Toni Hacker and Ben Harnett are living a sort of modern Bohemian dream.
The two met almost six years ago while working at Liz Claiborne, woke up one morning ready to do their own thing, like most people do, but they actually did it.
So now, here they are five years later, running Hayden-Harnett out of their Greenpoint, Brooklyn design studio, landing the front page of Women’s Wear Daily, partnering with Target (yes, it is true!) and dreaming up new ideas every day, or night, actually.
Yesterday, we sat down with Toni, the Creative Director and head designer of the label, to figure out how she figured it all out and how she’s come so far so fast.
So, let’s start from the beginning. Where are you from and how did you get to New York?
Kentucky originally. But I lived in Hong Kong for a year before coming to New York.
Oo, Hong Kong? What was that like?
I was the design director of an accessories company – and I love Hong Kong. It’s not quite as big as New York but still so global. Not as fast paced, but very familial. It’s just a smaller scale, but I love it. I get really sad if I go too long without visiting.
A display table from the store.
So how on Earth did you get from Hong Kong to Greenpoint?
I moved to downtown Manhattan when I first got here. I found an amazing place with exposed brick and this disco mirrored bathroom. I’d get up every morning and pretend I was in Studio 54. It was a great workout! But then I went to Hong Kong for almost a month, Ben was cat sitting, and when I got back to New York my cat didn’t want to leave, so I sort of had to move in. But I love it here, I don’t really feel the need to go to into the city that often.
Me too! Greenpoint’s kind of an amazing place to be right now. So let’s talk about Hayden-Harnett’s birth. You didn’t just move to New York and say, “I’m going to start my own line.” Did you?
No way. I was working for Liz Claiborne when I got here. I was the leather bags designer. And then suddenly it felt like the right time. It was like my biological entrepreneurial clock went off and I had to do something for myself. I just turned to Ben one day and I was like, “I’m going to do this.” The next morning was actually April Fools’ Day – it must have been a weekend because I remember having a long breakfast – and I just started sketching a logo. The two inverted H’s are for both of our initials and it looks the same turned either way. I guess it sort of worked itself out in my sleep actually.
Did you dream it?
Yeah! I used to dream of musical cords in my sleep, but now they’re kind of all over the place. We painted the entire wall by the bed in chalkboard paint so that I can jump up in the middle of the night and sketch.
Inspiration for their impending swim wear line
So what was the next step in launching your label?
We took a really methodical approach. You know, I was like, we have to sell this many bags to pay our rent and our bills and be able to travel. And we just did it. If we had to go down to Soho and sell them on the street we would have.
You make it sound so easy!
Well that’s just the way I approach things. You have to do it your way. I’m very organized, everything needs to be in its place – you can see that in the way I design my bags – but it translates to everything in my life.
Ok, so you have your bags and your logo and this amazing space…
We actually picked out this space before we even had something to sell! We walked past it every weekend on the way to the Coffee House and I knew I had to get in here some how.
Inside Hayden-Harnett’s Franklin St. store
So how did clothing enter the picture?
We launched apparel in spring of 07 – that was with Sonia Agostino who actually works at Target now. Our current clothing designer is Laurel Wells who used to have her own line. But now she lives in Greenpoint and works with us and we love her! When we started, I wanted to do dresses that are both special and modern. Great party dresses, but I’m still an H&M and Zara girl so it had to be pieces that’d easily mix in. Everything we’ve done since bags has been a natural evolution of the brand. I really think in terms of longevity – I want someone to buy a bag and know that we’ll still be here in forty, fifty years.
I know you’re the creative director, but do you have anyone who oversees lookbooks, prints etc.?
That’s Mimi Eayres, she’s our art director. We met through Ben. Well, actually we worked at Liz Claiborne together and I saw her on my first day and knew I wanted to be her friend and then it turned out she was already friends with Ben. But she’s amazing with prints and such a huge part of our design team.
Can we talk about Target?
Yes! It’s happening.
That must be so exciting for you. I’ve always wondered how mass collaborations work. Did you call them, do they call you?
They contacted us. They asked us for a design concept and sketches. We actually did that before we even did our regular collection because they needed it in two weeks!
A page from Hayden Harnett’s Fall ’08 lookbook
Wow! That’s a lot of pressure. Where’d your inspiration come from?
Fig trees. I had, like three dreams in a row about fig trees and all these people just looking really happy around the fig tree. I knew I had to get one and I researched the leaves in my dream, these huge three-leafed leaves, and I was about to order online when I saw one sitting on the corner in front of the Manhattan Ave. florist.
That place, seriously? Editor’s note: that is the most ghetto florist ever.
Yes! And I’d never seen one before or since so I bought it of course and now I’m obsessed with it and want to buy another one. I made a custom print for the Target collection with fig leaves in bright colors. Also, this amazing vintage umbrella that I actually found on the street here really influenced me. I really had to fight to get the umbrella to be part of the collection – I wouldn’t give it up! I told them, “It’s the only umbrella I’ll ever do, it’s one of a kind and we have to do it!” And they listened! It’s very haberdashery, with a silver “Hayden-Harnett” engraved plate set into the handle.
Books, leather samples, Toni’s vintage umbrella and Target inspiration
I can’t get over this fig tree thing. I didn’t even know you could get them in New York.
