For Harry Halim, (without meaning to sound cliché) love is all you need. Be it either falling in or out of it, the force of being enamoured is what’s driven his career (and designs) to travel across the globe.
Now a household name in three different continents with offices in the U.S., Europe and Asia, the fashion designer plans to conquer other creative industries such as music and acting. But before we dive into all that, he tells us about the struggles of surviving in such a cut-throat industry.
Standing tall in his platform boots, he portrays what it’s like to be both proud and at peace with one’s self. His designs also speak the same language; whatever your gender, own your look. It takes a certain level of self-esteem to be #SeenInHarryHalim (a hashtag that’s been raving on Instagram).
I’ve had the pleasure of knowing the suave bon vivant on a more personal level, and it’s about time others did as well.
So, Harry! What’s the best part about living in Jakarta?
The fact that I have my household assistant! Hahaha… I think it’s much “easier” living in Jakarta, you know, we have all the online transportation and food services. It’s so much cheaper compared to Paris and L.A. Also, the food! I love Indonesian food; as long as it’s spicy, salty… I like Nasi Padang! I honestly can say that compared to Indonesian cuisine, European food is not tasty at all!
You’ve been to a lot of parties; in Paris, L.A., Singapore, Jakarta… What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever seen happening on the dance floor?
Oh my God, it’s about poppers! Am I allowed to talk about it? So we created a party called ‘Yellow Ghetto’, gathering all the Asians in Paris and we had a super fun time. So my friend came, she brought poppers and we sniffed on the dance floor. You know, because it was so crowded, she lost the bottle cover. So she was holding the exposed bottle the whole night, passing it around… and ended up spilling everywhere! On the floor, on the walls… the whole room smelt of poppers! So everyone ended up breathing the same air. I think they pretty much enjoyed it.
In your opinion, what’s the best and worst thing about Asia’s fashion scene?
Particularly for Southeast Asia, the best part when it comes to fashion and resources would have to be that there are a lot of handicrafts really made by the locals. That kind of thing you cannot find in Europe or in the States.
But then when it comes to the topic of design, I think in Southeast Asia, we kind of lack originality, for me. We like to copy, too much. I mean we can get inspired by something, or, like, the Western culture or whatever, but for Southeast Asian fashion I think we copy too directly; too much, too obvious. We forget about our own signature style that we can grow on our own instead of just looking towards other people.
In one sentence, describe the Harry Halim look!
Is there a better word than “gender fluid”? Empowering, badass and mysterious at the same time. Of course, sensual as well!
What’s your go-to outfit of the day? Is there a specific look or item you have to have on?
My blazer; either the coat version or the short version. That’s the main item for me. Secondly is a pair of good shoes.
Speaking of shoes, your Kitana boots are practically viral! Tell us the inspiration behind them!
The Kitana actually comes from my Bratzboots design, platform heels that you have to tie and strap up until your thigh. Miley Cyrus and Doja Cat wore them before. I thought “why don’t I create something else like this but still similar in shape. So I was colouring the sketch of my Bratzboots, filling in the holes, and it looked good! I thought to myself “Damn! It looks like something out of Mortal Kombat!” I love the character Kitana… so I just named it that!
So we hear you got “stuck” in Jakarta during the pandemic (since you’re mostly based between L.A. and Paris); how’s that been for you both career-wise and in terms of creative inspiration?
I have to feel grateful and blessed that during the pandemic our business actually grew even better. Sales were very, very good. People were buying my boots. So, I have no complaints, to be honest. Of course, I wasn’t able to go anywhere; I was in L.A. before the pandemic struck and went back to Indonesia because my mom told me to; she knew it would be easier for me to live here during the pandemic.
Also, I met my first love here in Jakarta during the pandemic. It was something new for me to learn about.
And did that inspire you creatively?
It did! Sadly it’s over now. However, I did make a collection out of that heartbreak. So we broke up on Valentine’s Day and before we spent New Year’s in Jogja. It was a short gap from New Year’s to Valentine’s Day. I wasn’t ready for that, of course! It was during a very stressful period for me; I was working on the collection for Paris Fashion Week. At that moment, it was really a lot for me, mentally and physically. Draining and overwhelming.
