been the changing role of fashion weeks, how have you changed your approach to runway shows as a brand and where do you see the future of fashion weeks?
J: Fashion inherently is a spectacle – no matter how you frame that. Runway is fun. Hopefully there is always a place for it, no matter what that looks like – it’s so unique to this industry.

There has been an increasing awareness from consumers and the industry about the issues around creating fashion ethically and sustainably. What factors do you take into account when you create your clothing?
J: People’s wellbeing first and foremost – we also acknowledge what a privilege it is to live here – the lifestyle and landscape we are privy to in here in NZ. There is a wealth of ‘rag trade’ knowledge here, that is definitely disintegrating if we don’t utilise it – we were conscious of the need and desire to support local economy and industry when we started. We consistently do our best to source with as much transparency as possible.

Your garments are designed and made here in New Zealand, why is that important to you and what are the pros and cons of New Zealand production for you? 
J: Expense and scarcity of resource is challenging to us constantly producing here in New Zealand – but we get to stay one on one hands on with our product as we develop and produce it each season, we know our makers well – and they’re great people – an extension of our community. In turn, there is the joy of people who are learning and appreciating more and more – quality, value and the lifespan of our garments versus fast, cheap, throwaway consumption.

Harman Grubiša

Looks from Harman Grubiša’s current collection Edina. Images supplied.

How would you describe your personal style/s and how does it influence your designs and collaborations?
J: I dress to my mood – I’m fearless, there’s nothing I wouldn’t wear.

M: This questions always comes up! Someone once looked at us and said ‘I LOVE you two. It’s like Madi you’re a precious piece of jade and Jess you’re a huge blingy diamond – east meets west in perfect harmony’ it was so candid and so apt and never really left us. I don’t think design can exist in isolation and we have the luxury of each other to springboard off as our design process evolves each range. We are very intune – invariably I will be concentrating on a certain detail, or colour, or mood, and Jess in turn will be referencing and honing that same thing – unbeknownst to me. People love to categorise and its easy to say she is so out there, you two are so at odds, but I think if you really know us you can see we speak the same language when it comes to design – it’s like our very own dialect, I can’t explain that, it’s just a very fortunate thing.

Out of the collections you’ve created for your brand so far, which ones stick in your mind as favourites and why? 
J: Dakota was of a time where we were just establishing ourselves, we were up for 24 hours prior too and I have never in my entire life laughed so hard in an evening — The show was beautiful – the music – the models the crowd, our team at that time – amazing. It was the best way to say hey ‘we’ve arrived’.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve received that you keep referring back to as a designer? 
M: I don’t know that it’s a single piece of advice but her whole energy and perspective – one of our mentors always reigns us back to the core of what we do when we are feeling strung out – one of the first pieces of advice she ever gave us (and I will paraphrase because the full version is particularly macabre) — was to ‘bleed creativity’ she has been at couture shows – interviewed some of the worlds definitive designers and voices in fashion, she’s lived through some of fashions most iconic moments – and she always appeals to the heart and core of us as designers – it’s refreshing.

What is your advice for anyone who wants to become a fashion designer now?
J: You will not be able to shut off from this. It is a lifestyle – not a business, not a job, so you need to find your solace. Do something everyday for yourself to fuel yourself. Sometimes you win and sometimes you learn. We are learning everyday and will continue to — in production you have three minutes to solve a problem, let the little things go.

M: Surround yourself with people that you love to work with – always do things beyond your comfort zone, beyond your perspective. It’s like the water that helps your little creative bud grow.

There are many facets to being a good designer but the strength of your ideas and how you deliver them shapes a brand, what factors play into your decisions to turn your ideas into reality? 
M: We always go with our instinct and intuition – Of course we ‘follow’ fashion globally — couture, the spectacle, the colour, the shapes, the detail –  it’s our first love —  but we produce what at the time feels desired and necessary – we meet our woman where she is at, we don’t cut corners, the product is always of the highest quality we can create, and therefore always intended to last beyond just a season.

Madeleine Harman and Jessica Grubiša

Jessica Grubiša (left) and Madeleine Harman (right) with their Woolmark Prize. Image supplied.

This was your second year competing in the Woolmark Prize and your first time in the final competition in Florence, how did it feel to win in Sydney last August and how did it prepare you for the final this year? 
J: It was amazing – and it prepares you because it  gives you insight into the next level.

M: We are in pitch mode everyday. A woman chooses to wear HG over someone else because we are hustling everyday for that to be the case – we are always in a state of competition in retail, so although it was a particularly daunting panel style of judgement, it was in the same vein, an exercise you practice daily when you have your own brand.

Where did you get the inspiration from for your six look collection to show the judges for the final and how would you describe it?
M: We were inspired from our origins here in NZ we pushed the boundary of textile treatments in a way we haven’t in the past, working from paper drawing to hand embroidery with a women who works alongside the likes of Dries and Ellie saab. It was oceanic inspired – we wanted to represent and capture who we are and where we are from in this range – it was grounding.

What was the experience in Florence like and did you have much interaction with the other brands competing?
J: Yes! We made friends for life, it was like the fashion olympics. We went on to sell in Paris together in a showroom space for a week. Long days  spent together inside we really got to know one another, and all echoed the same things in terms of working in this crazy industry. My favourite moment was pre the Final at Pitti — post judgement, we all had French champagne in plastic cups backstage huddled in a dark corner whilst the rehearsal was playing over and over. All the pressure was off and it all collectively was such an amazing achievement, we had so much respect for one another & were so connected by the experience.

What does it mean to you as a brand to do so well in such a prestigious competition and what did you learn from it? 
J: Our names are written alongside Yves and Karl in the history of this competition. That means the world as designers, it was a first for NZ design.

What’s next for Harman Grubisa and where do you see the future of your brand?
J: Same as always — Women wearing HG world over. Keep hustling.

Images supplied.