Michelle Harper and Victor de Souza. Photography by Sean Thomas. Styling by Erin Dixon. All clothing, Victor de Souza. Shoes and hosiery, model or stylist’s own.
“Can’t you see why she’s my muse?” asked Victor de Souza as we walked into Michelle Harper’s sprawling Brooklyn abode. After passing the white taxidermy peacock that guarded the living room and prying my eyes from the unobstructed East River view, I saw her standing at the top of the staircase, wrapped in a white silk robe. Like Louise Brooks in one of her saucy silent films, Michelle’s jet-black mod-cum-flapper hair lay flat against her face. Her pouty lips were painted a velvety crimson and as her slight frame began to descend from her perch, I could very clearly see why she was de Souza’s muse.
A former Argentinean model with a background in couture, de Souza is quite the vision himself, with his slicked-back black hair and thick-rimmed glasses. After a successful term designing for DOW in Paris and later Ruskin in New York, de Souza launched his eponymous women’s ready-to-wear line in 2009, presenting a collection of theatrical gowns, futuristic jackets and astounding technical skill. Since, he has gone on to dress the likes of Coco Rocha, Rihanna, Cyndi Lauper and, as of late, Lady Gaga with his architectural bodysuits and patent-leather armor. But none of these stars inspire him quite like Michelle Harper.
The CEO of Darac Beauty, Michelle is not your standard model/muse. Born in Columbia, she is a well-educated, well-spoken spitfire of a businesswoman with an understanding of old-school elegance and an affinity for fashion (the hoards of Louboutin and YSL stilettos, vintage treasures and full-length ball gowns that fill an entire wall of hidden seven-foot closets in the home she shares with her husband left no question about that). Describing her almost cinematic aesthetic as “extreme,” and “not for the faint of heart,” Michelle requires her clothes to “make a statement. A strong statement.” Perhaps this is why she so adores de Souza.
“We’re the perfect couple. And we know that,” she affirmed while posing with her partner in crime. And as the duo played dress-up, finished each other’s sentences and modeled their utterly unique bond in front of the camera, it became quite clear that their creative friendship extends far beyond their lust for extraordinary fashion.
Katharine Zarrella: How did you two meet?
Michelle Harper: It was about six years ago. We met in the basement of the Hotel Chelsea. We were actually fleeing a party across the street…
Victor de Souza: That we both hated!
Michelle: But we clicked immediately. It was like peanut butter and jelly.
Victor: After that night, we knew it was meant to be forever.
Katharine: How did the relationship blossom from there?
Michelle: Well, we went to dinner at Freeman’s a while later. Victor brought some of the work he had done, and I saw a lot of promise in it. I saw the seeds of talent and I knew there was a connection. Then, I had a huge event to go to and my friend Yaz said, “I want you to come dressed better than everyone. You need to blow this out of the water!” So I immediately called Victor and said, ‘I need to wear one of those giant gowns from your Plaza show, and you need to come with me. You need to tell everybody what it is that you’re doing because it’s brilliant!’ When we walked in [to the event] together, the room literally fell silent.
Katharine: What specifically attracted you to Victor’s work?
Michelle: That it’s feminine and modern, and it pays homage to the greatest moments in fashion. I think that Victor has something very special in that he recognizes the best moments of the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s. He understands the moments that transformed fashion. He always remembers classic beauty and then he takes it to the next level.
Victor: For me, it’s completely about making women beautiful, to the max. I want to make the women who wear my clothes feel like the most beautiful girl in the room.
Michelle: We connect not only in what we love historically in fashion. Favorite designers, favorite moments, what we think is nonsense…it’s all totally on par. We connect on a level of extreme quality. I appreciate that Victor will take clothes apart ten times and re-sew them until they’re perfect.
Katharine: So who are some of these designers you both love?
Michelle: Cristóbal Balenciaga!
Victor: That’s our idol. And, of course, Dior and Schiaparelli.
Michelle: You know, the greats, but honestly we’re total Balanciaga whores. We really are.
Katharine: How do people react to you two?
Michelle: It’s always an immediate reaction of, “Who are you? What do you do? What are you wearing? What are you about?” I would say that it’s pretty insane. There’s a lot of intrigue and a lot of questions.
Victor: What bothers me is this ignorance about intelligence and beauty; the thought that these things don’t go together. For me this is ridiculous. So often we get, “Oh, you’re really smart! I would never have guessed!” I always think that that’s pure ignorance. They should go together because…
Michelle: That’s real beauty.
Katharine: Victor, how does Michelle’s personality and aesthetic translate into your designs?
Victor: She is my muse because she’s a real woman. She has all these elements that I’m looking to represent. From her love of fashion to her love for life to her intelligence and spirituality, she’s the full package. And when I have new pieces, I can’t wait, not for the model to wear them in the show, but for Michelle to wear them to a gala because I know she’s really going to bring the clothes to life.
Katharine: And what is her role in your actual design process?
Victor: I have my vision and I start sharing with her. And she comes in…
Michelle: Saying about this, or what about this or this might really inspire you…
Victor: There was one time I really wanted to represent old castles in the clothes, but my collection was very futuristic. Michelle had a dream of these shoes that had tassels out of a castle and they were totally related. It gave me goosebumps; I hadn’t told her about what I was thinking.
Michelle: It’s weird that we both have the exact same vision without even talking. I had a dream about a pair of shoes that were literally sculpted the way that castle walls are sculpted with the same materials. I was like, ‘Oh my God!’ That’s pretty random. Medieval castles? Totally random.
