LONDON — The fashion industry has been in dire need of someone like Harris Reed, someone to shake things up and question the status quo.
On Thursday night, Reed — with a little help from surprise show guest Sam Smith — proved that he’s just the right person for the job.
He dreamed up his “60 Years a Queen” performance show, held off-schedule, to bring emotion and theatricality back into the fashion show experience — and he succeeded by truly transporting his audience, even for a mere five minutes, to an alternate universe where gender is fluid, self-expression is unhindered and beauty knows no convention.
The intimacy of the experience — the event was limited to about 60 guests — the dreamy show set featuring 18-foot tall clouds by set designer Lukas Palumbo; the over-the-top fashion, and no doubt the musical performance by Smith all came together to create the kind of emotional moment that no one present at St. John’s Chapel will forget anytime soon.
“The moment I walked into this chapel, saw those checkered floors, I felt like I was transported to another world. That was the aim, to immerse people and create a real performance. I don’t know how I could ever do a show with models just walking up and down, because it’s about the dream and showmanship,” Reed said. “I’m realizing I’m a showman as much as a designer.”
So how does a 25-year-old fledgling designer, still fresh out of Central Saint Martins, succeed in becoming London’s greatest showman and luring a Grammy-, Oscar- and Brit-winning performer to his second show?
While his brand might be nascent, Reed’s message — promoting gender fluidity, as well as slow consumption — carries cultural relevance.
It’s why heavyweight names, from environmentalist Emma Watson to woman-of-the-moment Adele and LGBTQ champion Emma Corrin, have recently been drawn to his work.
Now Smith, a nonbinary creative who has been vocal about gender identity in the last few years, was keen to support Reed’s show and become part of his fluid universe. Dressed in an elegant black suit, they sang one of Reed’s favorite romantic ballads, “I’m Kissing You,” as statuesque models posed in the designer’s latest demi-couture creations.
“Sitting down with Sam, them giving me their time and warm energy because they believe in the pieces, is a dream. It’s such a fashion moment. I don’t care if some people hate it. What I care about is that it’s a moment and you can’t look away. It’s giant feathered headpieces, arrows flying, draped gowns, it’s a lot going on baby,” the designer said.
Now in his fifth season, Reed is getting more and more confident and homing in on his signatures. Here, he perfected the kick of his popular flared trousers; getting bigger and bolder with his fishtail skirts and giant headpieces, or refining the lapels of the tailored jackets he has come to be known for.
“It’s a continuation of my tongue-in-cheek idea of fluidity. I just love putting a man in a dress, which often comes with a shock factor, even if that’s not my intention,” added Reed, who also continued to explore the ideas of regal dress and decadence he is often associated with.
The 1897 book “60 Years a Queen” on the reign of Queen Victoria was one of his main references, leading him to reimagine monarchic jewel tones, decadent lace tailoring, and grand trails through his own, modern-day fluid lens. But he took the concept a step further, looking at the links between the present day club-kid scene and regal dress.
“There was a huge scene in the ’80s and ’90s here in London and then this kind of resurgence with Charles Jeffrey recently. Now I feel like I’m hopefully grabbing the baton and giving it a demi-couture interpretation,” said the designer, pointing to the vibrant mishmash of references that went into creating his over-the-top, glam-rock creations, from Charles James draping to club kid metallic leggings.
Reed is also staying committed to his demi-couture model, producing one-of-a-kind garments using sustainable materials, and refusing to get on the ready-to-wear bandwagon or conform to traditional business models — hence why he is also showing off-schedule.
For this collection, the fabrics were donated by the Italian Bussandri family, which has a 100-year-old background in upholstery and with whom he connected during a chance meeting in Italy. He then upcycled the fabrics into his dramatic ballgowns and signature tailoring, adding dashes of sparkle using deadstock sequins sourced from a London supplier.
“The good news about the amount of attention that the work has gotten over these past couple of years is that people are now realizing that maybe it’s worth investing time and money to see if this made-to-measure fluid model works,” said the designer, adding that he has been turning a profit ever since starting his brand, through private commissions. He also created additional revenue streams and brings his demi-couture work into the mainstream with collaborations with the likes of MAC Cosmetics, Etro and Missoma, which have all proven to be sell-outs.
“I use the clothes as my fuel. From there, we do a lot of other projects that still encourage people to discover our broader fluid message.”
All of this has been unfolding in the midst of the pandemic, but now Reed is ready to spread his message even wider and celebrate fluidity in all its glory, in the physical world.
Starting the year on a high with his breathtaking performance show, the ambition is to keep going with more high-profile projects and the kind of events that reawaken fashion’s glory days — Lee McQueen’s runways in the ’90s being his main source of inspiration.
“We’re going for a f–k off, McQueen, old-school London kind of show. I’ve been doing this through a global pandemic. But now I have someone like Sam Smith in an insane venue, next to the Big Ben. I’ve been able to get the show sponsored and make it all happen by being resourceful to the extreme. I’m just excited to show the world what I can do now that things are more open.”