“Back off,” reads a basic white T-shirt from contemporary streetwear brand Haculla by New York-based Venezuelan artist-skateboarder-fashion designer Harif Guzman, who was in Dubai this month to launch his latest capsule collection exclusively at Harvey Nichols. Above the cautionary words are six pairs of kohl-rimmed eyes that watched me intently as I marvelled at Guzman’s superbly anarchical, Basquiat-esque style of art.
I met Guzman at the multidisciplinary art and design studio FN Designs, the grey corrugated metal warehouse in Alserkal Avenue made the perfect setting for the unveiling of his latest collection and his artwork on a swanky Jaguar F-Pace later that evening. With his team hustling to prepare for the event, we decided to move to a quieter space for the interview. Nothing is ordinary about Guzman; he skateboarded up to the café where we were to sit down, with his tattooed arms outstretched and gothic demeanour noticeable from afar.
Jaguar F-Pace painted by Harif Guzman
“I felt there was a lot of pressure on me, coming back to New York,” Guzman says about his move to the city in 2000, which is when he began creating street art. “I felt all the eyes around me were watching me,” he adds, referencing the eye illustration that frequents his designs. This was when Haculla, his dark, eerie, nocturnal alter ego, came to life through his graffiti that decorates the streets of New York City and now, his eponymous clothing line.
Chaotic, edgy and glamorous, Guzman’s capsule collection for Harvey Nichols, featuring T-shirts, sweatshirts, coats, caps and sneakers, is a nod to the post hardcore/punk movement from the late 80s and early 90s. Women’s active-wear and sneakers take a life of their own in this new range that boasts spurts of colour and cryptic iconography more than any of his previous lines. “We’ve injected a lot more colour and this is more playful than the last collections. The way we’re going with it is more fun, affordable, good quality,” he shares.
Haculla Spring/Summer 2018 capsule collection at Harvey Nichols Dubai
“We’re pushing forward with more outer-wear, active-wear and footwear, which is all about making a good quality shoe that can go with a shirt you can easily buy for about $180-200. There's a big market for active-wear, so I’d like to merge the Thrasher-meets-Victoria’s-Secret-pink element. I'm working with new materials.” As the season grows, Guzman aims at being more playful with his collections and make his designs more relatable.
Having greatly evolved over time, Guzman shares he spent the first few years with Haculla co-owner Jonathan Koon to brand the clothing so that one could immediately identify his designs. “The fact that people can now recognise our pieces gives us freedom to have more fun with them, allowing us to keep the men’s collection as the backbone but experiment with women’s clothing.” He considers his personal aesthetic to be avant-garde, but ranges deftly across various styles, throwing phrases such as “Never cry wolf” and “Nobody’s safe” onto his new designs.
Also a photographer, he has incorporated some of his photography into the range as well. Some of his most iconic photographs are the ones featuring supermodel Georgia May Jagger, featured in his last collection and which he shot when she was just 15, and Suki Waterhouse.
Haculla S/S '18 presentation at FN Designs in Alserkal Avenue
The collection also goes back to Guzman’s original drawings from different phases of his life. “This range has drawings from the late 90s and I wanted to do something that’s more contemporary. It’s kind of like trend forecasting,” he shares. Of his core audience, he feels his brand truly resonates with the youth. “A lot of my following are the youth and people who are not my age. Kids are smarter these days, so they see that I came from really bad circumstances and they can relate to that. It wasn’t like I was a privileged kid, so my success happened organically.”
Guzman, who considers designers such as Alexander McQueen and Thom Browne to be great influences, took his first steps into fashion with a collaboration with Diesel for a T-shirt design and an art show that took place at the brand’s 55Dsl store. “In 2000, I was by myself in a weird predicament in New York and then Stefano, one of (Diesel founder) Renzo Rosso’s sons, liked my work.” What followed was a myriad of partnerships with brands such as Ralph Lauren, Volcom, Burton and Planet Earth. “I feel it’s almost necessary to attach yourself to an artist to survive as a brand nowadays, just to translate to the millennial customer,” he comments, adding that skateboarding has also made it big with luxury brands, alluding to the trailblazing collaboration between Louis Vuitton and Supreme.
Art by Harif Guzman
He also designed a coat and full-fledged capsule collection for American rapper Young Jeezy, which was reassuring enough for him to drop his own clothing line centring street style called Delanci. He then went on to launch Haculla – which gives a fuller sense of the artist and the man behind it – who went from being homeless at one point to the success story he is today. “Without knowing it, I had begun to brand this character that become an iconic New York City image,” he says, which culminated into the launch of Haculla. He now has an uber-cool studio in SoHo, which is rumoured to be where Andy Warhol once hung out.
“Dead-broke” during the day, he would spend the night winding down with good friends and fellow skateboarders, Chad Muska and Harold Hunter (late), who had made it in the industry. “I had a lot of friends who had made it big with skateboarding, so in the morning, I’d just skate and paint, trying to figure out where I was going to sleep,” he shares. “That was the drive behind me painting all over the streets. I saw that lifestyle and said to myself that I’m going to achieve it. It was where Haculla was inspired from – a dark, alter ego, hanging out at night time,” he tells me. “I still don’t know how I got here. I’m just persistent and persistence beats genius, any day.”
Guzman feels his collection will speak to the Middle Eastern buyer. “I think they’ll relate to it – with the whole Haculla, big-eye illustrations – it’s very Dubai and Saudi, also very Moroccan. It seems like Dubai is opening up and drawing people from all over the world who are injecting it with more flavour.” As we say goodbye and I head home, I neatly place the Haculla T-shirt that I got as a souvenir in my closet, thinking it sure is a must for a street-savvy wardrobe.
The Haculla capsule collection by Harif Guzman is available at Harvey Nichols Dubai.