Before anyone had heard of the designer Harris Reed, they had seen his suit in Vogue. Or was it a dress?
A tailored suit with peak shoulders attached to a hoop-skirt draped in tulle and hot pink satin garlands, it was worn in the magazine’s December issue not by a Hollywood starlet, but by a popstar: Harry Styles. Arguably, it was both.
Reed, who made the outfit in six days using Venetian wool, duchesse satin and a glue gun, describes it as “an exact juxtaposition of a suit and a dress”. Within hours of the magazine’s publication, it had become a symbol that far transcended its parts. For some, it was a referendum on outdated gender-norms. For those attached to the binary, it was a sign of how far things had gone. The Republican firebrand Candace Owens tweeted a call to “bring back manly men”. For a full day, it was headline news.
“I knew there would be controversy – the magazine came out in Trump’s America, you know?” says Reed, at drill-speed over Zoom. “But when Anna [Wintour] asked me to make that look for Harry, I was just taking a tongue-in-cheek position on people asking me to explain fluidity. I wasn’t surprised, but also … how are we still outraged by a man in a dress in 2021?”.
Speaking from a London hotel suite, which is doubling as his studio, his gender-neutral collection will be shown before London’s first gender-neutral Fashion Week, starts on 19 February. Except there is no actual fashion week, it’s all online and, strictly speaking, he’s “off-schedule”; to qualify, you need to be stocked by six different outlets. Reed, who only graduated in the summer, is stocked by two. “I definitely felt that I was being taught to churn stuff out so this was my choice,” he says. “The last few fashion weeks, before ‘this’, seemed to focus on hitting numbers”.
If the pandemic has challenged the sort of items designers make – face masks and gloves have become the new bags and shoes – Reed has gone one step further and won’t be selling anything from the collection. “It just felt weird in a pandemic”, he says.
Reed is 24 and gender-fluid. Up until last week, he identified as they/them. “At that time, I didn’t feel like a male or a female, but I was beginning to feel pigeonholed.” And so he reverted to “he/him”.
Styles was a face of gender-neutrality long before Vogue came out, but it is arguably his collaboration with labels like Reed’s that placed this front and centre. With his pearl earrings and “Thin White Duke” flares, Styles is a muse in women’s clothing, a Gucci model bent on blurring lines between feminine and masculine. “I’m fighting for beauty in fluidity and Harry just really understands the way gender can be restrictive,” says Reed.
Probably Central Saint Martins’s most famous “pandemic graduate”, he finished his degree in June in between making smoking jackets for Styles’s world tour, working for Gucci, and dressing pop stars in his white suits (Solange), hats (Selena Gomez) and platforms (Miley Cyrus).
Like most students whose degrees were upended by the sudden closure of campuses, those studying fashion had the added drawback of having to produce actual things for their degree shows without facilities. Reed modelled in his own show, used a £20 iron and a Singer sewing machine from Argos, glue from the hardware store he lives above and a foam mannequin he’d found by the bin. Meanwhile, a disused pub round the corner let him dye his fabrics in the garden. The final collection, inspired by the fifth Marquess of Anglesey (aristocrats and eccentrics are running themes in his work), was covered by Vogue. “You can be resourceful, but I still tell future students: defer, defer, defer.”
Reed is half English, half Mexican-American. He has waist-length, dyed-red hair and stands at 6ft 4ins before he puts on a pair of platform boots – his own design – which he does most days. He’s extraordinary to look at, as if Giacometti sculpted the Venus. Reed designs metre-wide hats, and joyful one-size-fits-all blouses from dead-stock taffeta and chiffon, both things he would wear himself. That might sound self-evident for a designer, but just last week financial losses at Victoria Beckham’s label were blamed on precisely this . Reed rolls his eyes. “It’s dumb. Look, if I can push my so-called outrageous vision onto people, maybe high street stores will get rid of male and female dressing rooms or start making men’s shoes with height”.
His own “outrageous” wardrobe toggles between secondhand and glitzy outre. For work, vintage silk leopard-print blouses and black flares. For something like the fashion awards, a nude thong and crystal gown. His detailed skincare routine involves fresh aloe vera, face rollers and concealer; next week, he’s also launching a collaboration with MAC Cosmetics. This self-expression comes at a price. “I have someone say the word ‘fag’ to me two to three times a week on the street – and that’s just during a pandemic,” he says. “Have I had to run down streets for fear of being harassed? Yes. Is that sad? Yes. Does it need to stop? Totally.”
Reed grew up in Arizona. His mother was a model turned candlemaker and perfumier – they sell their candles through his website – and his father, a documentary maker. His childhood was creative, at times rarefied, but always piqued by a curiosity for expression through clothes. “People used to tell me that I was gay before I knew what that word really meant. This was Arizona and if you weren’t white and Christian… and there I was, nine years old, dressed up in a gold cape from a Halloween box”.
In true Gen Z style, he was discovered on Instagram by the stylist Harry Lambert in 2017. They collaborated on a number of shoots, until Lambert asked him to sketch some pieces for a “mystery” client, with arch references to Mick Jagger and Jimi Hendrix. The plan was for them to meet at a west London address. “Just before the meeting, I was at college being torn to shreds by a teacher, telling me to drop out. So I just left and got on the tube, shirtless, in a fake fur jacket and huge silver Balenciaga boots”. Reed had an inkling it might be Styles – he is one of Lambert’s clients – but it was only when he saw his name in lights on the Hammersmith Apollo that he realised why he was there. “We hit it off immediately and have never looked back,” he says. The pair now wear matching large-scale initial rings by Gucci.
Reed hadn’t used a sewing machine until getting into Central Saint Martins. If that sounds a bit like getting into Rada without having read Shakespeare, “I’m as happy ruching and draping as I am duct-taping. But I will always use my glue gun, even for Vogue,” he says.