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How Kemal Harris Went From Writing Fan Letters to Norma Kamali to Styling Hollywood's Top Talents

"The Hollywood Reporter"-ranked power stylist, who grew up in a "little surf town" on Vancouver Island, also heads up Claire Underwood's costumes on "House of Cards."
Kemal Harris. Photo: Courtesy

Kemal Harris. Photo: Courtesy

In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.

A rabid "House of Cards" fanatic, I've already spoken to Kemal Harris about her work as the costume designer for Robin Wright's character in the series, but there's much more to her long and varied career than Claire Underwood's perfectly tailored dresses. And in the time since we last spoke, Harris, also a celebrity stylist, had wrapped up a knockout awards season with her styling partner Karla Welch and received a second consecutive Costume Designers Guild Awards nomination.

Our latest conversation spanned her career in fashion, which she decided to pursue after she saw a glamorous issue of Elle at her local library on Vancouver Island. A few years later, she wrote a fan letter to Norma Kamali after seeing one of her campaigns in a magazine and finding her address. "And she wrote me back! It was a life-changer for a hippie kid in a tiny coastal fishing town like Tofino, British Columbia," says Harris. 

From there, Harris went to fashion school, followed by a gig "crunching numbers at a desk" for Chanel Canada, followed by a bold leap into freelance styling and 3,000-mile move to New York City. A lot has happened since, but we won't spoil it for you: Harris filled me in on all of that, below. Read on for our conversation.   

Were you always interested in fashion?

I grew up on the far West Coast of Vancouver Island in British Columbia in a little surf town called Tofino, population 1,200. It's not really a fashion mecca, but my mom and I did a lot of vintage shopping, which, back then, was just called a secondhand store. It didn't have the same cache. My mom made a lot of our clothes, so she taught me how to sew and understand fabric, and we used to make clothes for my dolls and Barbies and all that stuff.

I always loved the whole process and wasn't even aware that it was going on in the outside world until I saw what I think was an issue of Elle in the library with one of those great covers from the '80s shot by Gilles Bensimon. And that's when I was like, "Oh my goodness, what is this? This is like, a whole industry!" You know that moment when you're a young adult going, "Holy crap, this is something I want to do."

Where did you go school?

I studied fashion design at a tiny little school in Vancouver called the Helen Lefeaux School of Fashion Design which, I think, is not operational anymore because the matriarch, Helen Lefeaux, passed away. She was this fabulous French woman with a topknot and a cigarette in her hand 24/7. I got accepted on a scholarship and loved everything about it.

From there, how did you get into styling?

I really thought I would just graduate and be a designer, but I actually graduated and ended up on the business side for a couple of years because in Vancouver, there's not a very big fashion market. Eventually, my last job in that industry was crunching numbers at a desk working for Chanel Canada. I was like, "I love this company, but I hate this job." I knew I wanted to get into styling; I knew I wanted to be the person who made the choices of what the models were wearing in fashion editorials. There was no one to assist in Vancouver. There were no other stylists who were working in that medium. There were a lot of costume designers because there was a lot of film and television there during that time.

I kind of just did it myself and banded together with a young photographer who knew a couple makeup artists and a hair person. We made friends with the local modeling agencies and we were like, "Hey, if you have any new faces that need test shots, we've got a whole crew here. We'll style and glam your whole shoots just for an exchange of free prints for our portfolios." So, we started doing that every weekend, in the evenings, as much as we could until we built up our portfolios. I eventually got enough local work that I could quit my day job and become a full-time freelance stylist.

And how did you go about moving to New York from Vancouver?

I went to see a friend in Los Angeles — I was contemplating that market — and then a wonderful friend of mine, a photographer who was in New York City, was like, "My apartment is empty for the whole month of December. Don't bother with Los Angeles; New York is where all the fashion is. Come and stay in my apartment, meet some agents and see what you think." Because of that generosity, I was able to find an agency and make great connections with magazines and eventually get myself to New York. That was 2005, and I've been here ever since.

What skills did you learn in those early days that still apply to what you do now?

One thing they don't teach you in fashion school is how to run your own small business. That was the biggest learning curve for me. I'm freelance, I have to pay my taxes, I have to figure out how to get an office space — how do I do billing? All of this stuff was completely foreign to me in the fashion market. One thing that helped a lot was getting a great agent.

After working in an editorial and advertising capacity, how did you then get into celebrity styling?

That was accidental. It was definitely a reaction to the fashion market and industry here. There was a shift during the economic crisis in 2008, 2007. A lot of the advertising dollars dried up. Magazines couldn't pay anything to begin with, but the beautiful locations that we'd go to — that all came to a screeching halt. The one thing that never stopped, that stayed constant, was that movies were still being made and albums were still being produced. Actors were still needing stylists' help with red carpet and award shows. We gradually started falling into that market. The cult of celebrities grew so fast from there that that became the bulk of my business.

