Beauty

Harris Reed on Working With Harry Styles and Pushing for Gender Fluidity

Harris Reed first garnered attention for designing some of Harry Styles' recent world tour outfits, all while they were still a student at Central Saint Martins in London. "For him to wear my stuff on such a grand stage? I couldn't stop crying for two days," Reed told PAPER in 2018, referring to Styles as the "Paul McCartney of my generation." Now, the 22-year-old gender fluid designer appears alongside Styles in Gucci's latest fragrance campaign for Memoire D'une Odeur, which is only the beginning of Reed's fashion takeover.

Interestingly, it was a random Instagram DM three years ago from Harry Lambert (stylist to Harry Styles) that would eventually lead Reed into landing a coveted internship with Gucci, while also working under Alessandro Michele. The young designer now boasts an Instagram following over 100k, as they currently split their time working between London, Los Angeles, and Rome.

"[Lambert] was the first person to ever pull what is actually the first outfit I'd ever made when I moved to London," Reed said. "He pulled this outfit I did on Instagram for a photoshoot, when I had no followers. We worked together all year, and he was like 'I need hats, I need feathers, I need glamour, I need sequins.' I was creating all these amazing looks for him, leading up to him introducing me to Harry and working with him. We got on so well, [Styles] invited me on the Harry Styles World Tour."

Although driven to experiment within design, Reed says, their primary goal is mostly to use their expanding platform to push the conversation of queer identities and gender fluidity forward.

"While the design aspect is important to me, the psychology behind it is what really fascinates me," they tell PAPER. "Even to the point of like, putting a pink scarf on a boy. In certain parts, someone will scream homophobic slurs at you and people actually feel so genuinely scared within themselves for some reason, just based on a color and a piece of fabric. I thought that was such an interesting concept, to be able to push the status quo of what it means to be queer, what it means to be an individual, and even further than that. I think clothing for me was the best way to play with that representation in a way that hopefully changes people's perspectives and challenges what people's beliefs are."

With this new campaign for Gucci's universal and genderless fragrance, Reed hopes to elevate the conversation to a global platform.

In an exclusive chat with PAPER, the young designer reflects on working within fashion, idenitity, politics, and designing for Styles.

How has it been studying at Central Saint Martins? Fabio [Piras], the course director for fashion, has a reputation for being very intimidating and ruthless...

I think definitely in MA, Fabio is not ruthless, but I mean I've seen him make someone cry just by polishing his glasses. He's definitely living up to the Central Saint Martins' reputation of being cutthroat and hard, I think. I would say it's still quite as intense [laughs].

How did you end up there?

I probably read about it in W Magazine — my mom got me a subscription when I was really young. I read about it there and it was talking about [John] Galliano and [Alexander] McQueen, so I kind of made it my goal in my head like, 'I'm going to that school.' I was nine, so I think I just had it in the back of my mind. When it came to applying for university, that was the only school I applied to.

It was probably the scariest interview of my life, like it made me full-on cry. [The interview] actually could be a movie scene; it was horrific. The guy walks in and he's like 'Sit the fuck down. Who the fuck do you think you are?' He went off on another woman. After a couple seconds I was like, 'I didn't get this, obviously I'm not getting in.' I remember just thinking. 'Stand up for yourself, Harris, be strong.' At one point we were like, on the table with our hands, yelling into each other's faces, like in a respectful manner, but he was like, 'Get your shit and get the fuck out of here.'

So I go to get my stuff and to leave and as I'm opening the door, completely hysterically crying, he's like, 'Harris,' and I just turned around and he said, 'You answered those questions better than anyone. I'll see you in London next year.' So I signed a contract, got in the elevator and broke down crying. And then I was like 'Cool, this is what I have to look forward to the next five years' [laughs].

That's like a reality show.

Honestly! Because I used to work for Kelly Cutrone when I was 13-16, and there were so many times where it was like, 'If you have to cry, go outside.' She taught me so much, and I think going to the interview I was prepared because I've dealt with all kinds of crazy environments. I really did hold my ground, but I do remember after the crying moment I was like, 'Ok, well, this is the world I've now entered, either like it or change it, but you're in it.' Everyone I tell is kind of shocked. But it definitely set the tone for my creative career since then, being in London.

How did you get involved with Gucci?

That came about because I was super fortunate to start working with this stylist called Harry Lambert. He was the first person to ever pull what is actually the first outfit I'd ever made when I moved to London. He pulled this outfit I did on Instagram for a photoshoot, when I had like no followers. We worked together all year, and he was like 'I need hats, I need feathers, I need glamour, I need sequins.' I was just creating all these amazing looks for him, leading up to him introducing me to Harry and working with him. We got on so well, [Styles] in fact invited me on the Harry Styles World Tour.

Then one day, a year ago, I went to apply for an internship at Gucci, as it was now my "placement" year at Central Saint Martins.

