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The Designer Behind Sheryl Lee Ralph’s Dramatic Super Bowl Look

Photo: Rob Carr/Getty Images

The Super Bowl on Sunday was a sea of red. Sure, the Kansas City Chiefs won and flooded the stadium with red and gold confetti, but we were really there for the Rihanna concert and the opening national anthem by Sheryl Lee Ralph. Both women wore vibrant red looks. For Ralph, she and her stylist (who is also her daughter, Ivy Coco) intentionally chose a Black designer to wear. That designer was Charles Harbison of Harbison, a sustainable brand with architectural silhouettes and rich colors. Harbison crafted a custom jumpsuit with dramatic sleeves and a cape train that left everyone in awe.

Here, Harbison talks about his experience making Ralph’s dramatic jumpsuit and the significance of the moment (and yes, he tells us all about those grand sleeves).

Let’s start with those sleeves! Talk to me about them.

Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Roc Nation

Baby, those sleeves are a feat of engineering. We worked late to better them and better them. The jumpsuit was wool crepe, and because it’s saturated in color, it really does just hold the body so beautifully. With the sleeves, since wool crepe isn’t a light fabric, we used about three layers of sheer shape, tulle, and crinoline fabric. All of this was built into this sleeve. Sheryl is a superhero and a superwoman; you’ve got to do something really current but also historical. I love clothes from every era so, yes, let’s put some massive sleeves on a sporty jumpsuit at a sporty event.

Not just any sporting event though; this was the Super Bowl, arguably the biggest television event of the year. When you thought of the Super Bowl and the national anthem, what was the first vision that came to mind?

The first vision was always color for me. I immediately thought red. When I talked to Ivy and found out the choir behind Sheryl would be wearing red, green, and black — the colors of Black liberation — I knew there was intense synergy. I wanted to make her a central figure in this moment and not be dwarfed by the occasion or by the venue but to really stand out and command everything that she deserves.

How did you get commissioned to do this piece? 

Ivy came to me by way of my close friend, and I found out Sheryl already had some of my pieces in her closet. When Ivy and I spoke, she mentioned there was a major moment coming up that she thought I would be great for. She sent over a brief and said they were thinking of a jumpsuit and a cape. I thought, Oh you all are speaking my language.

What feedback did Sheryl give you throughout the process? 

Very little. Once we landed on the look, I just went for it. With looks like this, there can be a lot of start-and-stop; sometimes you do a big look, and it doesn’t land in the moment. But that wasn’t the case. I’ve yet to hug Sheryl, but I can’t wait until I do. Ivy called me and put her on the phone and she was just completely encouraging and affirming and really trusted me (and my team). What makes moments like this amazing is that a designer like me can design and a talent like Cheryl can embody it and you really do get the best of both.

In a past interview, you said you always start with Black women top of mind because those were the first images of beauty you’d ever seen, from your mom and grandmothers. You mentioned highlighting femininity and curves — how did you want to get that message across with this look and Sheryl? What was the first impression you wanted everyone to have? 

The first impression was beauty and body. That’s the thing about the first images of femininity and womanness that I saw: They were never weak. They were always strong, sporty, utilitarian, but completely woman and very feminine at the same time. I related to that duality even as a little boy, particularly a queer boy. When I design for Harbison, I want to encapsulate as much of that womanness as I can. A lot of that lies not just in the curves but the strength those curves hold.

As a Black designer, what did this moment mean for you?

Photo: Charles Harbison

It’s about the historical nature of Blackness being highlighted in this space by a Black woman of such tenured significance in her industry. Sheryl has talked about the time it’s taken to garner this platform she has today. From being an original Dreamgirl to being on Abbott Elementary but only now garnering those accolades. The nature of the long game is significant culturally as if relates to the long game as a Black person, a queer person, an artist, and an entrepreneur. It’s all emotionally satisfying.

You put your brand on hold for mental health in 2016, and ever since you’ve come back you’ve been soaring. Could you have imagined this moment? 

I couldn’t have imagined it. I did save my life, and everything pales in comparison to that. But when you are building on the foundation of self-acceptance and self-preservation, things just take on a new kind of joy.

Meet The Designer Behind Sheryl Lee Ralph’s Super Bowl Look