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How did you start building up your celebrity clientele at that time?

I think a lot of that is luck — a lot of really, really good luck, because it depends on so many different things. It's not like you're just running into these people at the gas station. You have to have a good agency that has good connections with all their publicists and management teams or film studios and record labels. You can have the best agent in the world, but if you don't have the right personality or if you still aren't bringing the right clothes to shoots, they're not going to ask you back. I definitely did as much research as I could on each particular artist or actor. I tried to speak with their team about what they had worn in the past. I really tried to be as prepared as possible and then bring some fresh ideas so that I wasn't going to show up and be completely off-base in the hopes that it would go well and they would consider me for the next event.

A lot of my luck has been styling editorials and magazine covers for various actors and then having them call me back after that for an upcoming red carpet. It's really been a nice way to build these relationships. We hardly see models on the covers of magazines anymore; it's all celebrities. [Laughs]

You're part of a styling team with Karla Welch, who is based in Los Angeles. How would you say that dynamic differentiates your work from other celebrity stylists who are just working solo?

Two good heads are always better than one. It's nice to have teamwork wherever you can, and it's nice to have supportive colleagues within the industry. Fashion can be quite competitive, so we rarely get to meet other stylists and rarely get to make friends with them, so that relationship absolutely helps in the sense of pulling resources and sharing ideas. The average actress will have a red-carpet premiere in LA and then come to New York to do all the late-night television, so it's a nice balance of both coasts.

On top of your celebrity styling duties, you're also the costume designer for Robin Wright's character on "House of Cards," Claire Underwood. How did that gig come into play?

I had been working with Robin for the red carpet for quite a few years, so when she started the show, she asked me to join. But I wasn't prepared; I wasn't ready. By Season 3, I was like, "Okay, I have to give this a shot." I joined for Season 3 just doing Claire — there's another costume designer and she does all the rest of the cast — so I have now costume-designed Claire for Seasons 3, 4 and 5. I had never done television before. That was my biggest reason for not accepting it immediately.

It was a big learning curve, but the producers were really wonderful. Obviously, you have to be organized and you have to understand how to read a script and how they shoot, but a lot of it is still intuition and my taste

What would you say is the best part of your job?

Every single day is different. You will never, ever get bored doing this job. You might miss a few friends' weddings and not ever get a weekend off, but you will never be bored. 

What do you think your greatest achievement has been so far in your career?

Getting two Costume Designers Guild nominations back-to-back has been really unexpected and humbling; that's something I never dreamed of, for sure. I try to keep my Canadian calm and composure for everything, and I think that's one thing I'll hopefully never lose.

I've had so many wild moments — "pinch-me" moments where you're like, "Is this really happening? Am I really at this awards show? Am I really in this elevator with this person?" The craziest thing I think I've ever done is singing backup on ["Saturday Night Live"] for Feist. Actually, Karla was with me. We were styling Feist for "SNL" and the day before she was like, "I want a bunch of cool girls on my stage singing backup. Will you be in my girl choir?" We were like, "Oh my God. This is so scary, but yes." I still get residual checks from NBC every time it airs, but the checks are like $7.

And the cover of Rolling Stone when I styled Lorde, her first Rolling Stone cover, we used my boyfriend's vintage Cramps T-shirt and that's what made the cover. It was such an iconic picture, and I was so proud of that. Six months later, "South Park" did a spoof of Lorde and she was wearing that same outfit, the Cramps T-shirt, the Helmut Lang suit.

Getting to style Margaret Atwood was amazing. There are many iconic people that you always hope you'll meet and get to work with creatively — and when you do, again, you're like, "Is this really happening?"

What advice would you give to someone first starting out who is looking to get into either styling or fashion design?

Well, I got into costume design sideways because I was sort of grandfathered in through Robin, but I had to join the union. You know, there's a lot of rules when it comes to costume design and union memberships. They're very specific about that. I can't speak too much about how to get your toe in the door from the bottom, but I think for costume design, start by reaching out to your local union because they're often the ones who know about internships and apprenticeships.

With styling, intern, if possible. Like I said, I learned it all myself and that was hard. Definitely intern and see if you like it because all the outside world sees is the finished product — the one gorgeous dress on the red carpet, the one cool outfit in the music video. But what it takes to get to that point is so physical and so exhausting that it's helpful if you can intern and really understand the process — running around the city with 45 garment bags, setting up for the fitting, having the fitting, dealing with the returns of all those garment bags. 

Understand that you lose control of your schedule. I think so much of this industry is relationship-based, so in addition to all the hard work you're doing and the business you're running, you also have to be out there meeting with designers, meeting with publicists, building these friendships as much as you can — so that when the time comes that you need that particular gown or you want those custom-made shoes, you can contact them and say, "Alright, we've got two weeks or two days. Let's do this together."

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