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Stylist Kemal Harris on diversity in red-carpet fashion and dressing the stars

Kemal Harris dresses several actresses, including House of Cards star Robin Wright and singer Idina Menzel.

For the past few years, the Academy Awards have been dogged by #OscarsSoWhite, a hashtag campaign highlighting the less than diverse composition of who gets to dole out – and win – the prestigious awards. This year might be better, but even if Moonlight, Viola Davis and Pharrell all take home statues, there's still work to be done behind the scenes.

Supporting any successful red carpet moment is a phalanx of stylists who make sure the stars shine, but the world of celebrity dressing can be equally as homogenous as the roll call of nominees. There are outliers, of course, such as Tofino, B.C.'s Kemal Harris, who just earned her second nomination from the Costume Designer Guild for her work dressing Robin Wright as powerhouse Claire Underwood on Netflix's House of Cards. Her other clients, who she styles with her creative partner Karla Welch, include Sarah Paulson, who in January won a Golden Globe for The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, and Ruth Negga, who stars in the film Loving and is nominated for a best actress Oscar.

Harris is also one of a very few Indigenous stylists, especially at this superstar level. The Globe and Mail chatted with her by phone from New York, where she is in the midst of another hectic awards season.

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What's your day to day right now?

I'm mostly a red carpet stylist and then I'm also the costume designer for Claire Underwood on House of Cards. That shoots in Baltimore but we hold all the fittings with Robin Wright here in New York. It's almost like having two full-time jobs. Getting clients ready for their movie premieres and awards season, when Fashion Week's coming up or someone's going to an art opening, making sure everyone's got their outfits for these events. Then reading the updated scripts for the show and talking with the directors, working with our tailor, refitting pieces on Robin.

I work with the singer Idina Menzel; she's in L.A. this week and we need to lock down outfits for her so we'll do that as a Skype fitting. Then I'll go to an appointment – a lot of designers are in New York right now. I meet them in person, meet them in the showroom and really look at the clothes. A lot of bouncing around.

For a Skype fitting, are you holding up the clothes and she's saying yes or no?

It's definitely a new thing. Often with their schedules, they're flying all over the world. So we prepare outfits, make notes on each piece: This is for Good Morning America, this is for the red carpet, et cetera. If we're lucky, we've got a trusted assistant in whatever city the fitting's happening. I've got a wonderful assistant who's going to [Menzel's] house and she'll unpack everything and they'll just start trying stuff on. I'm on the other end livestreaming the fitting saying, "Oh, I had the black pants in mind for that outfit," and we'll talk. The first time I was like, "Oh, this is so strange," but technology – you get used it.

What is your ethnicity?

My mom is native, she's from Shuswap nation in Kamloops. Now they call it Secwepemc. My dad, his father came over from England, he's Welsh. We didn't grow up on the reservation, we grew up in the Tofino area on Vancouver Island. We're very removed from that culture.

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Have you met any other Indigenous people in your field?

There's some great designers on the west coast. There's a woman who does a collection called B. Yellowtail, she's been doing really nice stuff. There's another designer, Loren Aragon, a young guy who is in the New Mexico-Arizona area and he's doing a lot of interesting graphic prints based on old Poblano pottery, transferring those patterns onto dresses. They're really beautiful.

I worked last year with a Vancouver actress, Grace Dove. She was in the movie The Revenant, so we dressed her for the premiere. She's actually also Shuswap, which is wild. We connected over social media so I was like, "Let me know when you need a dress!"

Are there certain ways that you think the fashion industry could be more inclusive or diverse?

There's been a lot of talk of cultural appropriation and you see it on the runways all the time. I think people want to branch out to include aspects of other cultures. You look at tribal beading from Africa – it's so stunning and beautiful, who wouldn't want to wear a little bit of that on a dress or on a strap of something?

I totally understand how it can become confusing. You want to have that inspiration, you want to include it, you want to branch out, you want to study different cultures – and everybody should – but you need to interpret it your own way. Don't blatantly rip off a design. It's a little bit of a struggle for me, too.

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It's so interesting being Canadian and being in the States. Race is a huge issue, yet it shouldn't be an issue at all. We like to think that the world could just be like an episode of Star Trek – every single person has a different shade of skin, they're all from a different planet or galaxy, and they're all like, "Hey, how's it going?" I wish we could have that utopia…but at the same time we're so far from that, especially in America. I want to push my identity, but then should I even have to do that? Same like the battle of the sexes. Do we have to say the greatest women filmmakers? Can we just say the greatest filmmakers?

You said sometimes when you tell people about your ethnicity they can be condescending.

Absolutely. But in the sweetest way if that makes sense. "Native Americans are so cool, they're so great." It's so patronizing but done in the sweetest way. I have to just kind of laugh. Or they'll be like, just really shocked. "Oh my god, someone who comes from that background [is] doing red carpets. How is that possible?"

So, House of Cards. Claire has become more powerful on the show, and the political situation in the States is so strange right now. Are either of those things coming through in the styling?

I started [working on the show] in Season 3, when she enters the White House in the role of First Lady. We definitely elevated her clothes and had her approach her wardrobe from a little more of a power position. Bolder colours.

Now, Season 5 is going to be so interesting. She's really coming into her own. The wardrobe is always going to be classic Claire, there's no doubt about that. We are definitely seeing more pants, which we sort of started to do in Season 4. Up until that point Claire was never wearing pants.

People are always asking me about Hillary's pantsuits and the power of the pantsuit. That kind of goes back to my Star Trek analogy or race: Does it really matter if they're wearing pants or not? Why can't she just wear pants, why does it have to be the Hillary pantsuit? There is symbolism behind it. I just wish there wasn't. It doesn't mean, "Oh my god, she's a woman trying to be a man, wearing pants." She's a woman getting the job done.

Awards season must be tricky; a real flurry of fittings and all that.

Awards season is usually a giant fight over gowns. It really is. All the stylists are in the boxing ring. "Give me that gown!" A lot of designers understand now that there's only so many gowns they can put down the runway. So once those four gowns have been worn, there's still eight more awards shows, so a lot of them do customized pieces now.

Either I reach out to them and I say, "I think this actress would be a great match for you" or they reach out to me and say, "We love so-and-so, we know that you work with her. Can we send you some sketches? Can we send you some fabric swatches?" It's definitely the ideal route because then you're getting something that's custom made. It's their vision, a fresh creative twist on what you've seen the designers do. And you can guarantee that no one else is going to show up to the party in the same dress.

Does that become your fault?

That's a stylist's worst nightmare. Red carpet faux pas number one.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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About the Author
Journalist and editor

Denise Balkissoon is an editor in the Globe’s Life section and a columnist in Comment. The National Magazine Award-winning writer is also a co-founder of The Ethnic Aisle, a blog about race and ethnicity in the Greater Toronto Area. More

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