Harris Reed is forging the future of gender-fluid dressing. Named Harry Styles’s “secret fashion weapon”, Harris’ statement designs have been donned by the music industry’s most iconic stars. Their fight is for fluidity, and this joyful desire to express themselves in the most authentic and show-stopping way is what makes their clothes so appealing. Harris’ debut collection, For Now, Unexplained, was recently unveiled off-schedule at the first British gender-fluid fashion week. The garments twist silhouettes we associate with the gender binary on their head. By combining suits with ball gowns, Harris advocates for a new construction of dress, not one that is simply ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’. Their work emphasises that gender expression cannot easily be categorised; it’s an ever-transforming spectrum. 
Interview tak­en from METAL Magazine issue 44. Adapted for the online version. Order your copy here.
Harris’ clothes are expressive in their design, blending glam rock references with the romance of the Oscar Wilde period and the flamboyance of debutantes. Fashion is performative, and what you put on your back becomes a message to others, and telling of how you view the world. Harris does not simply create beautiful outfits, but social and political statements. By blurring the lines between what men, women, and non-binary people can wear, Harris breaks down toxic stereotypes. Their work is one of rebellion and risk-taking; from the narrative they weave to their working life – their graduate collection was named Thriving In Our Outrage. Harris has stitched outfits for Harry Styles on a £50 sewing machine and turned out two collections in a pandemic. Their fearlessness and determination to get their message out to the world is contagious, arguing that the only way to break down society’s current sexist, racist, transphobic and homophobic narrative is by pushing authentic individuality and non- conforming self-expression.

However, Harris is no stranger to hate. From a young age, they were boxed in by other people’s expectations of what they must look like. Fear comes from a lack of understanding, and many people are afraid of that which breaks the status quo. Harris started out to use fashion as a tool to reclaim their identity – fighting against what society imagined for them and building up a persona using outward expression as a guide. To them, representation is critical in the fight against hate. Today, those that have been forcefully silenced are fighting to have their voice heard, and they must be supported and listened to. Only once we have seen and welcomed the multi-faceted spectrum of being can hate be dissipated and assumptions dropped.
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At its essence, your work is about encouraging people to remain true to their authentic selves. Do you think fear can prevent people from being true to who they are, resulting in hate or judgement?
Completely. My whole fight is for fluidity, which, as you said, is the fight for people to be the most authentic version of themselves. I believe hate breeds from a person suppressing the truest version of themselves. Many people want to fit into a mould and be just like everyone else; they don’t like it when someone doesn’t fit the status quo. I’ve been bombarded with hateful comments throughout my life simply because of how I express myself. But if someone calls me a ‘freak’, ‘fag’, or ‘tranny’ when I walk down the street, I like to think that I’m making them question something within themselves – sparking an internal dialogue regarding why they have such a problem with me. I become a mirror that reflects an issue that they have surrounding their own gender and expression of it. Hate comes from a place of not understanding, and if people don’t express themselves in their most authentic way, they’ll never be able to understand.
This idea of understanding is fundamental, and it has to do with education and representation. We need to see more people expressing themselves in lots of different ways. I noted that the BBC took down – then put back up – a video of you that received bullying remarks; this doesn’t seem like an effective way to fight hate.
Representation is the most important tool in the fight against hate. As a fashion designer, queer activist and spokesperson for major brands, a driving force I like to talk about when working is whether we have diverse representation across the board – from the models to the production crew to those working in the relevant publications. If we don’t have this diversity, then the outcome won’t represent the world as a whole and we aren’t contributing to society in a meaningful manner. Movements such as Black Lives Matter, Stop Asian Hate, Black Trans Lives Matter and Reclaim The Streets tell us that people don’t want to stay silent anymore. Everyone wants to explore their voice, and it’s so important that a huge variety of people are heard. While I can only speculate about why the BBC took my interview down, to me, it looked like give in to bullying. They put up a clip of a queer individual telling their story, and instead of regulating the hateful comments made in response or offering me a support system, they just took it down. It’s not just representation across the board that’s important; we also need the structures in place to keep people safe when they do share their stories. These marginalised voices need to be as protected as we can possibly make them.
If a company or team isn’t diverse to begin with, through a lack of understanding, they’re unlikely to create a safe space for a marginalised person to be in; I feel this results in tokenism.
