Harold Clarke is much like the clothing he creates — diverse, unexpected, timeless. A couture designer without a hint of pretension. His age nearly impossible to guess and his accent even tougher to crack. While there is an air of mystery to Harold, some things are quite clear. He is a man who instinctively knows how to dress women. He works hard. He is kind. And he is simply an artist.
In his freshly opened store front in Lafayette’s Oil Center the evidence of that diversity is glaring — a vibrant voluminous green ball gown that screams Rio on one end of the display contrasts a supple leather-bodiced creation at the other end embellished with pitch black feathers. At the store front on Heymann Boulevard it’s as though a slice of New York Fashion Week has been transported to Lafayette (minus the anorexic models).
That’s the thing about Harold. He dresses real women. And loves it.
“I love the female form,” Harold says frankly on a warm afternoon as he casually pulls exquisitely beaded gowns over mannequins for display.
His wife, Iona, is busy at work on this afternoon as well, preparing for the grand opening of the couture floor room.
“She gives me inspiration,” Harold says. “She makes sure it gets done.”
Harold Clarke has been getting it done for more than 40 years. The man from Jamaica first took inspiration from the grandmother who raised him. He fondly recalls his grandmother, who had her clothing custom made from a seamstress, seeking out pieces that would be uniquely her. Harold remembers sketching even as a boy.
From a child in Jamaica to dressing celebrities like Vivica A. Fox, Vanna White and Patti LaBelle and now women shopping in the Oil Center, Harold’s road is a long and storied one. And one that is making a clear (and long term) stop in Lafayette.
In 1969 he moved to the states at the age of 19 and eventually met his wife of 42 years. The couple spent years in New York, where Harold worked all day and went to Fashion Institute of Technology at night. It was an era of “Madonna before she was Madonna,” Iona says with a laugh. Harold spent time in circles with Andy Warhol and emerging artists, who were just “trying to hone their skills,” he says. And Harold was among them, working during the day as a darkroom tech to provide for their children and creating fashion at night.
Then in 1994, he was commissioned to create a wedding dress for a New Orleans bride, who tapped him for the entire wedding party. She flew the couple to New Orleans for a fitting for the bridesmaids and they fell in love with the city.
“The French Quarter,” he says with affection. “Those buildings. The history and the ambiance.”
And while the New Orleans store remains open, Harold and Iona began looking west to their future as of late, to a city where they have long had a client base.
“In Lafayette they like haute couture, they like fashion. They understand made to measure. They didn’t want to buy off the rack,” he says.
Harold speaks of creating one-of-a-kind pieces for women who mean business. It’s easy to imagine these women as he describes his clients.
“Her daughter is getting married and she really has to look fabulous. Ex will be there. He needs to see what he missed. He’s got this trophy girlfriend. I want her to look fabulous, to walk in and they remember what they are missing. The girlfriend can’t run into the store and get this,” he says. “They get pampered. It’s a candy store for women.”
And one that’s hard to resist. As Harold works on displays, three customers walk in the unlocked door displaying a sign that reads the opening is the next day.
Harold welcomes them graciously. They are two queens and a duchess on the hunt for a dress worthy of royalty. The three ladies of Krewe of Victoria explain their 20th anniversary ball will put every past queen on display. And it goes without saying, something one-of-a-kind is an absolute. Susu Rainey is searching for a teal dress to pay homage to her year as the krewe’s third queen. She is skeptical the first dress will fit at all. It does, but isn’t exactly right. The second dress is more on target. It takes but a few suggestions from Susu and Harold to alter the look to work for her. As she pursues the showroom, she takes inspiration from different pieces she likes — a neckline here, the drape of a line there.
The exchange between Susu and Harold is brief, and yet it’s clear he sees her vision. And it’s clear that Susu is just the kind of woman who will appreciate his work — a woman who knows what she wants.
Kelly Cobb is just such a woman. Harold created her wedding dress after she scoured Chicago stores looking for something that fit her aesthetic.
“Elegant, funky, with a classical feel,” Cobb says.
It was, in fact, the most memorable part of the Lafayette doctor’s wedding experience.
“He nailed it,” she says.
“It’s a gift,” Harold says of design. “I just like to create fabulous dresses for ladies.”
He sketches as well as drapes on forms to create his pieces for clients in addition to his collections each year — five total representing each season plus a resort line. The work is done in a design studio in New Orleans and much at the hands of Iona and Harold. But that may change as part of their move to Lafayette. The couple says they would like to move the entire design studio here and expand. They’ll need some people who can really sew, Iona says. And they have plans to begin wholesale (something they once did years ago), using the resources found in Lafayette.
“We want to train people in high fashion couture. Do more manufacturing. Go global. We’re going back to wholesale,” Harold says.
Harold would also love to connect with those budding designers at UL and guide them in the business and art he knows so well.
“I’d love to help young kids and show them the truth about fashion. With me — I’m the real deal,” he says with a smile.
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