Michael Harlan has quietly launched a signature collection of accessories and will add select clothing items this fall.
A graduate of Washington University in Saint Louis, Harlan made the quintessential post-grad move, loading up a U-Haul trailer and driving from Idaho to New York. While interning at Carolina Herrera, his next-door-neighbor Betty Ann Grund, a longtime editor at Harper’s Bazaar, let him know that Stan Herman was looking for an assistant. Eighteen years after he first interviewed with the designer, Harlan is still there, now as assistant designer and project manager. “We’re a small show here so whatever needs to be done will get done,” Harlan said.
When time allowed over the past year, Harlan worked on his handmade items at home or in the upstairs sample room in Herman’s duplex. Herman, who Harlan described as “a great mentor,” still sketches and makes function paramount. In addition to his own label, Herman makes uniforms for JetBlue and Federal Express. Harlan said, “Everything needs to work and make sense. The uniform is a triple design process. It needs to make a branded statement, a functional statement and above all an appealing statement to both its wearer and their customers. I now apply that in my own thought process as well.”
His collection of small leather goods, wallets, passport card cases, totes and bags is now being sold exclusively at Patina, a Nantucket boutique owned by Ted Muehling’s sister Carole. During his first trip to the island, Harlan made a point of visiting the store to see Ted Muehling’s work. On another trip to the island, he stopped by again and showed Carole Muehling one of his own designs. Her shop offers select lines including M.Patmos, Gary Graham and Isabel Benanto. Impressed with Harlan’s designs, she encouraged him to develop a collection that she could sell. Having already sold several pieces even though the summer shoppers haven’t descended on the island yet, Muehling said, “They’re just impeccably made. The workmanship that goes into the collection is amazing – the skins he selects, how everything is handcut and handsewn.”
Wholesale prices range from $100 to $950.
Intent on designing something “that consumers will not only appreciate and want, but they will also be compelled to buy,” Harlan said he prefers to build the business organically. He said he is in “no huge rush because I really want it to mean something. That takes a different kind of effort as well, I guess.”
Having designed customized clothing over the years for select clients, Harlan is developing double-faced cashmere coats for Patina’s fall assortment. (As a boy, he tried his hand at outerwear by taking scissors to his grandmother’s mink coat to make a bunch of teddy bears.) For spring, he will design shirts and blouses made of Japanese fabrics for Patina. This isn’t his first go-round in fashion, having sold a collection of accessories made of exotic skins to Davis, a Sun Valley store, in 2008. He reconsidered wholesale in response to the global economic crisis, but still designs customized exotic skins pieces.
“I want people to look beautiful but I also want them to use these things.” Harlan said. “She is one of the nicest, most down-to-earth people who really believes in the product. I really like that her approach to selling is not aggressive. I like that she doesn’t beat people up to buy things.”