A quiet movement of groundbreaking creativity is underway in everyone’s favorite college town: Ann Arbor, Michigan. In a time when everything has been done at least once before, Lena Harbali, a recent graduate of Eastern Michigan University, has been hard at work developing an aesthetic all her own. The daughter of a Syrian father and American mother, Lena spent many of her formative years travelling across the globe and soaking up the rich styles and cultures of each new place she called home. From Japan, to Belgium, along with stops in England, France, Germany, and numerous other countries, Lena was exposed to some of the most celebrated cities of innovation in the fashion world long before she knew the craft would be her calling. Now, with multiple runway shows under her belt and a blossoming repertoire of designs unique to her brand, the future is looking brighter than bright for the young designer. Always on the go, she managed to sit still long enough for an interview and a surprisingly large cup of coffee at the Songbird Café in Ann Arbor to discuss life as an educator, activist, and entrepreneur on the rise.
RL: “Lady Liberty: Clothing for the Soul.” What does that mean?
LH: Well, I’m actually starting rebranding right now. Simply for that fact that when I started out, I was just doing women’s wear, and the concept behind my clothes—My very, very first show was in 2013 and I was like, “What are my clothes about?” My clothes are about empowering women and through my work and connection with the LGBT community, I’m leaning more towards gender fluidity and even androgynous clothing. So I’m thinking about rebranding it to be something a little more accepting of people who are women and men and everyone in between. But the clothes are kind of a reflection of who I wish I could be. Just this strong and unapologetically, “out there” woman, and so a lot of the clothes are very colorful. It’s kind of like a beacon of happiness in this dark and messed up world that we have. And I guess the word “liberty” is just meant to liberate women from the standards of beauty from society and just everything we’re told we have to be, you don’t have to be that. That was the inspiration for it. But again, I’m trying to rebrand to be more inclusive to every gender, because the word “lady” is kind of limiting.
RL: In a lot of the works you have on your site and on your Facebook page, there’s a lot of patchwork design. What’s the inspiration behind that?
LH: That—I think the first piece that I did with that aesthetic, it started when I was in a competition organized by the DIA (Detroit Institute of Arts) and DG3 (Detroit Garment Group). They had a design competition and I was the youngest person to get into it. They picked ten designers and they had an exhibition of samurai armor. We were told to design something inspired by that. So that was the first piece that I made because it had all of these different pieces coming together and a lot of the armor was like that too. And I’m completely self-taught, so after I realized that I could do something like that, it turned more towards creating lines for the eyes follow and giving a woman curves. So it’s kind of like armor, but it’s enhancing her femininity, but not in a traditionally “feminine” way. It’s also playing off of hard and soft because a lot of the time I’ll have a top or a jacket made in that style, and then a really flowy skirt. And maybe it’ll be made out of very colorful things, as opposed to armor, which is typically very monotone. So it’s lighthearted, but at the same time, inspired by armor.
RL: Would you say that’s been the biggest influence on your aesthetic, or do you see it as just a moment in time and you’ll be moving on to something else?
LH: It is a moment in time because I think when I first started, I was so excited just to be designing that it was kind of like my brain throwing up everything. And my lines at the runway shows were not cohesive. Each piece had to be a showstopper. Each piece had to be different. When you look at regular runway shows, they’re all kind of similar and they all work together. But this armor, I think I’ll probably grow out of it, it’s just kind of experimentation at this point.
RL: Are there any designers right now that you find yourself looking up to, or whose work you really enjoy?
LH: Well I watch Project Runway, and the designer Mondo (Guerra), I liked how he worked with different patterns. Patterns that you wouldn’t really see together, he put together. I think I do that in my work. To a lot of people, maybe it looks busy, but it’s so pleasing to my eye. But you know, I think I’m toning it down a bit more now. I like Alexander McQueen’s work too. Just because it’s so bizarre and out there, which I love. Then there was this girl I love, Elena (Slivnyak), on Project Runway. She used a lot of this really thick fabric and made this structured, masculine look, but for women, which I really liked.
RL: With all of the travelling you did in your youth, do you think it had any impact on your designer’s eye?
