CHRIS HABANA: HEAVY METAL LOVER

UNDENIABLY A PRODUCT OF THE 90’s, DESIGNER CHRIS HABANA IS PERHAPS BEST KNOWN FOR HIS EDGY JEWELRY LINES; THE SELF TITLED CHRISHABANA, AND THE MORE WALLET-FRIENDLY MY ENEMY. HEAVILY INSPIRED BY CATHOLIC ICONOGRAPHY, THIS INSANELY TALENTED GOTH CHILD (WITH MORE THAN JUST A HINT OF RAVER-ERA INFLUENCE) INVITED DIRTY INTO HIS INTIMATE HOME & STUDIO TO LEARN MORE ABOUT HIS FEARLESS TRIAL AND ERROR PROCESS, AND WHY HE JUST CAN’T KEEP HIMSELF FROM MAKING THINGS.
TEXT Paul Bruno
PHOTOGRAPHY Jason Rodgers

 

 

DIRTY:  WHERE DOES YOUR STORY BEGIN? WHERE WERE YOU BORN?

CHRIS HABANA:  I was born and raised in the Philippines, but raised right up until 12.  When I was seven — my parents divorced when I was really young, I think when I was five — my mom was already in the States, and she wanted us to come visit her so I lived with her in the States for a year, then went back to the Philippines to be with my father, where I lived for 5 more years.  Every other summer, I’d visit my mom.

 

D:  SO WHEN YOU MOVED TO THE STATES AT 12, WHERE DID YOU LIVE?

CH:  New Jersey.  Rutherford.  I went to Union School.  But that was only for one year, before I decided to go live with my mom for good.  She was on the West Coast.

 

D:  WAS THE MOVE A SHOCKING CULTURE CHANGE?

CH:  Oh yeah!  I didn’t know what MTV was before moving to the States.  In the Philippines, people are either really rich, or really poor.  We were fortunate enough to be on the wealthier side, but when we moved to the States, all of that went away.  We went from living in a crazy mansion with marble floors and servants and all that, to Jersey, where we lived— five of us (three generations) — in a one bedroom apartment.  It totally changed everything.

I felt very different from American kids, and I actually still feel like there is a slight divide between me and people that were born in the States.

 

D: CAN YOU GIVE ME AN EXAMPLE?

CH:  [Laughs] Okay!  People in the States have sex a lot earlier!  When I talk to my friends about their first sexual encounters, everyone got started at like 12 and 13!  I mean, I didn’t do ANYTHING until I was 19, and didn’t even fully do it do it until I was 20.  I was very much a late bloomer.

Another example that I noticed right away is the questioning of authority figures.  There is a lot of that over here!  I mean, I definitely have strong opinions, but I sometimes overhear exchanges between people and think to myself, “I can’t believe you just said that, to that person!”  In the Philippines, there is this deep rooted sense of reverence — at least when I was growing up, it was automatic.  You had to pay respect to all teachers, fathers, in fact, anyone older than you.  I still call my older brother by a title — I call him “Manong” which means older brother in Tagalog.

 

D: ARE YOU STILL VERY CONNECTED TO YOUR FILIPINO HERITAGE?

CH:  Oh, definitely, although not quite as much as when I first moved. I’m forgetting my Tagalog, which sucks. If you’re Filipino in New York, you’re either a nurse or… That’s pretty much what you are, a nurse!  So when I meet other Filipino people here that I can relate to, maybe someone in design, or with a similar story, I latch onto them!  I have a couple of very close friends here who are Filipino.  At this point, my Filipino heritage is limited to what they bring to the table and what we do together.

I do reference the religious aspect of my culture in my work, and the huge role that Catholicism plays in the Philippines.  I went to Catholic school and was raised practicing — that’s probably why I’m not into religion anymore as a practice.  I think what really stuck with me was the iconography and all of the rituals.  You have to sit, stand up and kneel repeatedly in front of these icons, and I love the monotoned singing and chanting.  I love all of that.

 

D: THERE REALLY IS A STRONG SENSE OF FASHION IN CATHOLICISM RITUAL AS WELL, ISN’T THERE?

CH:  Oh, absolutely!  The robes, and capes… and that JEWELRY!

 

D:  AND, SPEAKING OF JEWELRY, DID YOU HAVE ANY EDUCATION IN ART OR DESIGN THAT LED YOU DOWN THIS SPECIFIC CAREER PATH?

