Adopting the bright lights, big city attitude of the town she calls home, Michelle Harper's idiosyncratic personal style is a mash up of cultures and curiosities from the mutlifaceted world around her. A born and bred New Yorker, Michelle grew up fascinated by the killer looks of the draq queen community and Studio 54-era disco dandies that took her under their wing - today she graces the best-dressed lists of countless magazines for her one-of-a-kind aesthetic. From her West Village home, this rare bird of fashion talked self expression, living in the moment and following her dreams with RIKA. By Indigo Clarke
RIKA: You’re often described as a brand consultant and socialite – how would you actually describe what you do?
Michelle Harper: I am definitely not a socialite and I have consulted for brands many times in my career. I love growing a brand seamlessly and intelligently merging the creative and business aspects of the brand for maximum results. So brand consultant is correct. I have also started companies from scratch and built them up to much success. So in the end I would say I am a creative businesswoman.
RIKA: As a born and bred New Yorker, what was growing up in Manhattan like? What do you remember most about your teen years?
Michelle Harper: I grew up in the 50's on the west side close to studio 54. I remember growing up with that and a roller-disco and a gorgeous gay doorman that all the drag queens and eccentrics would come visit. I was babysat by the people working at the roller-disco and spent much time playing with the doorman Omar and his studio 54 friends. They were all wonderful to me so I got to have such an open, eclectic and colourful upbringing. At the same time my mom was an investment banker and still is, my dad was an economist and art collector, my grandmother was also a businesswoman (in a time where this was not done), my grandfather was a great modernist architect, so I had all those influences as well. I also did not spend all my time in New York. I traveled to Colombia all the time so I have that cultural influence of passion, emotion, expression and openness.
RIKA: How has growing up in NY shaped you as a person and your style? And where do you live now?
Michelle Harper: I live in The Village [West Village] and I love it. You have a diverse type of person living here and most of all it is calm beautiful and serene. I love all the trees and historical buildings, it is beautiful and a gift. I am so grateful to be here. New York has shaped me as a person, most definitely influencing my style as it opened and continues to open my imagination. It is such a visual city where people are free to be who they are and express themselves however they like. I am 100% about dreaming, becoming, acceptance and freedom. I would never want to live in a place where everything is the same and is bound by boring rules.
RIKA: I read that you were inspired by elements of the drag community from your teen years… How did that begin and why were you drawn to it?
Michelle Harper: I would never limit my inspiration to drag queens, all communities have inspired me, including the drag community but not exclusively. I am a diverse person with diverse points of inspiration because I am very open and accepting. Also my most important motto is that self expression and joy are of the most important things in your life. This is included in fashion. New York has many communities, many tribes, and I have accepted and been a part of so many, I have love and inspiration for and from them all.
RIKA: You’ve been described as an original at a time when fashion is at its most generic. How do you feel about being considered a style icon and how would you describe your unconventional style?
Michelle Harper: I am honoured by your words. I never set out with an agenda to be anything other than myself. I was brought up to follow my dreams, and I follow my dream in fashion. If I wore two different shoes as child my parents said fine! I have never believed in anyone telling me how to dress or express myself, and I don't believe in it for anyone. Life is so beautiful when expressed in all its forms and colours. Be free!
RIKA: You’re currently on numerous best-dressed lists of respected titles including Vanity Fair – what do these accolades mean to you?
Michelle Harper: If I am included on such a list I am humbled and honoured. It is nice to have freedom acknowledged, and if this message can be spread so that anyone from any place in the world can feel free to express themselves then I am happy to help with that. I just don't want people to live in fear that if they don't fit a certain mould or look a certain way they cannot be happy and beautiful.
RIKA: I read that you like to ‘express yourself’ through what you wear – what do you feel you are expressing through your daring ensembles?
Michelle Harper: I am expressing a vision that comes to me in flash. Literally it comes to me in a vision that is a moment. From there I create and express. I can't explain where that vision comes from but I see it so clearly and I follow it. I am expressing an amalgamation of visual inspirations and dreams come together into one outfit. And that changes all the time. Life is change. And if you can embrace that then you are moving with the rhythm of life. I truly believe that. I don't believe that clothes, life or style are static. Nothing is static.
RIKA: Do you see the way you dress as a form of art – and do you practice other forms of artistic expression?
Michelle Harper: Practically anything can be a form of art that includes expression. So perhaps dressing can be one too. Why not, right? I express myself not only through clothes, but through the creativity of business, branding, writing, art and design.
RIKA: What attracts you to an item of clothing or accoutrement – and what maintains your interest in fashion in general? Do you ever imagine tiring of dressing up?
Michelle Harper: I will never tire of expressing myself through a great love of fashion and living. What makes this true is that I would never tire of living life to the fullest and fashion and expression cannot be separated from that for me. My attraction to an item of clothing or an accoutrement comes from a feeling of elation at it's inherent beauty and that definition of beauty is my own - it could be a beauty that is so ugly it is beautiful. I just want to yell love to me!
RIKA: Who has inspired you most in your life?
Michelle Harper: Oh too many people to list. It is just impossible to list one. Inspiration is so diverse. There have been so many inspiring people in this life and there still are. I am about diversity. I always say my grandmother is one of them. Such a strong gorgeous kind stylish woman. Pure love and visually stunning. What a great combination no? But that is not all of it. I can name Isabella Blow, Anna Piaggi, the Baroness Elsa, Diana Vreeland, Yves Saint Laurent, Cristobal Balenciaga, Christian Dior, Alexander Lee McQueen, David Wojnarowicz, Anselm Kiefer, Helio Oiticica, Peter Zumthor, Rem Kollhaas, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the list goes on and on.
RIKA: What achievement of yours are you most proud of? And what burning ambition are you yet to realise?
Michelle Harper: My relationships to my family and friends are the achievement I am most proud of. Actually all human relations. This is so important. I don't live thinking I have some ambition I have yet to realise. I prefer to work at living in the moment and enjoying it. Being present is so important. Every second counts. What a mission to realize this and not get caught up in past and future going in circles.
RIKA: Could you tell me a little about why you were interested in the RIKA ‘Iron Girls’ collaboration, why you took part in it and what the experience was like?
Michelle Harper: I love a project about naturally strong women and really respect Helena Christensen as a person and her photos, so I was very honoured to be asked to represent Iron Girl.
RIKA: Were you and Jenny Shimizu photographed together for it? Can you tell us a little about your relationship – what the two of you value most about one another, what continues to draw you to each other?
Michelle Harper: Jenny and I were both part of the Iron Girl project and were photographed together for this shoot. Both were great experiences. I am drawn to Jenny's humour, strength, beauty and intelligence. We both value each other in a very authentic and deep way. We have both been very lucky to find each other and live with an attitude of appreciation for each other daily.
RIKA: What exciting plans or projects are you looking forward to this year?
Michelle Harper: I look forward to being alive everyday. That's the most exciting project there is.