Apr 13, 2022
Somewhere in Brighton, a mysterious man named Paul Harnden is making handcrafted leather shoes and clothing using old-world techniques. And he has garnered a cult following that includes fashion die-hards and a few A-list celebrities who get it. As the fashion industry attempts to become more sustainable, it might learn a thing or two from Harnden’s slow approach. That is, if he can be found.
About eight years ago, the actor Jeremy Strong, who plays Kendall Roy in Succession and who is known for his esoteric, romantic tastes in fashion, which match the more verbose aspects of his character, found himself in Brighton, a seaside town on the south coast of England. Brighton is home to a sizable university, a thriving array of LGBTQ venues, and the secretive shoemaker and fashion designer Paul Harnden, whose vintage-looking, vaguely Dickensian pieces are made by some of England’s oldest mills, in traditional tweeds, or silks or sturdy Ventile. Strong decided to use the occasion to track Harnden down. He tried an LLC address, tried Google Earth. He did everything he could, he told me, “in the hopes of getting a pair of coveted P.H. boots, but to no avail.” Harnden was undiscoverable. “The trail went cold. A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, made with extreme care and artistry,” Strong said.
To Strong, this only added to the appeal. “He is reclusive, un-self-seeking, and committed to the work exclusively—those values, to me, seem immanent within the garments,” he said of Harnden, who is known for being intensely specific and controlled. He sells to only a handful of stores, usually no more than one or two in each city. He rarely changes his shapes. He insists that his clothing is not discounted on sale, never loaned for photoshoots, never sold online. “He is doing something that is almost the exact opposite of what Walter Benjamin termed ‘Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’,” Strong said, citing the theory that replication can undermine an object's “aura.” He called what Harnden does “ineffable and real,” noting that in “a world of increasing noise,” he is trying to create his own, clear sound. “Someone who does that, in any field, is as rare as a snow leopard these days and as vital.”
Harnden’s clothes are also worn by Brad Pitt. By Daniel Day-Lewis. By John Galliano, who once claimed, in 2010, to “buy all my stuff from him.” “He’s very Greta Garbo,” he told WWD. “I can’t get hold of him. I believe he lives in England by the sea.” WWD ran a separate article, “The Mysterious Paul Harnden,” in which Adrian Joffe, the spouse of Rei Kawakubo and head of the retailer Dover Street Market, which sells Harnden’s work, said that it was “beyond fashion.” This inspired a piece in New York magazine’s the Cut, “The Mysterious Designer John Galliano Loves” in which the reporter, baffled and awed, noted “Nobody’s actually met him.”
The first day I try to contact Harnden is a gray Wednesday in January. That week, the Italian luxury brand Bottega Veneta announced a takeover of the Great Wall of China, emblazoning a stretch of the structure with its tangy green branding. After months of backlash against fashion’s scale and speed—its relentless championing of the new, the opulent—and various pious-seeming, head-hanging promises to rethink, post-pandemic, the industry was already grinding back into its usual rhythms. Brands were, once again, flying journalists across the globe for fashion shows. Stores were taking delivery of new stock, marking down what had arrived just a few weeks before. And public relations specialists from Paris to New York were soliciting attention for their designer clients. Harnden, on the other hand, did not seem to want to talk.