I got the call that night in the library, and they were like, 'Hi, this is Michaela, and Alessandro [Michele] would like to meet you. Can we fly you here in six hours?' I ran home, made silver flared trousers, grabbed my grandmother's blouse, threw it on, got on a plane, like literally not sleeping. It was such a dream completely. I met him, I sat down, within seconds he knew exactly what he wanted to do with me. He looked at me and was like, 'Darling, I don't read magazines, but I opened the magazine and there you were. I looked at my phone and there you were. And then, an hour later, your application comes through. Basically it was meant to be.'

Then he asked on the spot, 'Would you walk for me as a fluid creative in my show for the resort that season? And will you take over the Instagram?' and it just opened up. I could tell in that split-second right when I walked in, he knew exactly what he wanted to do. That led into me working there for eight months as an apprentice as well as then me being a part of this amazing, all-star cast for this incredible, universal, gender-fluid fragrance.

The campaign looks amazing. What was it like working with Harry Styles?

It was so beautiful. It was beautiful to work for him before, making his clothes and designing with him was such an amazing adventure, but showed a completely different side of him. It was like, 'How are we going to convey to millions of people movement, and who you are?' And then we were able to be on a shoot where we were just this amazing, eclectic family having fun. It was great, we all had tents and trailers, but we all literally rolled around in the grass together and were drinking wine and laughing and swapping stories.

Was it different working with [Styles] on the campaign than designing clothes for him?

Well, the thing is, he's just such an incredible man and a sweet soul that I think whether it's working in that professional setting like designing, he's just always free and open. Working on the campaign, I think we just got to have a bit more fun, because we were just there to be who we were; we didn't have to create anything. I think the sense of humor and joking around was the thing that made it that much more exciting.

Do you have any fragrance-related memories? Something that triggers something from your childhood, or early life?

My mom has been a perfumer for 25 years, so I grew up my whole life with her creating fragrances and smells. The Gucci perfume felt very genuine and full circle, along with the fact that Harry was in this. It's a universal fragrance for every gender and everyone, it just felt so perfect.

But when I think of memory, I can relate to scents from nature, like a walk in the morning with my dad around the canyon with the smell of wet concrete with like the dew of the grass mixed with the smell of the trees. I can relate it to those warm memories. Fragrance and scent, all throughout my life, is always a memory I can hold onto, and makes me feel quite warm. Especially for someone who has moved 30 times around the United States and Europe, I can smell something and it just transports me back to a place and it kind of re-centers me.

Did you have any favorite fragrances growing up that you wore all the time?

I love sandalwood and patchouli, just because of my father. He would always wear such thick, beautiful patchouli with amber, since I was a really young kid. And my mom being a perfumer, would always have a bag filled with oils, like patchouli, turmeric, sandalwood, and tobacco. I'm a lot more into the warmer notes, and the things that kind of have an earthiness to them and are deep, sensual if you will.

As a child, you seemed to be constantly involved in the world of perfume and beauty. How did you end up in fashion?

My father does documentary films and my mom used to be a model; it's a very creatively accepting family. As a young kid, I was always rearranging people's furniture and then I started wanting to do pottery and then dancing. I was always trying to find creative outlets. When I was like, nine-years-old and living in Arizona, I came out to my parents as gay at that time and they were super accepting. I was lucky to have such incredible parents. I started wearing what I wanted to wear. I was dressing a lot more what people see as 'feminine' and definitely not what young boys wear. I'm sure it was more on a subconscious level, but I immediately more interested in the power that clothing has to make people look at you completely differently, but more importantly it's about how you look at yourself.

And while the design aspect is important to me, the psychology behind it is what really fascinates me, even to the point of putting a pink scarf on a boy. In certain parts, someone will scream homophobic slurs at you and people actually feel so genuinely scared within themselves for some reason just based on a color and a piece of fabric. I thought that was such an interesting concept, to be able to push the status quo of what it means to be queer, what it means to be an individual, even further than that. I think clothing for me was the best way to play with that representation and be able to create a typical feeling that hopefully changes people's perspectives and challenges what people's beliefs are. That's kind of how I came into clothes, but I think at the same time, all these things come back and tie in and help enhance that, if you will.

What are some social and political issues that you personally feel connected with?

I think the past couple of pieces I've been doing have been about what's going on in Chechnya, the gay purge, and all these things. A lot of the times it's reading stuff, and I try to keep up with organizations and people like Adam Eli, Ezra Miller, and people that I feel like are outspoken, queer allies. [I begin the design] process and then pulling from that, I start going back to my references and looking at portraits and the Renaissance Era. I'm always kind of surprised because sometimes I go a bit too deep into something, and then I have to simplify it. Even when I was doing stuff for Harry Styles, I would always be like, 'OK, I'm not pushing this enough, I'm not creating enough of a message,' but then he would go out on stage in this frilly blouse and flares and white silk. And I'm like, that's what I would literally wear to the grocery store.