I know, right? It was the strangest thing. And when we bought it the poor thing only had two leaves. So we took it home, even though we were leaving the next morning for the holidays and gave it lots of water. When we woke up the two leaves had fallen off – it was on its deathbed – so we stuck it in front of the window and kept our fingers crossed. When we got home after a couple of weeks, it was flourishing. It’s even grown a fig!
Did you eat it?
Well, I thought it was a growth! Fruit trees aren’t supposed to bear fruit for at least a couple of years, so I couldn’t believe it and I ripped it off!
A lot, or actually all of the designers I can think of, recycled a version of their past collections into their present partnerships. Did you take the same route?
There are actually a lot of unique pieces. We’re not going to knock ourselves off. We want real fans to be able to go out and buy the entire collection and we really wanted to do something special. It has its own spirit, its own mood. It needed to complement our line, not conflict.
Editor’s note: We saw pictures of the Target collection, and while we haven’t really been impressed with any of their past accessories collaborations, this one looks amazing. The leather looks rich, even in pictures, the hardware is covetable, in fact Toni said she thinks it’s the best hardware she’s ever designed. We wish we could show you the pictures too but check back at the end of the month, they should be public by then!
What are those?
Can we discuss? They’re gorgeous.
Aren’t they amazing? I’ve been dreaming about this boot. You can fold the top down or pull it up over your knee which is perfect because I’m a total skirt and tights kind of girl come winter. And the zipper in the back is the same zipper we put on our leather jacket.
How many shoe styles did you do? And where will they sell?
There are nine total. We used the same leather and hardware as the bags and really focused on function. You can dress them up, dress them down. We’re starting out in just a handful of retailers and our store, obviously.
Speaking of, are you going to open any more stores?
Definitely, that’ll be our next step. We’re actually in talks with Grand Central Terminal. They’re revamping their retail scene and it’s an amazing place. It’s just very bureaucratic so it’s moving kind of slowly. Which is ok because we have a lot going on right now! But having a store is so important. Without your own store, you can’t tell the whole story and I’m really into the narrative.
What’s the biggest difference between working for a major corporation like Liz Claiborne and working for yourself?
When I was there, I just did my job. I was a handbag designer, I sketched bags, handed them to someone else and sketched some more. Here, I do everything. Well, Ben’s the CEO, he does the financial stuff, the internet, but I oversee everything. There are seventeen people on staff, we’re like a family. I would never want to not be involved with everything. I love it all.
Toni Hacker, Creative Director of Hayden-Harnett, in her office
This kind of goes back to the beginning, but did you always know you wanted to have your own label?
No actually. Not at all. My grandma was this incredible entrepreneur. She was the only female building contractor in Kentucky. And then she opened up her own store, Circle R Western Wear, and I got to be the junior’s buyer – I was in fifth grade – and everything I bought blew out! I knew Olivia Newton-John was going to be the next big thing so I bought all these “Physical” shirts, Jordache jeans that were so tight you had to lay down on the bed and arch your back to get them on. But when I was in art school I got really into Bauhaus. I was, and still am, fascinated by cobbling all these things together. I thought I’d go into furniture, housewares, lighting, architecture, but never fashion.
Did you have any interest in it at all?
I read magazines. My grandma had a periodicals section in her store and I got to go through the catalogs and pick out which magazines we’d sell. I’d disappear in the back and read them all. That’s the only time I ever got in trouble as a kid, for reading!
Toni’s inspiration board above her desk – that fringe necklace on the right is from Prada, whom Toni calls her design hero. “If I ever had to go back to working for another house, it’d be for Miuccia. She’s a design hero.”
Me too! What was your favorite magazine?
Sassy changed my world, changed my perception of what the world could be. It was this amazing new voice for my generation. Suddenly I could be a smart individual who also loved nail polish and make up. It was huge. And now I devour Vogue – it’s not quite Sassy but I will disappear for six hours when the September issue comes.
So there was no singular childhood indication of what was to come?
Actually, I saved up $11 to buy a Barbie and then I found this purse, [it's hanging on the wall of her office right now], at a garage sale and bought it instead. My grandma didn’t really understand why but I just loved it. I carried it all through college and I still have it. It’s beautifully constructed. Why don’t people make things like this anymore?
Well, it appears as though you do.
I hope so!
I think it’s time for the semi-Proust questionnaire!
1. WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE WORD?
2. WHAT IS YOUR LEAST FAVORITE WORD?
3. WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE SOUND/NOISE?
Music in general.
4. WHAT IS YOUR LEAST FAVORITE SOUND/NOISE?
Jack hammering, any metal on stone.
5. WHAT PROFESSION, OTHER THAN YOURS, DO YOU WISH TO ATTEMPT?
I’m actually thinking about going back to school to get my masters in geo-magnetism. I think that’s where we’ll get our energy from once our natural resources run out.
6. WHAT PROFESSION WOULD YOU NEVER WANT?
I could never be an accountant.
7. WHAT MAKES YOU INSPIRED?
Randomness. I don’t like routine.
8. WHAT MAKES YOU NEVER WANT TO WORK AGAIN?
The day mankind evolves to a point where we realize we don’t need material things. Which I know is a strange thing for me to say, as someone who sells a product. But that would be a great day.
9. WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE SWEAR WORD?
The F-bomb. It’s both ripe and rich when not used in a negative or nasty way.
10. IF HEAVEN EXISTS, WHAT DO YOU WANT GOD TO SAY TO YOU WHEN YOU DIE?
“I think you did a really nice job.” Or, “I really love that hobo you did for Fall ’08.”