Fashion designer follows her childhood dream
Her well-designed clothes help maintain femininity in a masculine world.
By CRYSTAL DEMPSEY
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
NEW YORK -- Barbara "Bree" Harris is proof that it's never too late to pursue a dream.
Harris -- who grew up in Monroe -- is the designer behind the Multi by Bree line, which launched in 2003.
Actually, this is her third career. The other two were in the nonprofit world and in corporate America, mostly at General Electric.
Her new job isn't a surprise to anyone who knows her. "As a child, when others were drawing pictures of houses and trees, I was drawing clothing and beautiful women wearing them," says Harris, who is in her mid-50s.
Upon graduating from West Charlotte High School, she was accepted to Parsons School of Design in New York City. However, heeding her parents' advice to get a college degree, she enrolled at Fayetteville State University.
She continued to sketch clothing in the '70s while working for youth programs in New Haven, Conn. Later, as a business executive, she drew clothing after a day of meetings or long business flights. "My husband can show you drawers full of them," Harris said.
Harris took early retirement as vice president of human resources at Praxair, a manufacturer of industrial gases and coatings, in late 2002.
Four months later, she finally pursued her childhood dream of fashion design.
Multi by Bree is a line of updated yet classic business suits, casual/resort wear and special occasion attire for men and women.
The collection is in boutiques in New York, New Jersey, Florida, Utah and Michigan. Suit separates start at $650. The evening wear ranges from $350 to $1,400. Casual/resort wear is $250-$400.
Harris, who frequently visits North Carolina to tend to her ailing mother, hopes her clothing will be available here someday. The day after her spring runway show, I met with the designer in her showroom, amid racks of the latest pieces and top-sellers.
On making the leap to the fashion world: "I ended up just coming full circle. After I retired for a whole four months, I honestly had more time to think about (fashion) and sketch. A lot of people talk about the things they would like to have done and 'Gee, I've always been interested in this area,' but I didn't want to be one of those people. I'm very confident and I have a very high risk threshold."
Why the name of the line is "Multi By Bree": Harris' years of corporate travel taught her the value of a four-piece suit in an all-weather wool and how to pack (she can go anywhere with one carry-on). "How do you put together outfits that are going to travel from Singapore to Brussels? You've got to be worried about the weight of the fabric and the versatility of the pieces. I carried that process into the company. I really make sure, because it's the way that I dress."
Three to four basic pieces in an all-weather wool -- say, two jackets, pants or skirt -- can multi-task, "and you're good for a week or two," she says. And "Bree" is her childhood nickname.
And for those dinners with clients or other execs: "It was very important to me to be able to make that transition very quickly -- because you don't have time to go back to the room, shower and change -- and fit into that dinner environment with those executives' wives who have obviously had the day to look very wonderful."
Harris' solutions from the line include a little black dress that's corporate-appropriate with a jacket. Another option could be a blouse with an asymmetrical hem under the business suit.
Harris' muses for her spring collection: "Greta Garbo, Jackie O and Oprah Winfrey." The trio gives you a real sense of Harris' vision and influences: old Hollywood glamour, classic styles and one of the most powerful women in the world. ("Oprah can wear something that's a little bit edgy to something completely formal and not end up on the worst-dressed list.")
Maintaining femininity in a masculine world: Harris says the line challenges the notion that women must dress like men or adopt a uniform. "We try to bridge the gap between being conservative and bringing in a little touch of who you are. You should be able to express yourself and not go totally into uniform attire. But you've got to be respectful of the environment that you're in -- otherwise you're not taken seriously."
Multi by Bree suit pieces are often 150- to 180-thread count wools (good for Brussels and Singapore). A beautiful black pinstripe jacket features lace trim on a pocket. A tweed jacket has a detachable fur collar. Another traditional pinstripe is lined in a brilliant red. "We do crazy linings," Harris says.
Classic vs. contemporary
And those glamorous gowns: Multi by Bree also is becoming known for its beautiful eveningwear. The vibe again is classic Hollywood idol meets contemporary chic. "When I look at the fabric, I can see the dress," Harris said. "And it works in reverse, too." There are flowing silk glam-azon gowns in rich hues (red, yellow, copper) and sexy ones in a delicate French lace with ribbon stripes and finished buttons up the back. Or a not-so-delicate-sounding frock in a metallic tulle trimmed with small polished pebbles.
Legendary weekend: Harris doesn't usually name-drop her celebrity clients, but one she will talk about is former model Naomi Sims. When Sims was invited to Oprah Winfrey's "Legends" weekend last summer, Harris provided her wardrobe. Sims was among the women that Winfrey credits with being influential in her life. In the group photo taken at the luncheon, Sims is standing behind Winfrey in a black pinstripe suit with a chartreuse blouse. Later, for the formal dinner, Sims wore a black tuxedo by Harris.