CH:  Well, I had always drawn, from very young.  My brother and I would often play D&D (Dungeons and Dragons) when I was 4 or 5 years old.  He still plays that stuff, and Warcraft and all that shit.  But at the time, I would actually design what the character’s were wearing — their armor and costumes, while my brother would roll their stats.  My brother also taught me how to draw, so I’ve pretty much been drawing my whole life.  By the time I reached high school in the States, I was drawing all the time.  I never was bullied because I was so good at drawing, I would draw Kiss or Mötley Crüe for my classmates, which was the whole thing back then.  Even in college, I was drawing all the time, although I’m a college drop out.  So there was a foundation, an education, but it came more organically.

 

 

D:  I READ IN A PREVIOUS INTERVIEW THAT THERE WAS A LOT OF SCI-FI INFLUENCE IN YOUR UPBRINGING, AND YOU ALSO MENTIONED BEING AN AVID D&D PLAYER. I’M CURIOUS WHAT ELEMENTS OF SCIENCE FICTION REALLY INSPIRED YOU OR LEFT AN IMPRESSION?

CH: I was aways an escapist I think when I was growing up.  I loved X-Men, the comic books.  I wanted to be like them!  I read lots of books on astral projection because that seemed like the most normal and attainable of powers. Mythology is something that I was always really into, and also crystals — not necessarily the powers of the crystals, but being able to name and identify them.  I was also big on these books that were popular when I was a kid called Choose Your Own Adventure —

 

D: I LOVED THOSE!

CH: — Well, I wrote my own CYOA stories!  We also made our own board games.  I don’t know if you remember this but there was a graphic novel back in the day called Elf Quest by Wendy and Richard Pini, which I think is such a great metaphor for life and love.  Really, things like that got my attention.  I’m really not a big reader, I’m much more about pictures and visuals. I also loved the Hobbit and Dark Crystal — I Loooooooved Dark Crystal!

 

D:  WHEN DID YOU DESIGN YOUR VERY FIRST PIECE OF JEWELRY?

CH: Jewelry? Hmmm…

 

D:  OR MAYBE EVEN BEFORE WE GET TO THAT, WHEN DO YOU REMEMBER TRANSITIONING FROM DRAWING, TO WORKING IN 3-D, EVEN IF NOT INITIALLY WORKING ON JEWELRY?

CH:   Well, as I said, we would make board games, and we would make the actual board and game pieces.  That was probably the earliest.

When I was first starting out, I wanted to get into clothing design.  I didn’t have a sewing machine at the time. My mom would not help me buy one, so I was very much into hand sewing — I still am actually.  This was during high school in the very early 90’s when the rave scene started getting big — in the States especially, and one of the very first things I remember making were these rave hats.  The very first hat I made was striped jersey —it was mustard and burgundy, and I made a hand-stitched beanie with four little octopus tentacles that I hand-stitched as well.  I was a huge raver!

In terms of jewelry… (long pause) Shit!  I’m not sure that this is accurate, but in my early 20’s, me and my friend Erickson worked on this project.  He was going to Academy of Art College, and part of his graduate project involved a gallery show.  He knew that I sewed, so instead of borrowing (or “pulling” as we like to call it as grown-ups) from designers, he wanted me to make pieces to shoot.  On Sundays, we would discuss and come up with a shoot concept.  Monday through Friday, we would hunt for a model and I would make the pieces, then on Saturday we would shoot.  Then come Sunday, we would start over. We did this for an entire summer.  Anyhow, one of the pieces I made was this headpiece for one of our models, made out of wire, beads and feathers.

 

D:  WHEN WAS THE CHRIS HABANA BRAND OFFICIALLY LAUNCHED?

CH:  CHRISHABANA, the jewelry line, or just in general?

 

D: WHY DON’T YOU TELL ME? I THINK YOU ARE PROBABLY MOST KNOWN FOR YOUR JEWELRY COLLECTIONS, BUT I WOULD IMAGINE IT STARTED BEFORE THAT.

CH: It definitely started earlier. I think you are getting the sense of this, but I was always making something — I had to be.

