ONE DAY WHILST WORKING LATE AT WHITECLIFFE SCHOOL Of DESIGN, JESSICA GRUBISA AND MADELEINE HARMAN LOOKED AT EACH OTHER AND KNEW; “WE SHOULD DO THIS TOGETHER” AND SO HARMAN GRUBISA WAS BORN. GRANT FELL AND RACHAEL CHURCHWARD INVESTIGATE
Grant Fell : Let’s start at the beginning, where did you two meet? Jessica Grubisa: We met at Whitecliffe. I was at Whitecliffes a year before Madeleine… Madeleine Harman: Yeah that’s right…jg: She was the hot new kid on the block when we met! GF: So you were in different years? JG: No, we were in the same year but I had already done my first year at Whitecliffes and Madi had done a year at Elam Art School. GF: Ah, I see. So you formed a friendship, you were buddies? MH: Pretty swiftly, yeah…jg: I thought, “You look alright!” and she thought, “You look alright!” MH: Our friendship really happened in our fourth year. JG: We were always the ones still there at like 4 o’clock in the morning. GF: Still working? JG: Yeah, suckers for punishment, I think. GF: Did you start collaborating on projects while you were still there? MH: No, we were polar opposites really; Jess was wild and out there and I was all neutral tones… Rachael Churchward: I remember thinking that then. JG: You did make clothes out of paint, though.mh: I made clothes out of paint. Which was crazy… GF: How did you do that? MH: Basically I poured it so it becomes like a film and paint has a lot of elasticity, which became the whole idea – I was looking at the concept of skin and wearing skin. GF: Like tights that you could slip into type of thing ? RC: I remember hearing about that and thinking I should get a skirt or something for a shoot but I was worried about tearing or breaking it. MH: I did pants and a shirt you didn’t so much need to slip into them, you could pull them up and put them on like normal. GF: So you were friends but not collaborators, what made you hook up then to do this, to do Harman Grubisa ? JG: The way I remember it, is that literally I had been thinking about it for a while, the idea of having a partner because fashion design and everything that surrounds it is actually intense so I always thought that two would be better than one. It is an intense process so you need someone else to balance it – all the greatest hits have two writers! Then one day I literally looked over at Maddy and thought, “I could do that with her!” MH: Same, it was like an ‘a ha’ moment! JG: Then one night we were working late again, I had my computer at school and we were watching something like Sex & The City or Gossip Girl , it was about 2am and we were like ‘shall we do this together?’ MH: It was like, if we were going to do this then we should do this together. GF: Yeah, Jess I remember you talking about the potential partnership before it happened as well. And then Maddy you went to New York? MH: I went to New York… GF: Why did you go there? MH: I got a scholarship, I won an award which was a scholarship through university here. It wasn’t like a year of study, it consisted of an overseas trip. So I went to the Sates and I was there for over two months so I decided to get a visa - effectively I went from Auckland to New Jersey where the university is. Then I went to Paris and Antwerp and a bunch of places with the fashion group at the university and then moved into New York city and worked in the city until the end of that year. GF: And then you went over there to meet up with Maddy if I recall Jess? JG: I went over for a holiday and to see Maddy and was there for a whirlwind two weeks. She was working at a place called Trend Union. MH: When I was in Paris I met a woman called Lidewij Edelkoort who is a world-renowned trend forecaster and ended up working in the New York office. She is very abstract, not like research or commercial… GF: That sounds like a good place to learn about fashion? MH: Yeah, it was really interesting! She would work with really important people so I was meeting with people like the Macy’s design team, Kenneth Cole, all of the big conglomerates, it really was quite fascinating…jg: Actually, here’s a story for you. I went in to one of the trend forecasting sessions while I was there and they were showing a bunch of images and a Black Magazine photo came up! I think it was the Thom Kerr shoot of Codie Young in the graveyard, that kinda gothic looking shoot. MH: We felt proud, images from
half way around the world there in a trend session… GF: Trendsetters! Ha ha…so while the two of you were in New York did the concept of Harman Grubisa grow? JG: We tried to think of a name…hm: We actually talked about the possibility of doing it there, of doing it in New York. JG: Yeah, we talked about that really seriously. But it would have been a big decision to make. GF: So why did you come home Madi? MH: Ummm…i got married… (laughs) GF: That’s a pretty good reason … MH: Yeah, I came home and got married and Jess was going to take a job at…jg: Alice Mccall in Bali… RC: Oh, that one … MH: There was total turmoil at that time, between coming home, Jess maybe going to Bali, I was offered a great job in New York and we just talked and thought, we are in our twenties, we are never going to do it