Tokenism definitely creates an unsafe space. The tokenism that other people face is far greater than what I do, but it still comes into play with me a bit too much. When I used to model, it felt like people simply agreed to use me because I was androgynous and fluid; they would just put me in a skirt and lipstick and called it a day (laughs). No one asked me how I identified or if that was how I wanted to express myself. I’ve said no to jobs where people have seen me and just presumed what I’d want to do without actually asking me what my message is. I don’t necessarily want to condone ‘calling out’, but the good news is, through Instagram, people are bringing to light this toxic behaviour. Now, when I get approached, there’s a wave of people wanting to be more collaborative – they want to work with me rather than just use me or tick a box.
Yes, social expectations surrounding gender and sexuality mean that you’re put into a box and labelled before you’ve actually discovered who you are. As you say, these brands have just made an assumption about your identity without asking. But do you feel that fashion, in many ways, has enabled you to break free of these social constraints?
I completely agree. When I first moved to London five years ago, I arrived as a gay man. However, as time went on, I realised that I was gender fluid. The more I came into myself and had these experiences, the more I put them into my work. Fashion creates a space where you can explore these different facets of yourself and what you want to say. ‘I want to create clothing with a strong message that isn’t simply pretty, which is why my last collection For Now, Unexplained, was demi-couture and almost unwearable. The collection was, first and foremost, a statement about fluidity. I still go by he/him sometimes, and other times they/them, and then perhaps in twenty years I’ll be she/her; it’s about being on a spectrum.
We live in a world that’s so obsessed with boxes and putting people in their place. Fashion allows me to switch up who I am if I’m feeling trapped; it enables me to keep shattering these constraints. By asserting myself with what I’m wearing, whether that’s makeup, hair or whatever the fuck it may be, I’m able to keep changing up my narrative.
I worry that fluidity is also at risk of being put into a box, similar to the gender binary. For example, to be non- binary, you have to look like X. I mean, why are humans so obsessed with categorisation?
As a child who came out as gay at nine years old, I’ve always felt very different. What I saw as ‘gay’ was how it was portrayed in the media – for example, Kurt Hummel in Glee. I thought, “Oh, if you’re gay, you wear braces, suspenders and bow ties, you’re effeminate, and you do something in the creative space” (laughs). I thought that’s what I needed to be, and even though I had a family that loved me for whoever I was, I still felt boxed into something. If we want something, it seems, as a society, we have to have a manufactured version of what that looks like. A stereotypical billboard campaign makes women feel as if they should look like Victoria’s Secret models and men, ripped. I don’t want to create another archetype of gender or a ‘category’. When launching my global campaign with MAC Cosmetics, I didn’t want people to think that fluidity only looks like Harris Reed, who’s 6 ft 4 with hair to the floor; this may be what fluidity is to me, but it’ll be totally different for someone else. This is an idea I’ve always struggled with internally. When people look to me, I want to make sure I do not speak on behalf of a whole community – I am but one of many. If people want to understand something, they often just check it off their list without doing the research and move on. However, the beautiful thing about fluidity is that it’s not that easily understood. There’s always something to learn, and there’s always a different person trying to express themselves in their own way. We need to stop trying to box people in and start taking them as individuals.
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It would be interesting to know when exactly you started to use fashion to instate your own individuality; do you think you used it to reclaim your identity and protect yourself from the hate you experienced when you were younger?
When I was around seven or eight, I had what people would deem as effeminate qualities. As such, kids and parents labelled me as the ‘gay kid’ before I even understood what that meant. So yes, I began to use clothing and dressing up as a way to reclaim who I fucking was! I felt like other people were deciding that I was X based on these ‘signs’ while I was still figuring out my identity.
Whether it was wearing a pink polo shirt, Halloween costumes or feather boas, I strived to look different to how they imagined me. It took a lot of trying on different things for me to understand what being queer looked like and felt like to me – this whole experience came about through the art of dressing up. 
I love the idea of using costume as a way to build a personal persona. How much have make-believe and imagination inspired your work?
At the end of a project, I always feel exhausted. Once, I asked my dad why he thinks this work takes so much out of me. He replied, “Harris, you brought a world and point of view to life that didn’t exist yet.” At school, teachers would say, “Who the fuck is going to wear this, Harris?” But I had designed an outfit for a future being that I’d envisioned in my head. I’ve got through Covid-19 by living in my imagination. I use stories as a way to weave through my issues and process what’s happening in the world around me. I take these narratives and mould them into a physical collection.
So, through your work, you almost imagine better futures. What exactly does one such future look like to you?