When I was living in San Francisco,  I had a few runway shows. Although I never sold to any stores, it was more to make and show stuff. Around that time,  I met a guy who later became my boyfriend.  He lived in L.A. at the time, so I moved to L.A. to be with him.  After a year or so, his job wanted him to relocate to New York — of course I jumped at the chance, and told myself that I was going to try as hard as I knew how to make it happen for myself.  This was around 2001-02, and I started making a line of accessories our of recycled furs and jewelry, and I sold it to Seven New York, when Seven was still in the Lower East Side, on Orchard.  It all started there.

Shortly after,  someone brought HP France to my attention, a company known for representing New York designers in Tokyo.  I showed my stuff to them and was immediately being sold in Japan.  There’s a store there called Beams which is this crazy-cool, big department store, that was suddenly selling my line.  I did not realize the weight of the situation at the time.  It felt like overnight,  I went from selling to Seven for like $150 an order to $15,000.  And I had to produce these pieces!  At the time,  I didn’t realize that you were supposed to evolve your collection and voice, as opposed to drastic jumps in concept and aesthetic, so my first season I did recycled fur and jewelry. My second season, I did teddy bears and tutus. My third season was rasta-themed, and people were just not getting what was happening with me.  On top of that, I kept coming in to meetings with these t-shirts that I had made for myself, and my rep at HP suggested I start producing those as well.  That got me into clothing.  So from 2001-2007, I was doing this organically, selling mainly in Tokyo, a couple stores in New York, but if finally got to be too much.  I was officially doing clothing, specializing in prints — digital prints actually.  Since I didn’t know about fit so much, I wasn’t really getting many orders from stores.  Girls would be like, “You know, this makes my hips and butt look big,” and my response was, “I don’t care!”  I just wanted to draw on fabric, put it on people, and see what was up.

So in 2007, I decided to just focus on jewelry — I rebranded myself, and the line that everyone is familiar with today, was born then.

 

D:  THE FIRST ACCESSORIES COLLECTION THAT YOU MENTIONED MAKING, OUT OF RECYCLED FURS AND JEWELRY, WHAT KIND OF PEICES WERE THEY?

CH:  I made a handbag or two, single handed gloves out of recycled fur with jewelry embellishments . I did armbands —  I didn’t know what the rules were, I just made things that I liked.

 

 

D:  IN YOUR MOST RECENT COLLECTION “STRANGE FRUIT”, YOU SEEM TO USE COLOR QUITE A BIT, MORE THAN I’VE SEEN IN YOUR JEWELRY EVER.

CH:  I feel like even in my “My Enemy” line, it’s me reconciling all of the things I was doing and making in 2003 and 2004. For example, one of the older things I did was take existing jewelry, and hot-gluing it to cake toys and stuff like that.  Now, I’m actually doing it properly, where every piece is cast, and in the “My Enemy” line, I am combining existing jewelry to make it into another piece altogether. For instance, we took an engagement ring and we split it down the middle and made them into earrings.  I also have a ring that is in fact made of up 5 different rings.  These are all old ideas of mine that I am getting the opportunity to perfect.  This is where I am beginning to learn my life lessons; in the beginning, I used to skip steps and genres and just do what I want, and these days it’s more about honing in, and perfecting an idea. In the marketplace, it’s better because people want to lock you into an idea, and unfortunately they want to know you for only that. But in terms of business, that’s better.

 

D:  WHAT INSPIRED THE SHIFT AWAY FROM YOUR USUAL MINIMAL, GOTHIC PIECES, THAT TEND TO BE MADE OF METALS?  YOUR “STRANGE FRUIT” COLLECTION SEEMED VERY ORGANIC IN FORM, VERY COLORFUL AND GEM-TONED, AND EVEN UTILIZING WHAT LOOKS LIKE WOOD.

CH:  I had been doing the minimal thing for a while, and it’s something that I think I’m inherently drawn to.  But as my work evolved, I decided that I definitely wanted to work with Swarovski elements — I wanted to find a way to introduce crystals into the collection.  In addition, I was slowly veering away from things that were religious in tone — I will never abandon that, especially not in my classic line, but I wanted to start a new line where there was a small sense of the macabre…  a little off-kilter, but it didn’t have to be blatant. It didn’t have to be an upside down cross to convey that message.  Goth is not only about manipulating the cross and other religious imagery just to get a reaction.  I wanted to be gothic in a more elevated way, that was more inspired by nature than by religion.  So I went back to all of that sci-fi and fantasy inspiration from my childhood, and that’s when the forms started getting more plant-like.  I still wanted to keep a clean, minimal aesthetic to it, but I also wanted to introduce all of this embellishment.