I think the feelings of the pain that I had from the broken heart combined with the stress level motivated me to work on the collection; I must create a good one. I couldn't cry at all. I felt more, like, numb. I didn’t have time to cry or be depressed. So during that broken-hearted period, I decided to express my feelings to the collection.
So when I think back again about the break-up, I feel the pain. All these years I've done so many things; created a lot of collections, did things that I like, had a lot of successes in my life. But I think to myself; something is missing, part of me is still not complete… And I just realized that what I'm actually looking for is love. That’s when, just like that, I decided to name the collection ‘Devotion’. It’s about my devotion towards love.
During the fashion show, I used Anggun Cipta’s song ‘Hanyalah Cinta’ (translated from Indonesian meaning ‘Only Love’) for the finale. It perfectly summed up the collection.
You’ve also collaborated with an Indonesian producer in soundtracking your show, right?
Yeah! I worked together with my good friend Anggoro. I wanted him to explore more gothic, mysterious and even religious kinds of sounds. He understood me well! I also told him that I want to read poetry. So he ended up composing the track around my poetry reading. I told him that for the finale I wanted to make a sudden switch to Anggun’s song.
She herself was surprised when her song got played, and I also didn’t know that she was sitting there watching my show in Paris! I did invite her, but wasn’t sure if she ended up coming. When I walked out onto the stage, someone stood up and hugged me; turns out it was Anggun! She was wearing a mask so I couldn’t tell at first. We hugged while her song was playing… It was all so emotional and all just happened so naturally.
While you were in Paris, what did you miss most about Jakarta? Besides having a household assistant…
Hmm… at that time I missed my ex! Hahaha.
What about the other way around; if you could bring one thing from Paris to Jakarta what would it be?
The Eiffel Tower! And maybe the French baguettes; haven’t found any good ones here yet. Oh, and I want to bring the men! Hahaha! That’s more than one thing!
Being a creative from Indonesia, were there any difficulties when it came to breaking out internationally? Did you have to struggle a bit more?
Yeah, it was a long road for me. I’ve been in the industry for 15 or 16 years now. I started very young. It was 2008 when I left Singapore, where I finished my studies, and moved to Paris. I was having a good life there, but then I just decided that’s not what I want; I want more. I want to do more. I want to be like John Galliano and Karl Lagerfeld. I want to move to Paris and feel the energy there.
I didn’t know anyone there, I didn’t speak a word of French. It was super tough for me! I couldn’t eat or sleep. I lost 15 kilos in the first month because I was so depressed. I stayed with a Tunisian family in a super, super small room… But I told myself “this is my decision, this is what I want. I think I can make it!”
I looked for internships and jobs with the fashion houses there, but I didn't have an official letter from my school, so they cannot hire me. At the time I had already been working for a company in Singapore, but they only accepted letters from schools. I still tried to apply to many maisons, but still couldn’t get in.
So I was, like, “Fuck it! Why not launch my own brand?”. I had just been awarded ‘Best Asian Young Fashion Designer’ in Singapore at 23 years old. I was a winner there, I’m gonna be a winner in Paris too! So I went to Jakarta to look for a seamstress to sew a mini collection, and then brought it back with me to Paris.
A friend of mine then introduced me to the late Jean-Luc Dupont, a PR guy who actually got my name out in Paris for the very first time. Without them, I wouldn’t be here. Dupont was the one who introduced me to the Paris Fashion Week industry and the people working there.
Since then I moved out from the Tunisian family’s place to a two-room apartment; one was my bedroom and the other was my studio. Those days, I was always showing at Paris Fashion Week. I had no idea how to run a brand! I didn’t even have a business partner. By the time 2013 came along, that was my last show for Paris Fashion Week because I didn’t have any money left! All the money went to hiring models and to show productions! There was no money left to even do a presentation, let alone a show!
I then worked for a local leather brand for two seasons as a Creative Director to get a monthly salary for myself. After that I tried to re-launch my brand through lookbooks and presentations; no shows yet this time! I got support from the Indonesian government… but it was definitely a struggle!
