I am beyond excited to be presenting an entirely new collection on the runway! This May 17th at St. Andrew's Hall I will send 10 stunning hand-crafted ensembles down the runway with music by Detroit artist Brandon Kittrell. Graphic T's, hand sewn clothes, wallets, backpacks, and accessories will be available at the POP-UP SHOP at the venue! This will be the best, quickest, and cheapest time to purchase Lena merchandise, there will be tons of COUPONS and DEALS onsite! If you will be in the Detroit area on May 17th, we would love it if you stopped by!
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If you hadn't heard, I applied to Project Runway for the second time this year! Yay! I applied last year and didn't make it through to the next round, but this year I received an email of congratulations three days after I submitted my application. Needless to say I was so excited. Lots of young designers aspire to get onto the design competition show, Project Runway, and that day I felt just a lick closer to that dream.
Its funny how things turn out despite things standing in your way. Last year, I had a stable income, was living at home with my parents, and had a months notice to submit the tediously long application, portfolio, and video. This year I hadn't even thought about applying, because I was planning to stay in Istanbul for the whole year. Because of the violence and my health getting bad, I came back early. I got an email from the casting people saying there was ten days left to apply, my brain kicked into panic mode!
I already had lots of professional photographs taken (thanks Steve, Tim, Sue, and Emajhn) over this past year, all I needed was a video. I snagged some help from a willing friend, borrowed my dad's ancient video camera, and headed to downtown Detroit to shoot the film. It was quick, raw, and real. I had fun shooting it and I think you can tell. Watch the video and tell me what you think!
The email told me that on Friday, April 14th I was to come to the James Hotel in Chicago for an interview at 2:45. I rented a motel the night before outside the city, and drove in early that day to scout the place out. I got to the hotel right on time, and was shown to a lobby where there were other designers with their racks of clothes. I walked in with my garment bag slung over my shoulder with a confident stride, and started hanging up my garments. I felt proud that for the first time in my life, I wasn't comparing myself to anyone, and felt secure and happy with the work I was presenting.
I was actually the last person to be interviewed, and they had been running late. It was about an hour past when I was originally supposed to be seen, but I didn't mind. I was having fun talking to all the other designers, there were three I met from Michigan. Two female twins caught my eye- one feminine girl with long brown hair, and the other a rocker girl with a shaved head. They both sported bright pink lips and septum piercings.
When it was my time, I walked in already knowing who the judges were, I had scouted it out by asking the other designers. I knew that in the middle was my idol, the designer Mondo Guerra who was a runner-up on Season 8 of Project Runway. I had seen him back in the day and was in awe of his pattern mixing abilities. He was the one who inspired me to have confidence in my pattern mixing and was instrumental in shaping a big part of my design aesthetic to this day. Needless to say my heart was pounding and I was laser focused on not screwing up anything. I walked in there with good posture and my head high.
It was a huge room. I looked around as I wheeled my metal clothing rack onto the tape spot marked on the carpet. I was supposed to stand in one spot but I walked forward and shook first a woman's hand, then Mr. Guerra himself, then another woman. I had the opportunity to shake his hand, and said "Big fan". That, by itself, made the trip for me. While I was presenting my work, he smiled and nodded, and was just as nice as he always seemed on T.V. When I was done, the three judges had nothing but positive words to say about me and my work. Mondo said I seemed fearless, and that I would intimidate contestants on the show. I took that as a huge compliment. The point all three judges could agree on was that I was young. Young and determined, but still a fresh designer. That weekend was amazing, but that evening after my interview I was called back and they wished me good luck for applying next year.
Even though I didn't make it in, I still felt this un-penetrable high, a drive, a thirst that can't ever get quenched. I thought that maybe I was meant to struggle to build this business from the ground up, like most people have to. Getting onto T.V would make it too easy. The grind, the struggle, and the failures all teach me important lessons. I'd like to personally thank the three judges for saying no to me, because you re-lit my flame and gave me a goal for next year. I'm coming for you, you haven't seen the last of me for sure.