unless we do it now and we had even talked about getting funding that we felt sure we could get if we did it right so I just packed up and came home. RC: I think it is probably much better that you are doing it from here. You have family, friends and a huge support network right here whereas if you are doing it in New York you don’t have that at your fingertips. MH: Yeah, and when you start out like this you have to pour everything into it. We have no money, neither of us are taking a wage, literally everything is this for us at the moment and we’ve made a lot of sacrifices. We are at a huge point of risk in terms of debt but at the same time, if we were in New York it would be a lot scarier and probably a lot more difficult. There would be no fall back. RC: There would be no Jess’ Nana to help you with production. JG: And hopefully this doesn’t sound big-headed but there is a groundswell of new, exciting young designers here so if people like us don’t stay here and do it, what is the future of NZ fashion? GF: Exactly, love that viewpoint! JG: It’s really hard, though. Sometimes you just get so stressed out and tired. You just want to go out into the street where there is no one and just scream you know? GF: So where did the brand start, you were both back here, what did you come up with first, the name? MH: We actually did an intense business plan that took us months and months and months, a cash flow and all of the stuff you should do first. JG: Yeah, we started there…mh: And, we got super duper challenged by people, mentors and advisors – on our name, on our marketing, on our retail plan. To get the money to start this business we had to justify every single thing, every detail, everything we are going to make for the next three years. GF: Perfect! JG: We were heavily challenged on our original business model. It was pretty exhausting. GF: So obviously you got your business model into a place that you felt good about it? MH: Yeah, totally. JG: We were pushed into a better idea to be honest. MH: A harder idea. JG: Basically biting off a lot more than we had anticipated. GF: Did that include reappraising your target market, I think we were quite surprised when you told us about that. RC: Oh no, I was actually really pleased that you are going for an older market than we thought you would. A younger market doesn’t always have the spend and they can move quickly from trend to trend but an older woman is a different story . JG: We would be happy if a mother and daughter came in and both bought pieces, there are pieces a daughter could wear for sure. GF: So you got your business plan finalised and got approval for investment, and congratulations on that, not that many young designers go down that path to start. So your business foundations are laid, what’s next, did you start sketching designs, concepts ? MH: We finalised the name, lots of people didn’t like the name. RC: I think the name is brilliant, it sounds like a fashion label. Why did people not like the name? MH: Umm, I think some people just felt is wasn’t very user friendly, like “I can’t pronounce it, I don’t understand it… GF: And Ann Demeulemeester or Alexandre Herchcovitch are easy? JG: I think fashion followers pride themselves on learning how to pronounce names. Like the first time I pronounced Proenza Schouler I think I said Shoaler or something, I die…but now I am never going to say that wrong again. GF: Exactly, it is actually a small but not insignificant part of fashion, foreign languages, names and pronunciation! MH: When it came down to it, that is who we are, those are our names. Some people felt it was egotistical, like we want our names above the door but it wasn’t like that at all. Like our design process, everything we do is very much a collaboration so it feels like the right name. GF: With the name sorted was it into design? Sketches? MH: Yeah, sketches and moodboards – images, inspiration. JG: We kind of got the general flow of what we wanted. Colouring, palette was really important. We both knew we wanted to do a print. MH: I think because you had been so involved in the industry here from an editorial perspective with Black and I having been in New York we have been constantly surrounded by images, so we had a good idea about the more directional pieces we wanted to do, like a midi length skirt… RC: Yes, which I have had my eye on. I keep staring at it and thinking that I want it, purely form a styling point of view there is so much I could do with it . MH: I think Jess and I both had pieces that we kind of, had to do… GF: Then you went to Hong Kong together…mainly to source fabrics? JG: Yeah, we went to Hong Kong and Guangzhou in mainland China, mainly to source the fabrics for the collection but also to find a handbag manufacturer, and leather supplier. GF: How did you sources these people and places, were you cold calling from NZ? JG: Before we left, anyone who knew anything about this; fabrics, mills, suppliers in Hong Kong or China we had a meeting with, we just asked everybody we knew who might know! We did a lot of research online as well. We went over there, got straight off the plane and went straight to the