Jeremy O. Harris, the playwright who set Broadway on fire with his controversial (and now 12 Tony nominee) masterpiece Slave Play, adds another profession to his résumé: the fashion designer.
On a recent Zoom call, Harris, who is also a director, writer, producer, model, activist and modern connoisseur, made it clear that he feels much more like a “fashion student” than a designer, but has now delivered a 25-piece collection his name which SSENSE meets. The capsule, titled SSENSE Works with Jeremy O. Harris, is the first in a program to encourage collaboration between the Canadian e-comm giant and fashion-obsessed (if not classically trained) creatives.
At first glance, the garments reflect the pressure-heavy, gender-independent personal style that made Harris a muse for celebrities like Alessandro Michele and Thom Browne: there’s an ankle-length plaid skirt, a vibrant French work set, and box-shaped button-downs with prints that are inspired by the backgrounds of Carl Van Vechten’s photographs. It’s a sleek, comfortable range, a kind of day-to-night cloakroom from boardrooms to bars (remember that?) – but for writers. “I wanted to do something that was really accessible, super simple, that felt like the clothes a writer would wear to work,” said Harris, “whether on a laptop or at a dinner party.”
This project, like so many others from Harris, comes back to the theater in the end. It’s full of references to artists whose work and personal style influenced Harris, like Adrienne Kennedy, a hugely influential (and sartorially inclined) black playwright who never achieved mainstream fame. (Update your mood board accordingly!) Harris also donates 100% of his proceeds to the Pet Project Grant at Bushwick Starr, a fund he started in May to help unemployed playwrights.
When designing the collection, he also thought of clothes as costumes for a piece he was writing. “What I get most excited about is that when people really, really feel when they get more than one piece, as if a secret piece is going on around them and that they are part of it,” Harris said. Excerpts from a monologue from this unpublished piece are literally written on the clothing, scrawled across the chest of the hoodie, or hidden in the pocket lining of the pants. “When you have that really impressive language, like rubbing your thighs,” he said, “I think it makes you move and think differently.”
GQ: When the ink on the contract dried, what was the first thing you drew, or Googled, or pulled out of your closet? Where did you start
Jeremy O. Harris: I’ve looked at the silhouettes of great writers. I think all the time about the wild jackets Baldwin would wear or the really masculine silhouettes Zora Neale Hurston wandered the streets of the south in before going to a big dinner and wearing a wild hat with feathers, rubies and Ivory details.
So first I went through pictures by some of my favorite authors who were peacocks, like Bruce Nugent who is a writer and artist. Adrienne Kennedy, who had such great fashion style; Langston Hughes; Lorraine Hansberry. I tracked some of their silhouettes and what they were wearing and then looked at how they were photographed. And so I became really obsessed with Carl Van Vechten, a white photographer who has this amazing catalog of portraits of black writers from that era, and he would do them against these amazing backgrounds.
I also think part of it was going back to something a professor at Yale told me. He said, “Jeremy, if you dress like you do, I have a feeling that people might not take you seriously because you don’t dress the way a writer should dress.” And I was so upset because so many of my favorite authors were peacocks. Peacocks were writers, and I want to make an ode to these peacocks.
How much have you been involved in the costume design of your shows during your career as a dramatist? Do you bring lots of ideas of your own when working with a costume designer?