COMMENT: How do you hustle for your passions? You got any awesome small business tips to share?
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1. It sounds corny, but just do it!
Seriously, just start making shit. Literally anything. The more you make, the more materials you experiment with, and the more often you do it, the better! When I was a little pre-teen and growing out of my doll phase, I refused to give them away just so that I would have an excuse to sew them new outfits. Doll clothes by hand turned into a handful of garments sloppily thrown together, but still people-sized, made on my mother's old metal Riccar sewing machine. The first fashion show I was ever in, 2013 EMU Fashion Week, was the first time I even came close to attempting to make a collection or more than a few mismatched items. Looking back at my work, I cringe. Nothing was cohesive, and my construction was awful. I think every artist is critical of their work in this way, but I can look back now with pride because I jumped into it headfirst and without fear. Fearlessness will produce results every time.
2. Don't be afraid to fail, because failure is a fake concept.
I am almost entirely type A. I get it from my dad. I love to produce results, and hate to fail. That fear of failure has held me back in the past, but no more. I learned to let it go, and since I did that I have been seeing such amazing, positive, results! Yes, I did fail more, but according to the law of probability, for every time you fail there is a chance you will succeed. So, with that logic, the more you fail the more likely you are to succeed! I throw myself into situations I am not prepared for, just to see how hard I can fail. I ''failed'' every time I tried to draft a sleeve pattern. It just kept pinching in the shoulders, or being too bulky. I failed and failed until one day, I didn't, and I just GOT IT in a way that no lesson or teacher could give me, and only failure could. With that new skill of drafting sleeve patterns I went on to design (and get paid for) three custom wedding looks, and counting.
3. Make friends with people who have similar interests and goals
This may go without saying, but I think it is relevant, because I wish someone had encouraged me to do this earlier on. I had great friends in high school, but I was the only one with such big aspirations or with a career that was seen as “gutsy” or “outside the norm”. I kind of kept my art in my own world, and didn't even invite people to my runway shows in the beginning. I am thankful for that in retrospect because I was able to develop my art voice without influence, however I think it is also good to have pride in your work and involve your family/loved ones. If they are not as excited as you'd hope, go to networking events and meet ups to find people who think like you.
4. COLLABORATE WITH EVERYONE!
Once you make a connection, and you feel like the gesture would be welcome, offer to do a collaboration. For example, Leah Vernon is a body-positive fashion blogger in Detroit who I didn't know that well until recently. We had seen each other and heard about each other, but without a connection, its hard to form a friendship. I reached out to her and offered to design a dress for her from scratch, and do a photo shoot for both our blogs. We had lots of fun together, and that is why we are friends to this day. Another example of a collaboration is a friend of a friend of mine, Jeremy, who hand-paints textiles. That is something I have always wanted to get into, and he already does it and is good at it. He is making me fabric, I am sewing him a cool outfit, and we both get cool representation from the other. Its all about using people's strengths to supplement your weaknesses and vice-versa. Help and work with people from the get-go, and they will be more likely to befriend and help you in return.
5. Research other designers, but don't over do it.
The one thing I can be thankful for about not going to fashion school is that my head is free of any outside influence. It is a well-known phenomenon among creatives that when they love someone's work, their own work started to emulate it. That's okay, because art is all appropriation from each other anyway. However, if you are constantly looking at other people, you won't have the creative space in your brain to make your own ideas. I experienced this when I first got on Pinterest, I kept pinning and obsessing over fashion, and then I wondered why I couldn't come up with new ideas. Now, I make a conscious effort to put social media/internet away when I'm in design mode, so I have nothing to interfere with my train of thought.
6. If you don't wear your clothes, no one else will either
Back in the day, when I first started designing, I approached it like the visual artist that I am. I figured I was sending these designs down the runway, each one should be unique, over the top, and like a walking piece of art. It should get a reaction, and people may not understand it. That's all good and dandy, if you are dressing Lady Gaga. For a designer who aspires to sell their work in stores and to real people, like I do, making the designs wearable is pertinent. I used to never wear my designs, because they were too over the top and crazy. Over time I refined my look, and made it more approachable to common people. Now I make sure that I sport my own designs to the grocery store, out for a meal, and especially to all networking events. You are your own billboard. I have more fans and clients than ever, because they see how much I love my own work.