Hong Kong convention centre which was huge and then we just gung-hoed it around and tried to create some sort of order and organisation to what we were doing. It was pretty amazing. MH: The only thing we want to manufacture in China or even overseas at the moment is handbags and shoes. I worked for Andrea Moore when I first came home. She put me in charge of her accessories and it was pretty clear that there is really no one left in New Zealand who can manufacture beautiful leather goods and accessories from scratch…and who wants to do fashion rather than say upholstery. We put ourselves in a position where, we pretty much knew we weren’t going to find a manufacturer because the minimums we were looking for were pretty small numbers and they had limits of like 5000 (laughs) so we went there looking for the hardware suppliers, the leather suppliers we knew we could get them put together in New Zealand. We went to Hong Kong and sourced some fabrics there and then went to mainland China to this fabric fair, a massive fabric fair… JG: I think it is the biggest one in Asia. GF: Did you source all of the fabrics for this collection then, in Hong Kong and China? HM: Most of it, the majority. The print we are getting made up in India probably and there are a few different silks from local suppliers but we also want to ensure the print we get done is actually ours and doesn’t start appearing somewhere else, you know? Because it is our first season it is very important to us. GF: A killer print can define a range quite easily…so the next part of the process, pattern-making, cutting, getting samples done? A machinist…was that when it became more real, a fun part? Did you feel that you had enough knowledge to over see that? JG: Yeah, definitely… MH: We were fine with that part of it. We kept it simple and worked with one patternmaker and one machinist. We were pretty comfortable with it all but I think production is a new game! I think with production both Jess and I…well, neither of us really want to put our hand up for production (laughs) it takes a special kind of person but at the same time as designers you need to be very aware of this part of it. RC: I have met quite a few of the production managers, production people who work with Helen Cherry and Workshop, Zambesi, Karen, Kate etc and they are usually really amazing women. They know how to get you there, it’s their job. MH: We will be fine we definitely have enough knowledge of the process and we are starting off quite small. RC: Exactly it is not like you have to produce hundreds and hundreds of pieces straight away. GF: I’m impressed at how organised you have been in terms of imaging the collection; a look book with a quality team, a campaign at the same time, that’s good planning. What about retail, how far down the track are you with that? JG: Originally we thought we were going to be wholesaling to start but it is not the ultimate route we want to take, it is not going to be the biggest
cheque for us at the end of the day and we want wholesale relationship where there are exclusives – so you could only buy a particular bag at a particular store. Right now online, our own online store and then following on from that our own store, our own retail space. MH: I think it’s also about controlling your own stock so that we can put something into store when we want because it is going into our own store. Plus, Jess and I have decided to go straight to season. Everyone else is on winter right now, and we are just getting to winter, we will go straight into summer. Otherwise, we started in February, but it would be a whole year before we saw any money coming in the door. It just means we can experiment, see who likes what and what they don’t like, and see income earlier – rather than being limited by an order and then scrambling to make it happen. RC: Yes, that system is based upon having so many stockists that you have to have an order and production system further and further ahead. This way, you can make some samples and stocks and if no one orders a look or whatever, you don’t have to waste money making it up. JG: Going through the business plan process we were challenged a lot about this sort of thing; “Yes, your product is great, you are fabulous, it all looks good but what are you going to change, what are you going to offer that is different?” And we said we could change the experience. We do think our product is great, we love the clothes we are making but we have thought a lot about the online experience, how we are going to work in retail in future, engaging our audience and I think there is already an experience there from start to finish… GF: For sure, I am aware of a couple of those projects bubbling away in the background! Do you have a brand statement? MH & JG: We decided on ‘beautiful above all else’… GF & RC: Beautiful! Thanks Jess and Madi!!
“WHEN YOU START OUT LIKE THIS YOU HAVE TO POUR EVERYTHING INTO IT. WE ARE YET TO TAKE ANY MONEY (PERSONALLY) AWAY FROM THE BUSINESS, EVERYTHING IS THIS FOR US AT THE MOMENT AND WE’VE MADE A LOT Of
Space Mesh bomber, Space Mesh bell skirt , Shine skivvy and Afternoon Mule in nude, all by Harman Gubisa