“Paul, we love you! If you get to read this piece.”
Such was John Galliano’s shout-out to designer Paul Harnden in a conversation with WWD earlier this week.
Yet Harnden, a Canadian national long based in England, isn’t ready for his close-up. Reached by telephone at his shop in Brighton, a seaside town in South East England on Wednesday, Harnden would only say that he “doesn’t do any publicity. It’s a really strict rule we have.”
Such lack of self-promotion has not stopped Harnden from building a cult following with other retailers and designers who prize his artisanal, weathered-looking shoes and clothes. And the retailers who carry his designs play strictly by his rules. Both Dover Street Market, Comme des Garçons multibrand emporium in London, and If Boutique in New York declined requests to lend out any merchandise for photography.
Rei Kawakubo started carrying Harnden’s shoes in her Tokyo store more than 15 years ago. “We’ve always loved what he does,” said Adrian Joffe, Kawakubo’s husband and chief executive officer of Comme des Garçons International. “It’s beyond fashion, really. You wear his clothes and it’s as if you’ve always had them.
“He does have a following, and it’s not dissimilar to our customers,” Joffe continued. “He’s got a very strong signature, and we do really well with it.”
Similarly, If Boutique owner Jeanette Bird has carried Harnden’s work for about 10 years. “The strongest pieces are his jackets,” she said, praising his washed fabrics with heavy cotton linings. “It has a lot of style without being flashy. It’s laid back and very organic. Everything is natural…rugged looking. His shoes are especially amazing, completely handmade. His clothes attract people from the arts, people who don’t want to wear anything that looks branded.”
Harnden designs under the label Paul Harnden Shoemakers, reflecting his start in handmade footwear. He moved from Toronto to London in 1985 intent on learning to make lasts by hand. His work, which now includes, in addition to shoes, men’s and women’s clothes, leather goods and some quite whimsical scarves, remains handmade. The look is right out of “Oliver Twist,” all distressed and artfully crumpled.
Harnden’s marketing techniques — or lack thereof — are similarly old school. In an age when fashion labels are eager to broadcast their goings-on via Twitter and blogs, Harnden is hardly visible online. He has a bizarrely nonfunctional Web site. Most searches of his name bring up fashion forums, where his hard-core fans eagerly discuss where his pieces can be found.
Yet Harnden was not always so elusive. In 1987, the designer, then 27, sat for an interview with Footwear News, WWD’s sister title. He compared his designs, such as an elongated Victorian style leather boot, to Giacometti sculptures.
“He liked doing long, skinny shapes, and so do I,” Harnden commented. At the time, he said he sees making a shoe’s last as more important than a shoe’s upper. “If I experiment in design, it’s with the last, not with the upper. I’m very into dynamic shapes with a lot of tension in the last. The uppers are usually very traditional.”
Harnden, who trained at London’s prestigious Cordwainers College before completing a year as an apprentice at the luxury British boot maker John Lobb, also said then that he used only British vegetable-tanned leather for his shoes.
Meanwhile, character sketches of the man are scarce. A person familiar with Harnden said: “He hasn’t sold himself out, and he believes that producing exclusive, quality goods is all-important. He doesn’t talk to the press. He is a very solitary character, and he has a small staff that works full-time for him. He has a huge business in Japan.”
Bird described him as a “warm, interesting person. He plays music with groups and is involved in making underground movies,” she said. “He’s just doing what he really likes without any pressure from the fashion world.”
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