LH: I think so. I’ve been told before that my designs have a “global look.” I still sometimes call it “bohemian” simply because I love earthy colors. But then again, it’s really hard for me to define my work, just because I have all of these different influences. My dad’s side of the family is Syrian, so they have long, flowing things. And we lived in Japan, where’s there’s all of the origami and architectural ingenuity. We did origami all the time in school. I think it really contributed to the armor inspiration. Lines intersecting lines. Just seeing that the definitions of beauty are different all around the world, when someone tells me something isn’t beautiful just because that’s their opinion of it, I just don’t listen.
RL: Considering Metro Detroit or just being in Ann Arbor, where there’s a pretty large population of young folks and everyone seems to have his or her own eclectic style, how do you feel you fit into that scene? Or do you?
LH: Personally, and I’m hoping to get a studio space in Detroit, every time I go down there, I think, “I love these people.” They’re so awesome. And I think the thing that draws me to Detroit is it’s kind of rough around the edges. It doesn’t try to be perfect. It doesn’t claim to be perfect. I have a lot against the fashion industry and how it tries to push women to try to be perfect all the time. They have to be a size 0, they have to paint makeup on their faces, they have to wear heels. You know. And Ann Arbor has the college town and lots of experimentation, but it still has a large population of “white professionals.” So in that sense, it’s not quite as diverse as Detroit. Detroit is more diverse and it’s more real to me. I think I would fit in there much better than here (Ann Arbor).
RL: Has it been a challenge for you to make your mark in this space when there is so much creative competition around you?
LH: I think the biggest thing for me, the biggest challenge, has been with myself. Telling myself that there are lots of other people out there doing the same thing as you, and they will do it better than you. Like even you, being a writer, there will always be someone who will do it better than you. When I first started out, that used to stop me in my tracks. But you have to overcome that and realize that they may do something similar, but at the end of the day, you are who you are and there’s no one else like you. And what you produce will have your own spin on it. You need to hope and pray that people recognize the value of your work because of your brand and who you are, and not just look at the face value of your products. A lot of these brands and products, like what people think of Kanye West. Give me a pair of jeans, let me wear them for six months, and I’ll give them back to you ripped. They’ll look like Kanye West jeans. And he’s trying to sell them for like $4,000. So it’s the brand value versus the value of the clothes. The brand I’m trying to push is about love and acceptance and being unique. It’s accepting that everyone is different, but we can all coexist together.
RL: Do you often wear your own designs?
LH: I’m trying to do that more, especially now that I’ve graduated. When I was in college, often I was taking 18 credits, I was working part-time or 30 hours a week, and I was sewing for these shows. So a lot of the time, I would kill myself sewing for these shows, and then not want to sew again for a month. Then another show would come around. So I never really had time to make clothes that fit me, because sadly, these models are teeny-tiny. But since I’ve been out of school, I’ve had time to whip myself up a couple of things.
RL: What’s the ultimate goal for your work? I know it’s hard to look into tomorrow, let alone five years from now, but where do you see Lady Liberty, or whatever incarnation of it comes about, in the future?
LH: Well, the degree that I graduated with is in art education. So my ideal scenario, whether I’m in an actual art classroom or some alternative school, I want to work with people who don’t have as many opportunities as others. I understand that takes a lot of energy and you will burn out eventually, so ideally, if I could do that part-time, and then have some sort of automated way to make my designs. Because the way I sew them right now, all by myself, the price point is not what it needs to be. So if I could get them manufactured, that would be great. And also do couture work, or my own custom little line that I could once a month make my own stunning, intricate gown and that would be a higher price point. So I think diversifying myself so I don’t get bored would be good.
RL: With all of your endeavors in art education, it’s very apparent that you have a passion for children. Are you actively teaching now?
