Harry Halim never thought he would become a designer for international celebrities. It was something he was “sort of thrown into”, writes Ajeng Anindita. In 2007, he moved in with a Tunisian family in Paris, not knowing the language but determined to make his dreams come true.
Calm, cool and collected, with a dash of rock-and-roll glamour. That would probably be the best way to describe Harry Halim. The 34-year-old Indonesian-born, Singapore-raised and Paris-LA-based designer was in town for three months when Prestige caught up with him at the glamorous launch of his amazing new collection at the fabulous new Masari store in Senayan City.
Called “Fatalité”, a word taken from a quote by French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir (“La fatalité triomphe dès que l’on croit en elle”), the collection reflects the past 10 years of his career as a fashion designer. It’s the first time one of his collections has been available at an Indonesian retailer.
We met him at his showroom in South Jakarta for his photoshoot and interview session. Appropriately, Cardi B’s “Press” was blaring from the speaker as we watched Marsha Timothy, his muse for the day, model “Fatalité” for photographer Haryono Halim. Marsha posed gracefully for the camera, with Harry by her side, and also without.
Harry knows Marsha from her movie shown at the Cannes Film Festival: Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts. Impressed by her beauty and acting ability, Harry thought she would be the perfect muse for today’s shoot. Wearing his own custom-made oversized suit with the HH symbol on the back and a pair of Margiela Tabi boots, he speaks fondly of Marsha: “Something clicks when I see her. It’s her personality, her work, her energy. I love her style, especially when she mixes designer with street style. That’s what I like about her.”
Last year, Harry opened his first showroom and studio in Los Angeles. This marks another milestone in his career, opening doors to a lot of new clients, celebrities and stylists alike. Known for his edgy take on luxury fashion, he doesn’t shy away from playing with bold silhouettes, colours and prints, offering a new wave of glamour and luxury fashion that speaks to different age groups. He is mostly inspired by the glamorous, yet darker, side of life, dissecting various elements of romance and fantasy. Most of his work flourishes through his signature use of exceptional shapes and cuts, and the drapery play of rich fabrics.
At the beginning of his college studies, Harry never thought he would become a fashion designer. It was something he was “sort of thrown into”. But he did know that he enjoyed everything related to luxury, beauty and style. He was studying Photography and Graphic Design at Limkokwing University of Creative Technology in Malaysia when he began considering fashion. Harry consulted his professor and then decided to give it a try, taking a design course in LaSalle College of the Arts. He started to make patterns, and then samples of garments.
Harry put together his first collection in 2006. A year after, he decided to take a leap and move to Paris to pursue his dreams. He moved in with a Tunisian family, not knowing the language but determined to make his dreams come true. He was struggling back then, but stayed positive nonetheless.
“It was really hard at first,” he recalls. “I didn’t know the language, the culture was completely new to me. But I had no choice other than to deal with it. I had made the decision to move there, and those were the consequences. And here I am now!”
Paris is the fashion capital of the world, Harry points out. “I know many other cities have their own fashion weeks, but Paris is still the main event, the number one to me. I thought the energy, the vibe and the image of Paris is more suitable for the brand and my design at the time. So that’s why I chose Paris.” Harry also had the opportunity to work as an intern at the studio of Azzedine Alaïa, one of his fashion heroes. “I was a very short-term intern, but still I was so excited to be able to work there and to absorb everything I could learn.”
He recalls his first huge milestone in 2011, when he became the first Indonesian designer to present a collection in the official calendar of Paris Fashion Week, with mixed feelings. “I wasn’t really satisfied with my collection. There were so many doubts and second thoughts running through my head when the models were walking down the runway. But at that point I knew I just had to do better with the next collection. That I needed to keep improving.”
Harry has changed a lot since then. At first, his collections were quite dark, literally and figuratively. “The woman in my mind that I projected wearing those clothes was depressed. There was a lot of black, no touch of colours whatsoever. Now, I think I explore more colours, prints, new silhouettes, new shapes and details.
“I don’t think it reflects the state of my mind. It’s just a matter of making explorations. Maybe I’m bolder now. I do think I have evolved a lot, and I guess that’s how you’re supposed to be in the fashion industry. It’s important to have your own style, but you must also evolve.”
In 2017, Harry launched his first Indonesia boutique, years after making his name abroad. What was the thinking behind that move? “There’s definitely room for me to develop in Jakarta,” he points out. “There are clients here who are willing to spend, and they also quite open to new and up-and-coming designers. I think the market is still very niche here, but definitely there’s a strong potential.”
Discussing his new studio in LA, one year on, Harry thinks there’s a huge difference between the US and Asian fashion markets. “Asia is more open in terms of buyers, department stores. They accept edgier style and they will embrace new designers. In the States, you kind of have to be more established to enter the market. But opening a new studio in LA is definitely the right move for Harry Halim.”
The designer’s cool creations have impressed celebrities who are extremely difficult to please. Rapper Cardi B wore his Fall/Winter 2019-20 Collection for the cover of her single ‘Press’, which peaked at number 16 on the US Billboard Hot 100. Singers Bebe Rexha, Anggun, Teyana Taylor and Fantasia Barrino, and actress Tiffany Hadish have also worn Harry Halim.
“I want my clothes to empower them and make them feel confident,” the designer says. “I want them to feel like a badass, you know. The woman I’m designing for is definitely a strong woman. She has a strong personality, but also a vulnerability. I want them to feel comfortable, and feel like who they are.”
Harry is currently developing his Spring/Summer 2020 Collection. His inspiration comes from photography: black images splashed with bright colours. With 1980s and 90s silhouettes, he also focuses on pleating techniques, which he used a lot for his first collection in 2006.
An inspiration for all of his collections? Music and poetry. “I was born in the 80s and grew up in the 90s. I loved watching music videos when I was growing up. I loved those big-shoulder silhouettes, kind of rock and roll, but at the same time very elegant and luxurious.”
With famous names wearing his creations and having opened three studios in major cities, how does Harry balance creativity and the business side of fashion? “It’s actually one of the most challenging parts of it all,” he says. “Being a designer, creating something, sometimes your ideas are going all over the place. But you have to limit yourself and think about whether those women will actually wear the clothes or not. Because, realistically, you want them to sell, right? We care about our clients at the end of the day and we listen to them, to what they want.
“Mostly, they are exactly what I imagine them to be, so there’s not much of problem in terms of creativity. But you never know who’s going to buy it, and sometimes I am surprised. We have a pretty big range of clients, including a 70-year-old client. So I guess it really depends on their personalities and tastes.”
Finally, Harry shocks us. He says he would like to do a reality show one day. “We’ll call it ‘The hectic life of Harry Halim’!” he laughs. “But to be honest, people do still like watching reality shows. And if I weren’t doing fashion, I would probably be doing my own band or being an actor in some reality show.” He breaks into a grin as we wrap up the interview.