Subversive by Design: Jeweler Chris Habana on Finding Aesthetic Between the Lines

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"I love things that question the system, things that move progress along, and things that challenge the status quo"

The term "disruptor" gets thrown around a lot in the fashion industry as of late. In an oftentimes oversaturated and impersonal space, it can be hard to separate true originality from trends and fast fashion. Luckily for jeweler Chris Habana, his particular brand of heavy metals is anything but uninspired. The Filipino designer, with multiple collaborations under his belt and celebrity clients from Lady Gaga to Rihanna, is finding major success in fashion's alternative scene. NSFW met up with Habana at his Chinatown studio to get inside his creative process, his sources of inspiration, and whats coming down the line.

NSFW When did you first become interested in fashion design and jewelry?

CH I’ve always been making things, even from an early age.  When I was five or six, I was really into Dungeons and Dragons, which is an old, 80’s game.

NSFW I’m familiar.

CH Yeah, it’s a role-playing game.  My brother would always work with the stats of the characters, and I would always work with their armor.  Little did I know that would translate into me actually working with metals.  It’s actually funny that you mention fashion design, because I did do that for a while, and I thought that was my focus, but after getting into it, I realized that I liked hard goods and accessories.  I liked embellishments more than the fit and function of clothing, so it just turned into that.  I guess I’ve always been doing it, but it wasn’t until 2008 that I started the brand, where I really went into it full force with jewelry.

NSFW All of your pieces have a distinct, edgy aesthetic.  What do you attribute that choice to?

CH I think it’s really just how my life has evolved.  Not to say that I was the biggest punk kid when I was younger, but I’ve always been drawn to subversive imagery.  I love things that question the system, things that move progress along, and things that challenge the status quo.  Going back to when I was a kid, I grew up in the Philiipines and went to Catholic school, and I took none of that in my adult life at all.  The only things I took were the symbolism and imagery  I found it fascinating that people would hold so much to a symbol like a cross.  When I work on that symbol, especially when I first started the line, we were heavy into crosses and we were turning it upside down, putting it sideways, and doing different alliterations of what a crucifix can be. It’s funny, people would question that, and to me it’s such an instinctive thing to do.  So I guess it’s just innate in me to think that way.

 Photo by Dom Smith, Courtesy of Chris Habana 

Photo by Dom Smith, Courtesy of Chris Habana 

NSFW If you had to sum up your design approach in a few words, what would they be?

CH Oh, God.  I have been asked this question before.  Minimal, I guess.  Refined.  And dangerous.

NSFW Cool.  And why did you choose those?

CH Kind of what you had picked up on before, how you said that the imagery and style I exude is something that’s a bit more subversive, or not necessarily the norm, and so with those three words, the pieces that we do – there’s definitely more of a subversive edge to them.  But, just because of my nature, or wanting to reinterpret some of those themes, I try to go for something more refined, or making something look more elevated.  The minimal thing comes from, I guess, just where my head goes to.  There are parts of my brain that can get very decorative, but at the end of the day, especially with out main line, we try to distill all of that, so it’s very much like a pure message, something very minimal and clean.

NSFW On your website, you describe you My Enemy collection as “the middle finger of jewelry lines”.  Where does that punk mindset come from?

CH So whereas with the silver line, it’s a lot more clean and minimal, the My Enemy line will just out and out say fuck you, in the way it’s designed and put together.  So that’s how that kind of expression comes out.  I think with the My Enemy line, we do a lot of things with it where we take a lot of traditional themes and turn them on their heads.  So the idea of an engagement ring, we turn into a septum ring, so it became an engagement septum.  With a lot of the more streetwise bamboo forms, we turn them into other things, such as statement earrings, septums, ear cuffs.  We tend to take things and quite literally flip them on their heads and change them into other things.

NSFW When you’re working on a new collection, who do you envision wearing your pieces? Who are you designing for?

CH I get asked that question, and I’ve never found a good answer.  I don’t necessarily think of a specific person.  What I’ve actually learned is to take it a bit more personal.  Think about what a girl version of me would wear, or even what a boy version of me would wear, or all of that combined and seeing what that might look like.  But I think it’s always good not necessarily to think of another person when designers get into these kinds of endeavors, but to think of what they want to wear.  That’s the only way you’re going to be able to do what you do and love what you do.  You have to personally be it.