As for the use of color, that’s something that’s always been a part of my vernacular, so it was quite easy to go back to that!  My next line for Spring 2014 is going to attempt to marry my minimal pieces with these new embellished pieces.

 

D:  YOU MENTION SEVERAL TIMES THAT YOUR PROCESS IS VERY ORGANIC, AND I DO WANT TO TALK ABOUT YOUR PROCESS FOR A MOMENT:  IS THERE ANY ELEMENT OF STRUCTURE TO YOUR PROCESS? DO YOU APPROACH EVERY PROJECT DIFFERENTLY?

CH:  [Laughs]  Well, there’s really not one way that I do it.  The good thing is that I’ve never had a creative block!  I have such a backlog of ideas.  I document most of my ideas.  The element of structure that does arise is when I have an idea, I need to make strategic decisions as to where it will go.  Will it go into my “Strange Fruit” line, my “Giger” group, my classic line, or if it will be something completely new?

 

D:  ANY CELEBRITY CLIENTS OF NOTE OVER THE YEARS?

CH:  I’m not really the best at keeping track of that, but I can say that over the years, it’s run the gamut from Drew Barrymore and Parker Posey to Santigold.  Azealia Banks just got some stuff and Nikki Minaj wore my stuff.  Bjork was one of the first people to ever buy my stuff when I was selling at Seven.

 

D:    DO YOU HAVE ANY FAVORITE MATERIALS THAT YOU LIKE TO WORK WITH?

CH:   Yeah, I guess I do.  Right now, I’m really getting off on this stone thing.  One thing I’d like to do is work with a precious metal, maybe a men’s line in silver.

 

D:  WHO’S CREATIVE WORK DO YOU LOVE?

CH:  Oh God!  I love Robert Mapplethorpe’s work.  I love a lot of different photographers.  I notice as I get older though, I want to draw more from within, as opposed to seeing outwardly, so some of my reference points are probably going to seem a bit dated!  I love Gianni Versace, David Sims, Juergen Teller, Wolfgang Tillmans — I like work that references real people.  There’s also a part of me that romanticizes the raw 80’s New York.  I love Basquiat.

In terms of music, I love anything that’s really emotive — that can range from Art Department to Dolly Parton. I love Joni Mitchell and Sonic Youth.  Dee-Lite is another.  I just really love that time.

 

D: WOULD YOU SAY THE 90’s IS YOUR FAVORITE DECADE?

CH: Yes. [Laughs] Well, the 90’s was when I was just getting out of high school — and that’s the thing, if you ask me about a San Francisco experience, as much as I love New York, a lot of my development from boy to man was in San Francisco.  I mean that was where I did that project with my friend Erickson. It was also where I did drag for a while… in a really hardcore way.  I used to perform and the whole nine.

 

D:  WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU WOULD HAVE ENDED UP DOING IF YOU HAD NOT BECOME A DESIGNER?

CH:  I always say that I would be a therapist.  I feel like — and maybe I’m tooting my own horn here — but a lot of my friends, partially because I’m the oldest, come to me for advice or to talk things through.  I think some of my best moments when I have risen to the occasion, have been when a friend or someone is in need of guidance or advice.

 

 

D:  IF YOU COULD PARTNER UP WITH ANYONE IN THE WORLD FOR SOME KIND OF COLLABORATIVE PROJECT, WHO WOULD IT BE?

CH:  I mean, my heroes in design are people like Walter Van Beirendonck, Bernhard Willhelm — those two guys I love.  I like designers that provoke thought more than anything else. Miguel Adrover is another.

 

D:  TELL ME SOMETHING DIRTY ABOUT YOU.

CH:  Hmm… This isn’t really dirty, but whenever I meet a new dude, I’m always trying to check out his feet because I’m a big… um… foot person.  CLEAN… but feet nonetheless.

 

D:  WHAT IS IT ABOUT FEET?

CH:  I don’t know, but…. I got food poisoning once from shrimping a guy.  What is it about feet?  I don’t know.  I like extremities.  I always look at fingers and feet.  To me they’re like 20 little penises.  I like stubby and wide.  Hobbit feet are really good for me.

 

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