You would see people who were obsessed with this and they got it, but then other people would be like, 'Why is a guy wearing that, what's going on here, that's not normal, that's not right.' Watching shows, what's going on in America, it just all comes back to the idea of changing the way that people look at what "men" and "women" can wear and to have self-expression and to just be an individual. I feel like in L.A., I look around and most guys are all like tan, ripped, and look the same, all the girls want to look like clones of the Kardashians. And you're like, 'Where the fuck has the individuality gone?' And it's obviously not everyone, some of my most stylish, chic, cool friends and artists live in LA. But I'm constantly reminded of it when I get out of my little London bubble with all my friends with half a shaved head, one eyebrow, just complete fabulous characters. I kind of come back and I'm like, 'OK, we need to instill back into people what it means to be an individual, what it means to take risks and to start breaking gender boundaries.' I'm tired of seeing boys in blue jeans and T-shirts and girls in cutoff shorts and crop tops, like come on people [laughs].

Do you think designers and brands are doing enough collectively, or is there a change that you'd like to see or push for?

I think it's about getting people to push a lot harder. I can honestly say [Alessandro's] one of the few big designers on that scale that are actually using their power for good. But so many other brands on similar financial and global scale are still doing white-skinned blonde girls down a catwalk. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but at the same time it's also 2019, diversity should already be a given. We need to be seeing people of different genders. And yes, we have people like Lady Gaga and Pat McGrath and brands that are obviously touching on what it means to push gender, but on a big scale, we have so much further to go. It's a great question because when I am in London with Charles Jeffrey or the amazing designers I respect, I'm like, 'Oh look, we're doing such a great job and fashion's becoming so much more fluid and becoming so much more accepting,' but then you zoom out. You're looking at a tiny percentage, and you're like, 'OK, this catwalk still has guys in shorts walking down it,' and like you'd only see one Black person in that show.

So people need to be creating something with a strong ass message to have a purpose because if not, then you're just making cute clothes and not helping society whatsoever. It even goes back to when I used to model and get cast in things, and it would be more androgynous before I came out as gender fluid, and they would be like, 'Oh my god, great! Let's blow out his hair, put some lipstick and a skirt on him, lets go!' It was like job after job of people not actually understanding or taking a second to ask me how I identify or what it meant to me to be gay or androgynous to then being genderfluid.

You saw that the people that did jump on to this, did it for commercial reasons, instead of actually wanting to help promote a message. The beauty of when I went to Gucci, was that, all of a sudden everyone wanted to know everything about me, they wanted to know who I was, what I stood for, how we could push who I am and my message into what they're doing. They really cared and of course, it's a company and companies need to have a turnover, but that was never discussed.

Going back to what you were saying about making money as a business, it's a big issue for independent designers. How do you try to balance commercial viability with creating something that is also meaningful and pushing boundaries?

Honestly, that is an amazing question because it's something that I am constantly calling my parents about every day to have that conversation. Even for me, having achieved some amazing things this year, I find it hard trying to sustain being a brand, while making money, not going bankrupt in a year without going too commercial or selling out. But I'm 23, and I'm learning every day. The most important thing is if it feels right in my gut. For me, it's about partnering with existing companies and brands that want to shed light on what you're doing, whether that's in beauty, fragrance, working with clients, red carpet or for shows. Especially in these last couple of months, I've been very fortunate to be building a profile, so much so, I've turned down some really amazing offers for things.

I was like, you either don't understand what it means to be genderfluid or when you actually look into the company and what they stand for, it's just completely white-washed. I'd rather be working with a smaller brand because I just love the messages they're putting out there, instead of the big celebrity with a bunch of money that doesn't understand. I think it's just constantly referring back to your gut and always trying to have at least 95% of yourself in it. Then you let the five percent be a bit commercial. People just have to be authentic. Obviously it's still a business. I mean, how are small brands supposed to compete with H&M, which I love a ton. But you go in and a top is $10, like if you have to produce the same top it's going to cost you a couple of hundred dollars. Obviously, there's compromises to be made. But I do feel that lately when I've said no to something because it hasn't felt right in my gut with who I am, then there's been something that comes along for usually less money or maybe aligns more with my ethos and what I stand for.

So many young, aspiring designers only dream of the success you've attained at such a young age. Do you think that affects your work in any way?

I usually take it as a kind of pressure to do the best work I possibly can. Obviously, some of that backfires, because then I'm putting a bit too much pressure on myself because I'm like, 'Come on, Harris, Florence and Harry are rooting you on to do all these amazing things', and then you kind of find yourself like 'Fuck, fuck, fuck.' Gucci shed such amazing light on me and what I do so there needs a bit of extra eyes now. I think I usually try to take it as a responsibility. My goal is always just to inspire people to be who they want to be truly. At the same time, choose to do what makes them happy, so I take it as never wanting to be half-assed.

Are you working on your final collection for Saint Martins?

So once I start school, we'll dive into the final collection for May/June. I have some really exciting ideas and things coming out in 2020. I think it's, hopefully, going to one up last year and be kind of crazy and fabulous.

You'll be balancing all of that with all the other work that you're already doing?

Exactly, so next time you call me I'll just be sobbing, but in a good way. It's always in a good way, I'm just processing life crying.

Photos courtesy of Gucci

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