I even had to stop the Harry Halim brand totally around 2017! I got a proposal to be the Creative Director for Mugler. It was a one-and-a-half-year interview process, and I was already back in Jakarta. They didn’t end up choosing me; obviously, they chose someone with experience working in a fashion house. Until I received the news, I put my brand on hold. Afterwards, I ended up opening a studio and company in Jakarta in 2018, then one in L.A. the following year.
And those are just the highlights of my career! There are way more struggles that I can talk about in addition to all that!
But I just want to say, on being an Asian in Europe; I never encountered any bad experiences. As long as you know how to react and carry yourself well. I’m proud to be Asian; I think we’re the smartest people on Earth!
How are you celebrating Pride Month, especially in Indonesia; a country that still frowns upon LGBTQIA+ communities?
For me, I don't have to celebrate it by, like, parades and stuff. Even when I was in Paris, I never joined them. But, indirectly of course I support the LGBTQIA+ communities because they’re related to my brand. They are my clients; they have been supporting us, and we’ve been supporting each other. By doing that, we are already celebrating Pride, not just specifically during June. We support each other every day, continuously. I think that’s what we’re supposed to do.
After all, for me Pride is all about love, happiness and sharing. I don’t really agree about the stereotype that Pride is just for gays and lesbians; for me, it’s more universal and should be equally celebrated by everyone.
For most people in Asia who are queer, the issue has always been with freedom of expression because of the cultural and religious values in the region. Have you yourself ever had to face this?
I’m very thankful that I never had that problem in my life; my parents are super supportive of what I’m doing and very accepting of who I am. I make peace with myself, that’s why I always end up surrounded by kind-hearted people.
I feel sad for but totally understand those who have these issues with their family and friends. But at the end of the day, you’re the leader of your own life. You do whatever you want. They’re not paying your bills, so do whatever you want and just be honest with yourself. Then you will find happiness.
You’ve been making waves in both the fashion and music industry, dressing the likes of Cardi B, Lady Gaga, Dua Lipa… You’re friends with Banks and Billy Porter! How has music affected your career or creations? Are you deeply immersed in music yourself?
Since the beginning, I’ve always been inspired by a bunch of musicians. Every season, at the beginning of creating a new collection, I need to have a new “soundtrack” while I’m working. I cannot live without music; it’s part of my whole journey and process of developing a collection. So yeah, it definitely affects my brand and me as a creative.
I’m actually planning to work on music together with Anggoro. It won’t only be for soundtracking my shows, but we also plan on putting the tracks on Spotify; a mix of electro and poetry.
We know for a fact that you like a good party. Do you have any favourite genres or DJs in particular that make you want to dance?
Definitely love Gesaffelstein. You know, I’ve actually known him since he was just starting out! We met in a club and he asked me if he could use my artwork for his single; he saw my exhibition of black and white photos. I took pictures of my ex’s hands throwing things in the air. It sort of looked like an eclipse. He wanted to use them. I don’t know why it didn’t happen… I think at that time I actually said “no”! So yeah, I’ve known him for a long time, and it’s funny to see so many fashion kids here in Indonesia use his tracks for their shows and TikTok videos.
I listen to all kinds of music; I appreciate all the artists’ work… Except for one genre that I haven’t really listened to is dangdut! I love classical, pop and also listen to Jewish and Chinese traditional songs.
I’d love to see Parisian duo The Blaze perform live, because they always throw amazing performances. They’re super electro, mixed with ambient sounds. That kind of music really inspires me. If I ever had a chance to be a real musician, I would create a sound like theirs.
So what’s next for Harry Halim? What else have you got up your fabulously-sewn sleeves?
For me, personally, maybe acting?! I’ve been featured in one here in Indonesia and now I want to try and get a reality show gig in L.A., in the real industry. If there’s a proposal for me to have a small acting role, I’ll definitely go for it!
As for the Harry Halim brand, I think so far we’re doing great. We’re sticking to what we have right now. Of course, we’re aiming to dress bigger artists like Rihanna and Beyonce, but everyone is on the way; they’re on our list!
Keep in vogue with Harry Halim’s career and follow his Instagram here.
Amira Waworuntu is Mixmag Asia’s Editorial Assistant, follow her on Instagram.