Madeleine Harman (left) and Jessica Grubiša are empowering women to take wardrobe risks with their eponymous label. The pair talk to Lucy Slight about the brand’s wild ride, their yin and yang and why you can’t define the Harman Grubiša woman.
One could argue that in fashion, two heads are better than one. There’s Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez of Proenza Schouler, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana of Dolce & Gabbana, and of course, sisters Kate and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte, who categorically prove the point. For Jessica Grubiša – one half of New Zealand label Harman Grubiša – launching a brand with a partner in crime was the agenda from day dot, because, as she says, “it balances out your crazy creative. You need to share this journey with someone else.”
It’s four weeks out from New Zealand Fashion Week and Jessica and her business partner and best friend Madeleine Harman have an air of calm as we chat over coffee at a café near their Ponsonby, Auckland store. Earlier in the week, Harman Grubiša was named the Mercedes-Benz Presents designer for NZFW 2016 – an accolade previously bestowed upon such local fashion stalwarts as Kate Sylvester and Trelise Cooper, and internationally, Carolina Herrera and Badgley Mischka. It’s a huge honour for the brand, considering it’s a mere two years since Harman Grubiša burst onto the scene. The partnership means a bigger show than last year’s fashion week debut (both in terms of the collection and the guest list), and Jessica admits it’s going to be a “sprint to the end.”
“If you’ve seen the Raf [Simons] documentary [Dior and I], that whole range was started six weeks out, it’s kind of how it works,” explains Jessica. “Non-fashion people hear that there’s six weeks before the show and they’re like, ‘What? You’ve got so much to do!’ And fashion people are like, ‘you’ve got heaps of time, have a holiday!’”
It’s been a remarkable year for the duo. Launching their AW16 collection, ‘Dakota,’ at NZFW 2015 put them on the map. The brand’s Tibetan lambswool jackets and stoles, exquisitely tailored workwear and penchant for the finest fabrics and finishings made headlines and winter wardrobe wish lists across the country. Mere weeks before their runway debut, the Harman Grubiša flagship store on Jervois Road in Ponsonby opened its doors, and as another prestigious nod to their design prowess, the brand was named an Australasian finalist in the International Woolmark Prize for 2016.
Madeleine and Jessica work seven-day weeks and for the most part, it’s just the two of them. But the synergy between them is undeniable and possibly the key to their collective composure. Their dynamic is something they both saw from the start, as students studying together at Whitecliffe College of Art and Design in Auckland. Asked if they remember the moment they decided to join forces, it’s an immediate “Yes, 100 percent,” from Madeleine and a nod in agreement from Jessica. “She was working on her paint-spilled skirt and I was hand sewing a crazy amount of gems,” recalls Jessica.
“I think I’d been thinking about it prior and so had Madi. Maybe I said it? I don’t know. I always wanted my own label, I always wanted to have my own thing, but I never wanted to do it alone. I’m smart like that – rope someone in.”
Despite their contrasting style aesthetics (Madeleine’s is classic and refined, whereas Jessica’s style could be described as 80s power b*tch meets Yeezy season 3), they both had the same vision for Harman Grubiša. “We always wanted to make beautiful, well-made clothing,” says Jessica. “Our personal style is not necessarily what’s projected in the brand…”
“But it influences everything,” adds Madeleine. It could be that this juxtaposition is part of the reason they’re loath to define the Harman Grubiša woman – because, like Madeleine and Jessica, she’s hungry for something different, which the girls agree is what gives them the confidence to think outside the square and take risks. “It’s hard to put her down to just one thing,” says Jessica. She’s a corporate lawyer with a keen sense of style, she’s 75 and she’s 16, she’s from down the line and from the big smoke.
“She’s an intellectual romantic in her purchasing, and that’s what’s really cool,” explains Madeleine. “We’re always learning about her, she’s always evolving, we’re always evolving. If you wanted to use marketing jargon, she’s definitely someone that is a designer spender and she’s spending a lot – once or three or four times a year – but not every day.”
One thing is for sure, Harman Grubiša’s customers – and the fashion media – are waiting with bated breath to see the designers kick off NZFW 2016. But as for giving away anything about the collection, the pair are remaining tight- lipped. Aside from squeezing out of them that the runway show will feature an earring collaboration with local jewellery label Jasmin Sparrow, we’ll have to wait and see. If they felt the pressure to top last year’s debut, you wouldn’t know it. Jessica, at least, appears cool as a cucumber.
“Anything in this life, you can’t worry about other people’s expectations because everyone’s got a different thing in mind. Hater’s gonna hate, people gonna love, that’s just the way it is,” she says matter of factly. “But we push ourselves to design better every season. Of course you’ve got to grow and we’ve got to really focus on our moods and what we want to do. So if we’re in tune with each other, then the range will be good.”