7. There is no wrong way to promote your brand
There really isn't, except violent/vulgar things, of course. I used to think that the only way to get the word out about my fashion is by creating and showcasing collections at runway shows, but I couldn't have been more wrong. Everyone wears clothes, so everyone is a candidate to rep your work. The world is your runway. Wearing your own clothes, and having everyone you know wear your clothes is the best and easiest way. Beauty/fashion/lifestyle bloggers across the internet LOVE to get clothes to try on and get cool pictures in, offer to send them an outfit for a week. Musicians are great candidates too, get some to wear your shit during one of their shows. Youtube stars who make videos that align with your brand vision are also great candidates. Generally speaking, anyone with any type of publicity, or who is from/influences your target demographic, should be wearing your clothes. If you can make that happen, the publicity will come on its own.
8. Have a vision, but recognize that it can and will evolve over time
Those who remember my old work remember I used to call my brand “Lady Liberty”. I started with that concept with the tag line “Lady Liberty seeks to liberate women from standards of beauty set by society”. Not super complicated, but I stuck with it for a while. After coming out as bi-sexual to my close friends last year, I started to embrace my androgynous style that always made me different than other girls. I realized that I wanted to dress men, women, and everyone in between. I recognized that my brand was in fact me, so I named it Lena Harbali: Design and Blog. Now, my vision is to create a brand that is inclusive to ALL people, regardless of shape, color, size, gender, or sexuality. My new slogan is “Socially conscious designs that rebel against the System”. I had no effing clue what I was doing when I started. Now, I feel so proud of how far I have come, and how I was able to fully pinpoint my purpose. Having a clear purpose will help your vision, so work on defining WHY you do things, and then the HOW will come later.
9. Remember that it's not about the money, but it really is.
2016 was the first year I made real money off my design work. It wasn't much, but getting any kind of profit as a new independent business is a huge accomplishment. Ironically, 2016 was also the year that I decided to stop pursuing fashion shows. One would think that would have negatively effected my business. I started focusing instead on creating a great brand and product to boost sales. Whatever I did must have worked, because I am making money doing what I love. At the end of the day, if no one is paying me to do design work, I will have to get paid doing something else, because everyone needs money to live. Getting a second job cuts into my art time, which then makes it harder to get art out to the masses. With this logic, asking for money for your work is not being greedy, it is knowing your value and demanding it from the world. Just like lawyers and doctors get paid for their services, artists should too. Your followers will appreciate the fact that you are consistent in creating new art for their enjoyment. Not asking for money is letting everyone down.
10. Don't EVER let anyone be a hater and bring you down
This one is huge for me. I was a victim of bullying from 8th to 9th grade (read my story and how I overcame it here). That experience really hurt my confidence, especially regarding my art. I remember bringing in some of my designs and the girls saying that it looked like Grandma clothes. Back then, I felt the sting. Now, I shrug it off. I had haters back when I barely knew how to sew, and I have even more haters now that I actually know what I'm doing and can create amazing, incredible work! Funny, right? The more talented you are, the more jealous people will be, and the more they will try to tear you down. As an artist, its even harder to be understood, because we are often speaking in visual rather than vocal words. People often don't appreciate art, and will insult it or dismiss it because of their confusion. Don't let their ignorance, opinions, words of discouragement, or any other negative energies infiltrate your heart and mind. Kick those haters straight out of your life! Here's how. They are them, you are you, and you are awesome! All it takes is for you to believe in your work, and the bullies can never get under your skin.
Are you or someone you know a self-taught artist? How did you or your friend build success without training? What are some ways we get get skills training without traditional school? What is one of the coolest collaboration and promotion ideas you have?
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FACEBOOK Lena Harbali
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I observe & write about society & culture.