The pendulum has swung towards a period of ‘call- out’ culture. I do believe this is due – we needed it and the time is right. But I hope the future is somewhere in the middle, where people aren’t afraid to ask questions, are educating themselves about the things that make them uncomfortable and are building dialogues surrounding gender and race. I imagine the future as a classroom, full of different people who are each speaking and being listened to in turn. People are entering the conversation without pre-judgement and are not making it about them. I just want a future where a trans person can walk down the street and no one bats an eyelid. It still baffles me that we are in 2021 and trans and queer people do not have their human rights.
The Covid-19 pandemic has put so many people’s lives on hold and grinded many industries to a halt; I feel this has opened up a much-needed space for revaluation and dialogue.
Definitely. The pandemic has taken a horrible toll, but one positive thing to come out of it is accountability; it’s held a mirror up to the fashion industry and forced it to re-evaluate. For example, given the trajectory of the climate crisis, it does not make sense for fashion houses to create so many collections a year. By producing this much, on such a rigorous scale, we are destroying the planet; fashion should be season-less. A lot of brands stayed quiet during the Black Lives Matter protests, whereas others put their money where their mouth is, and those that didn’t respond to the crisis from an authentic place got roasted. Coming out of the pandemic, I believe individuals are going to be buying more responsibly, and it won’t just be about how that product is made, but it’ll also be about the company’s messaging and the diversity of the team. We have been running the planet into a dangerous space, and this pandemic has been a wake-up call, emphasising that we can’t go back to what was once ‘normal’.
Yes, it’s no secret that the fashion industry, as it stands, is a disaster for the planet. I agree that reducing the number of collections is one solution to the number of clothes being produced – as is blending womenswear and menswear. Your debut collection was shown in Britain’s first-ever gender-fluid fashion week; this is hopefully one move in the direction of an industry rethink.
When this gender-fluid fashion week came around, I actually decided to show off-schedule as a way to redo a dated system. As this was the first time in British history that fashion week was fluid, it was very important for me to express my messaging through something that was avant-garde, which pushed the silhouettes we typically associate with the gender binary. It didn’t feel like a time to commercialise on something, but rather an opportunity to make a statement and a bit of a stink. I’m tired of seeing the same gendered silhouettes shown by multi-billion- dollar companies again and again. I feel these brands are missing opportunities – they have the ability to showcase what the future of men’s fashion looks like and they are not taking that risk. Fashion has a long way to go. While I don’t expect men and women to be wearing the same ball gown and suit combo that I created in this collection, I do hope, by seeing it, it’ll enable people to feel like they can express themselves more freely, and that it’s acceptable to dress a bit differently.
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 To me, it still feels taboo for men to wear skirts and dresses.
Yes, I completely agree.
But by showcasing other versions of what a man can look like, we can help fight toxic masculinity and prove that gender stereotypes aren’t fixed. Currently, toxic masculinity feels doomed to repeat itself to the detriment of our planet and society.
Completely. Showcasing an alternative masculinity is central to the work I do for clients such as Harry Styles or Ezra Miller, as well as my collections; it’s at the forefront of what I stand for. I’m not saying that every man should be wearing a dress, but we do need to see more individuals expressing themselves in non-traditional and unconventional ways, especially within pop culture. With such a great group of queer friends around me, it’s easy to fall into a bubble. But I still read comments on Instagram where someone has an issue with a man wearing a blouse. Now, more than ever, we need images of a man in a wide- brimmed hat and gorgeous gown. It’s all about sparking these conversations.
I believe that the taboo surrounding men wearing dresses could be linked to misogyny. ‘Feminine’ qualities have always been devalued; whereas cis white men throughout Western history have been considered the ‘superior sex’ – something to strive towards.
100%, and I appreciate you bringing up this point so much. Though this certainly wasn’t the case in the past, today, a woman would not be ridiculed for wearing a power suit. For example, there’s nothing controversial about Cate Blanchett wearing an Armani suit on the red carpet, but if Tom Cruise wore a dress, it would be all over the news and he’d likely be ripped apart. If a ‘man’ wants to look like a ‘woman’, it’s almost as if there’s something ‘wrong’ with them, due to this deep-rooted sexism seen throughout history. This is the time for all individuals, including cis men, to really push what individuality looks like to them, as this is the only way we can break down this sexist, racist, transphobic, homophobic and colonialist narrative. People need to start being authentic to themselves.
Yes, I’m all about deconstructing the patriarchy! I was thrilled to see that one of your inf luences was Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando. In another of her works, she claims, “Perhaps a mind that is purely masculine cannot create, any more than a mind that is purely feminine.” She basically argues that a great mind must be androgynous.
