Mia San Agustin is firm in saying that she is merely one half of a whole: Her work in the homegrown brand Harlan + Holden is always in partnership with the brand’s president and founder, Eman Pineda. Between them, they share responsibilities on matters of design, marketing, merchandising, and communications; a system that Mia believes makes the brand thrive. Mia joined the brand just a year after it launched (she had previously worked as a PR and communications specialist for luxury brands such as Gucci and Stella McCartney), and her mark is inarguably present. With Harlan + Holden’s distinct brand identity—one that completely eschews trends and sticks to a specific aesthetic—it is clear that Mia is a huge part of that success, and all else that is soon to come.
I learned that you studied fashion in Milan. In what ways did your fashion education influence your work at Harlan + Holden?
"There was a lot of theory, but throughout the course we had speakers from the top management posts of Gucci, Prada, Ferragamo, Cartier, Ermenegildo Zegna and the like. We were also invited to see their factories and offices and we were assigned field projects in these companies.
"I’d have to say my exposure to these companies and having worked for them has given me a hands-on and practical approach in how I conduct business today. You need to be strategic and plan a year in advance, but you need to be constantly listening to change, to what your clients and frontliners are saying. We also learned about the power of the Brand—businesses are built around colors, logos, one specific product, a store design—and everything you do needs to build on that. Don’t waiver. And be true to your brand."
When you took on the job, what would say were the brand’s first challenges, and how were they overcome?
"The aesthetic of Harlan + Holden is very clear in people’s minds—relaxed, fuss-free and minimal; using light and breathable fabrics. However, I did not feel that people understood the reasoning for thisaesthetic. I felt the first challenge was to communicate what the brand stood for, which was to allow people to save precious, limited time in making decisions of what to wear, without ever sacrificing style."
"We had to explain why the clothes were created this way, and what Harlan + Holden could deliver to its clients through the clothes [it sells]. We wanted our clients to feel comfortable yet confident, to have a low-maintenance wardrobe where we delivered on ease: ease in wear, care and bear.
"So we took our “tried and tested” pieces and developed our core line, which we called BC, which historically stands for “before Christ.” We chose this name because we wanted to communicate basics, before everything got so complicated, so before mobile phones, before Google, before the colors oatmeal, marsala and sage, before Botox… We used that basic framework to put together a permanent collection of 15 pieces to compose your wardrobe. We associated Harlan + Holden with a uniform approach to dressing, to being your go-to choice when you want to buy key pieces that are not seasonal, not fashion-forward, but investment pieces that you can wear over and over without tiring of it, and without being high-maintenance."
Is the Philippine market conducive for local brands to thrive?
"It is a very competitive market so it is not easy for any brand in general to succeed. When I relocated to the Philippines two years ago, I was in shock at the number of random foreign brands that were entering the market, but simultaneously, I have not seen so much pride in wearing and supporting Philippine brands. So I believe it all boils down to this: A good brand is a good brand, local or foreign. We are all competing for retail space, share of voice, and that Instagram moment in the digital hemisphere. So for me, the brands that will succeed in the long run are those that stay credible and continue to offer quality."
Harlan + Holden is known for its relaxed, comfortable fit as well as its specific color palette. How does the Harlan + Holden team keep the looks fresh in each collection?
"That’s a very interesting question. My background is high fashion where the designers are always finding inspiration from a period or a place or a music album… and in so many ways, that’s so fun, exciting and conducive to creativity. At Harlan + Holden, the approach is the opposite. We are very disciplined in the development process because we don’t follow trends, we don’t do prints; we can’t just take inspiration from an artist or movie. We work within such a narrow framework. On the onset, it is very challenging to keep the looks fresh, but we are driven by the idea of ease—we need to make sure our clothes can be worn over and over, that they can be easily mixed and matched, that it is a go-to for travel and packing, that it does not require dry-cleaning, nor prone to creases. So our starting point are these 'lifestyle guidelines' and we develop each piece with the aim to answer the criteria listed above."
Who is the Harlan + Holden woman? Is she beholden to fashion?
"The Harlan + Holden woman appreciates fashion and has a keen sense of style. She may shop for the latest trends from time to time, but on a daily basis, she wants to simplify her wardrobe choices. The difference is that her approach to dressing is low-maintenance. Our woman is on the go and has many decisions in the day to make—she turns to Harlan + Holden to relieve her of what she needs to wear to look and feel comfortable and stylish throughout her busy day. We had understood that travel was a significant part in the lives of Harlan + Holden women, so we wanted to make sure we made clothes that did not require dry-cleaning or did not crease easily.
Because time is our woman’s ultimate luxury, the aim of Harlan + Holden is to save her precious minutes every day. We call it our '10-Minute Mission'—that if our client can spend those 10 minutes saved from choosing what they wear or caring for their clothes on reading the paper, playing with their child or going on Instagram, then we have fulfilled our mission for the day."
What advice would you give a young person trying to make it in the retail business here? What should they be prepared for?
"I believe in niche products. The world is becoming more and more specialized and I think there is a market for anything and everything, but you need to find an edge and know how to market it. The one piece of advice I would give someone who would want to enter retail or fashion is the same advice I would give to my own child—that you find your niche and you speak the language of your target market. Do not try to please everyone, as there is no such thing."
*This article was originally published in the February 2016 issue of Preview Magazine.