Katharine: Do you ever disagree? Have you ever had a spat?
Michelle: Over, like, a skirt once. Remember the skirt with the buttons in the front? I was like, ‘I don’t like that shape!’ And you were like, “I want that shape!”
Victor: Yes, the doll skirt. But it worked with the show.
Michelle: Yes, it worked!
Victor: But I would not see you in that.
Michelle: No, you’ll never see me wearing it, but it worked in the show. Generally, the disagreeing is good because we get to a place that is actually positive. It’s not disagreeing. It’s more of a conversation.
Katharine: Earlier you mentioned that you love to play dress up. Can you tell me a little about that?
Victor: It’s everything! It’s: ‘What about this? No! No! Yes! Yes! No! Yes! Picture!’
Michelle: We do these photo shoots where we start taking clothes inside out, upside down, draping them this way, that way, the other way… We really get to play, and then we break down into a debacle of silliness.
Victor: Remember we did this completely ridiculous look? We had a big thong?
Michelle: Yes! We push it to levels that are…
Victor: Really wrong!
Michelle: Wrong and ridiculous! Then all of a sudden you see a spark of something that’s really good. Dress up isn’t always just what’s pretty. Sometimes we just get completely demented and, from that, great things come out.
Katharine: Michelle, what are some of your favorite Victor pieces?
Michelle: I have this huge fuchsia amazing custom-made gown by Victor…
Victor: I think I put 108 hours of work into that dress.
Michelle: I wore the dress to an event for a charity that I’m on the board of. It’s the oldest organization for underprivileged Hispanic and Latino children, and their events are always very elegant, super black tie. The dress was so huge that I literally had to get dressed on location. I love Victor’s gowns. There are very few people who send a serious gown—a big serious gown—down the runway. I think Victor is one of the few people who really do it…
Victor: …in a cool way. I think that my big gowns are like horses. I remember the first one you said, “Oh I cannot sit!” And now, it’s like…in the last one she was walking and dancing.
Michelle: I was dancing and jumping all over! You know, the gown is not something everybody can do because your body needs to know how to ride it, like a horse. You’re wearing a structure. I was a dancer for years, so I think that helps me. The fun thing is Victor plays with me and he’s like, “Ok, let’s sit. Now let’s dance.” Then he literally comes and nips a little corner or he tucks here and by the time I go out, it’s perfect. When I think of the great masters and the people whose clothing I wore and wear now, all of them were staunch about quality—neurotic, crazy. If they saw one little thing when the dress was sitting on you and it wasn’t right, you were not going out the door. And it’s not even just the dress. It’s the shoes, it’s the hair… They want to work with you on the whole look, and it’s fun to do it together! I like that collaborative energy because when a designer just wants to throw a dress on you, it’s like, ‘Who am I? Just a doll? A hanger?’ I’m a businesswoman. I’m a creator. I think when you’re a really amazing designer, you collaborate.
Victor: I don’t do clothes. I do looks. I style. I sometimes think about how she smells [when I work on] a collection. It’s very emotional.
Katharine: What do you two do just for kicks?
Michelle: Oh my God, we love movies. We’re total movie-o-philes. And we love looking through books. I just got the new Andree Putman book and I can’t wait to share it with him and see how that translates into clothes. I get really excited—when I see something I love—to share it with Victor. So we have sharing nights., and we have a certain way of eating.
Katharine: A certain way of eating? Please elaborate.
Victor: We Both have the same food allergies.
Michelle: We’re both allergic to wheat and gluten. Neither of us eats sugar. We don’t drink a lot. We don’t smoke. We don’t do drugs. People think that because of that, we don’t like pleasure. But we love pleasure! We love hedonism. It’s just a new way of doing it.
Katharine: What did you think of the shoot today?
Victor: I think you met a part of me that you didn’t know…my man!
Michelle: I know! All of a sudden you got all sassy on me! All man sassy!
Victor: I’m usually shy!
Michelle: Victor’s usually so proper. I’m usually kind of the manly one and he pulled out his manhood today! It was a whole new side! It was fun because we haven’t played in that world together yet.
Victor: You know, when I worked for DOW, I had this fabulous life in Paris and my friends there told me that they were so surprised about me because all the other designers design for themselves as women. But for me, my love for women is so intense that when I was a kid, I didn’t know if I would go one direction or the other! Until I figured out that I wanted to dress women, not dress like a woman. I think that’s the part of me you saw today. Sometimes I’m on the street and I’ll look at a woman and somebody will see me and they’d think, “Oh this guy’s fully straight. He’s totally horny for this girl!”
Michelle: But he’s horny for beauty, not horny for getting in her pants, which is really unique.
Katharine: Do you think you have a common goal that you hope to achieve out of this partnership?
Michelle: World domination. I’m serious. Nothing short of world domination, but world domination with heart.
Michelle: I think legacy is important, but legacy with integrity. As big as we want to build our brands—Victor’s brand, my cosmetics brand, branding ourselves as human beings—I think what’s important to us is doing it with integrity the whole way, being surrounded by other creative people and supporting them and having them support us. The world that we live in is not just for ourselves. Neither of us live that way at all. I think giving back all the time—whether it’s creativity, energy, philanthropy, friendships, collaboration—I think that part of the legacy has to be that we were good people.
Victor: And we want the best for each other. I want her to be her best and she wants the best for me. We want the best for the other person in every sense.
Michelle: We push each other out of our comfort zones, too, though.
Victor: But when you really love somebody, sometimes you’ve got to do the tough love.