I love that quote. My own gender aside, looking at everything from a midpoint of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ woman and man, is always the best place to be, as you are able to see all perspectives and make the most authentic choices. With the art I do, I try to navigate and create the most authentic messaging that I can that encapsulates both masculinity and femininity. That said, we have lived through a lot of toxic masculinity, so if you don’t want to find the middle ground, perhaps chose the more ‘feminine perspective’ (laughs).
Bringing it back to your art, let’s chat about your debut collection, For Now, Unexplained. I was particularly interested in your use of colour and shape and how that played into the idea of transformation.
This collection was about showing who I am and what I stand for – pushing gender fluidity to an extreme. I used each look and colour as a way to explore the different facets of being or versions of self. An intern pointed out to me that these colours almost resembled auras, which made sense, as I’m interested in spirituality; the red look was louder, whereas the blue felt more subdued. At the end of the film, all of the looks were shown together, and it was about seeing all the different facets that can make up one person.
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I think people always assume that who you are is fixed, but I’ve found reassurance in the fact that I’m always changing and evolving.
Yes, especially when looking at it from today’s climate.
Talking about transformation, can you tell me more about your make up campaign with MAC. The kits are set up like an artist’s palette for finger swipes rather than brushes. Do you worry that makeup is still predominantly viewed as a way to cover something up, rather than an artistic form of expression?
When I was first approached by MAC Cosmetics, I made it clear that I wanted to create a product that helped people explore their many facets of being – not a product that would just make you look like everybody else. Luckily, MAC understood my messaging from the beginning. I established who I was from a young age and fought not to be boxed in or put in a position where I needed to be something or someone else. So, with makeup, I wanted to focus on lipsticks, eye shadows and blushers, things that felt more performative and expressive, not foundation or concealers. I wanted the make up to mimic my art-making process and be more hands-on and creative. By not having brushes, I think it makes the set more expressive and inclusive. When I see brushes I feel intimidated, they remove you from having your fingers dipped in the paint. There’s nothing more authentic than using your hands – you can easily feel the part of your face that you want to explore. It was about it being super fun down to the names and packaging.
 I also find brushes intimidating. I feel that makeup can often be inaccessible and exclusive, as if you need to watch a tutorial or be an expert to use it. I love how your collection opens up makeup to everyone of all genders; it shows you that you don’t need to know loads about it to just have fun.
No, you don’t. Even witnessing the people using my makeup showed that my messaging had really come across. I saw amazing drag queens using the pigments in an exaggerated manner, and fourteen-year-old boys daubing it on their cheeks and hairline. Everyone explored different approaches and not one person looked the same. Of course, I admire Kim Kardashian and the brand she has built, but I do find that the contour highlighter can make people look like clones. I was really happy to see that the people who wore my makeup all looked so individual.
Do you think that this freedom of expression, and the big gestures that go alongside that, is what makes your designs so appealing to some of the biggest music celebrities of today?
I feel that a lot of musicians aren’t just wanting to make music, they are wanting to stand behind a message. Music, fashion and expression fit beautifully together.
Harry Styles was your first client, and a pretty amazing one at that! How important was it for gender fluid representation in general that he got your work and messaging out to the mainstream?
I will always be so grateful to Harry Styles. He was my first client and I have such a deep respect for him. It was an incredible experience to work for him, and to continue to work for him, because he put what I do on a global stage. I know if I, as a nine-year-old queer kid, saw a man dancing on stage with a billowing top and matching flares or wearing a dress in American Vogue, I would have felt much more hope and found it easier to be myself. As much as I might want to frolic around in fabulous hats and hoop skirts, it makes a huge dent in the world if someone of his status wears my clothes – whether that’s him or Miley Cyrus, rolling around butt naked in Rolling Stone in what would have been men’s 1970s platform shoes, or Selena Gomez in a stunning black hat. These items are all different and all serve different purposes, but they’re all so show-stopping and over the top, that I truly believe the messaging is really filtering down to the people that follow me and the millions that follow them. These collaborations move the status quo forward for what self-expression can look like.
Ultimately, do you think it’s this courage to express yourself authentically that will overcome hate?
I think we need joy, courage, optimism and a huge overwhelming desire to change the world, to overcome hate. We need to be hopeful for a better future and be courageous when standing up for what we believe in, and we need to give and have support, so the communities that don’t have the safety to speak about who they are, can truly have their voice.
All clothes HARRIS REED collection.
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