 Photo by Dom Smith, Courtesy of Chris Habana

Photo by Dom Smith, Courtesy of Chris Habana

NSFW In that same vein, do you have any specific mantras or other sources of inspiration you keep in mind when you’re designing?

CH There are definitely certain people, artists and designers.  I actually get influenced a lot by film in what we do.  Those are the touchstones of who I look to. Thankfully, as much as New York is completely changing, and getting a bit more homogenous, it’s still a source of inspiration.  You can still walk around and get little nuggets of “This is really cool” or “This is really new.”  I still feel like there are a lot themes that are out there in fashion right now that New York has fostered and started.  So those kinds of things.  Daily life still inspires me.

NSFW You’ve touched on this a little bit, but your website describes your main aesthetic inspirations as punk and tribal.  Are there also some connections to kink and fetish?

CH You are very right. I know we’re talking in 2018, but even in 2010, I had a collection that was fully based on everything kink.  I called it weird and kinky, actually. It was a combination of elements that were kind of weird, so we had done a lot of eye imagery, tongue imagery, finger imagery, mixed with elements of kink and fetish.  So we have done handcuffs with them, we have done wrist restraints, and even up until now, we worked this past summer with Vincent Tiley who is an artist who deals with themes of bondage in his work.  We ended up creating a series of pieces that debuted at the MAD Museum. Those pieces essentially connected two or three people together at one time.  We had a mouth ball gag that two people shared the one ball; wrist restraints that connected two people; a foot and arm type of restraint, so there are for sure elements of submissiveness and kink in there.

NSFW Is that an attempt to integrate into high fashion, or is it purely an inspiration?

CH I think at the end of the day there’s really no agenda that we tend to push.  It isn’t something conscious. Again, I think that it’s something that, if it’s innate in you to do it, there’s really no way to bring it out.  If you’re someone who creates things and wants to work on something, it’s going to come out. So, instead of trying to fight it because you think the market may not be into it, we tend to say, "Fuck it", and go full force into it.

 Photo by Dom Smith, Courtesy of Chris Habana

Photo by Dom Smith, Courtesy of Chris Habana

NSFW What goes into styling your models?

CH For our campaigns? I’m glad you asked me that.  I’m really proud of the campaign you saw that was all Asian casting. That’s the one that’s on our website right now, that’s kind of like our home pages.  That was our Autumn/Winter 17 campaign.  When I said before that I was really influenced by film, on top of just the jewelry itself, I want any images that come out of it or any kind of expressions to feel as cinematic as possible when it’s our own thing, so essentially I take a big hand in choosing models, working with the team I work with.  Some of them are a set group or people. I work with Dom Smith, who is the photographer of the sterling silver campaigns, Gon Kinoshita who does hair, Ryan Burke who does our make-up.

NSFW How do your clients find you?

CH Instagram has been a crazy great tool.  I honestly think if it hadn’t been for Instagram, our movement would have been slower.  Our trajectory would have been slower.  I’m not blind.  I know that our pieces are super specific, and there’s an audience for them, and it’s not necessarily the mainstream.  What Instagram has done is it allowed all the weirdos who like our pieces to find us in an easy and direct way.  Apart from everything else, I think Instagram is a great tool that has really helped us out a lot.  

NSFW What do you see for yourself going down the line, collection-wise, collaboration wise?

CH There’s a few things coming up.  For Spring/Summer 18 we’re slated to do a couple of shows.  We did an Autumn/Winter 17 collaboration with Faith Connexion.  They’ve been really great, and we’re continuing it into the spring.  We’re slated, knock wood, to do Willy Chavarria, who does a men’s line I really, really love.  He’s newer in New York.  We’re doing another for Men’s Week called Les Hommes.  Apart from the Fashion Week collabs we do, we’re going to be shooting our own campaign again, probably not until the spring.  And there’s a couple of things bubbling in opportunities in Tokyo, opportunities that we’re still trying to solidify. So that’s that.