LH: Yes, I’m teaching now as a substitute. When I graduated, I was going to have a heart attack thinking about committing to a full-time class room right after getting out of school. I feel like especially for art educators it’s so hard getting a job, that when you find one, you need to hold onto it. But I knew I wanted to travel, I knew I wanted to push myself for my fashion. So I wanted to substitute, which is kind of like—I joke that it’s like a mercenary thing. You accept jobs. It’s an online forum so, like today, I have something going on, so I just won’t accept a job. It’s so flexible. I can just work as needed. I’m so glad I did it because it gives me the chance to see kids in all different districts. How the district is set up and how the teachers interact with the students affects how the students learn. And it’s very apparent from an outsider’s perspective, especially when you see, for example, how a student interacts with you versus a teacher that maybe has lower expectations for them, in a certain way their behavior shifts. It’s a good learning experience for me that I can take into my own classroom eventually.
RL: Being a designer, an educator, a blogger, and concerned with so many social justice issues, you wear a lot of hats. What’s the cause you’re most passionate about right now and how is that influencing your work, whether in the classroom or in your designs?
LH: I think right now because of the crazy election we’re having, I’m very political. A lot of people have ignored me on Facebook because I can get so political on there. I’m trying to remind myself that there’s nothing wrong with speaking your opinion and if people don’t like it, that’s their problem. So I think right now, economic injustice is also pretty high on my list. Especially seeing in the news about Flint. If that was happening in an affluent suburb, that would not have gone on for so long. It’s economic injustice. And then that trails into my desire to teach in an urban school. Why isn’t that money there? Why aren’t those kids as deserving as kids in a suburb? And trying to think of how I can gear my artwork to help those people, which is why I took on a show in Flint.
RL: Especially after hearing your explanation of the Lady Liberty brand, would you call yourself feminist? We all seem to have our own definition of the word, but how is feminism defined for you?
LH: Yes, I consider myself a feminist, and I think it started out as breaking stereotypes in my own culture. You know, Muslim culture and Syrian culture—not religion, just culture—the people dictate that women are not as independent. For example, the women in my dad’s family didn’t go to college. And that was their own choice. It was just, “that’s the culture.” And there’s less solo travel involved and everything. It was expected that my older brother would be the one out there and doing all of these things, but it ended up being the opposite. He’s more of the reserved quiet one, and I’m the obnoxious loud one who travels by herself. So that’s one part of it. Breaking stereotypes in culture and proving to myself that this can’t define me. Feminism is not about hating men. At all. And I think that version, or that belief, because there are definitely feminists that hate men and you can’t deny that, but I think that version is stupid. You have to accept every person of every gender. Feminism has to evolve and fuse with the LGBT movement because femininity is not one thing, and masculinity is not one thing. It’s a spectrum. For me, defining myself as a feminist is accepting that there are stereotypes for genders out there, and then trying to break those stereotypes.
RL: Is there anything else you want people to know about you or about your work?
LH: I think the ultimate goal is social entrepreneurship, because for me, my designs and my artwork—because at the end of the day, I’m an artist and a creator. I make things. And who knows? I may end up getting sick of fashion. I hope not, but either way, I’ll always be creating something and it needs to have a purpose behind it. Social justice, economic justice, things of the nature. I want my clothes or my art to benefit a purpose. I think that comes from the fact that I’ve been around so many cultures and I’ve seen so many levels of poverty because, you know, my dad’s family has no money, and even less now. And he came over here and built something from nothing. It’s recognizing that people need help and just using your skill set to benefit the community and society as best as you can. That’s what I hope to do.
One can only wait on the edge of anticipation to see what else is in store for Lena Harbali. Her artwork is a fluid process and her desire for social justice, economic justice, and breaking barriers on gender roles in the fashion industry see no end in sight.
Even with Lena’s immense talent, sometimes it takes the nurturing of a community to help realize a dream. She had just that in the Detroit Garment Group, a rising initiative working hard to create a garment district in Detroit, founded by Karen Buscemi in 2012. To stay tuned in to DGG’s development or to find out how to donate to the cause, follow the link below.
To see her looks in motion, check out the Walk Fashion Show Detroit 13th Edition on Sunday, May 22, 2016 at Eastern Market.
Also catch her on September 12th for New York Fashion Week, with details forthcoming.
To keep up with all of Lena’s projects, show dates, and creative endeavors, be sure to check out her website and follow her on Facebook at the following links.