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It comes as no surprise that Chris Habana, the founder of his namesake label CHRISHABANA, has built an impressive list of clientele, from Beyoncé to Melanie Martinez to Cardi B, and now Christina Aguilera, or Xtina as the real fans call her. His sci-fi meets beauty and horror approach has been culturally all-consuming way before American Horror Story hit screens and seems more relevant than ever as nostalgia remains prominent in the culture.
In her recent Pride Island performance, Xtina sported the brand in looks that could have come directly from cult classics like Aeon Flux or Blade Runner. “We have a forward approach, so I wanted a sense of futurism,” Habana tells Rolling Stone, initially referencing lights that cascaded down the front and back of a patent leather trench. Underneath the jacket, a cheeky approach to pride colors fastened to a bodysuit that used “over 30,000 Swarovski crystals in a fluid pattern,” Habana details, mimicking body heat. It was the perfect pairing of great minds: Xtina, whose history in costume wear stems back before her “Lady Marmalade” days, and Habana, whose work has recently saturated the music industry with his twisted take on fantasy.
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In a recent interview, Rolling Stone peeks behind the veil to understand how beauty and horror remain everpresent in Habana’s world, what it takes to develop a fashion brand synonymous with the music industry, and how Xtina’s looks went from sketch to the stage.
Let’s talk about the beginning. You’ve been designing for quite a long time; how did you get your start?
Totally. First, know I’m a dinosaur. I was born in the Philippines and lived there until I was 12, then immigrated to the US, and now I’m 49. So I’ve been at this thing for a while, and I’ve always been interested in design, whether drawing figures with my brother when I was a kid or getting into fashion in high school.
And where does your vision stem from? Your work treads this line of beauty and horror, almost like a Guillermo del Toro or Tim Burton film.
I always have a subversive eye to any approach. Whenever someone wants a piece, I think of skirting the rails as much as possible without stepping away too much from the brief. Ideally, I never want the viewer to feel like something was easy to produce.
Apart from that, I’m inspired by horror, fantasy, and sci-fi. As a kid, I was a Dungeons & Dragons head, and I still pull on those references during the process. Whenever something gets more whimsical, I try to twist it and put it on its head. Regarding my design process, it’s very much me seeing a brief and thinking of my own interpretation.
I also draw a lot of inspiration from the Nineties and 2000s, which seem to have some sort of cultural zeitgeist now. That all culminates into what I put out. I submit sketches, then try to realize them in the best way possible. I’m not formally trained. My team and I experiment a lot. There’s some research happening, but it is us just starting to make things and praying that it works out well. I’m an explorer.
An explorer is an excellent way to frame your work because the brand constantly shifts. Yet, at its core, you still focus a lot on metalwork. Teyana Taylor recently wore a breastplate you made for LaQuan Smith, and the jeweled halo SZA wore to the MET Gala in 2018 was just featured at the Kensington Palace Museum. Did you know the brand would eventually shift to this when you first began?
Well, I started with fabric because I was very much into clothing and had a not-so-official line in the early 2000s. But I decided I wasn’t interested in fit and everything regarding ready-to-wear. I also didn’t know how to maneuver in that space or how you sold to stores. I really honed in on just jewelry in 2008, and that’s where CHRISHABANA officially started.
We had been operating as a jewelry company for a while, selling to shops and such, and only a few stylists would ask me to do custom pieces. The first artist I worked with was Nicki Minaj for her Wrld Tour. We had done a full-on metal breastplate and panties. Admittedly, it wasn’t the best, as we had created the look very much like a jewelry piece, unable to stand the wear and tear on stage, but she still loved it; from there, more stylists asked if I could make something custom for them.
And Brett Alan Nelson, who you worked with for Melanie Martinez’s Portals cover, was one of them?
One of the first ones, yes. He had started by asking me to do a cigarette holder for Lizzo, which turned into a couple more things for Karol G. When Doja Cat started doing the Planet Her cycle, we started working together full force. Eventually, all those accessories turned into Brett asking, “Well, can you do clothing too?” I’m a yes-man, so I said, ‘Sure, why not?’ Soon accessories started becoming complete looks.
At this point, we do it all. I still draw everything back to the jewelry brand as much as possible, but many of these custom pieces have taken us into other disciplines and realms. We’re getting into lighting looks now. We got into silicone pouring and casting for a while, which really excited me. So I guess that’s how it’s evolved in a not-so-short or not-so-long answer.
How do you build something like what you’ve done sustainably? It seems daunting when you’re at the mercy of the artist, and now the brand is everywhere!
Honestly, I am the last person to realize how big we’ve gotten. I usually keep my head down and try to make the looks, considering what will be most intriguing and forward for the artist and culture. Then I get reminders from my team saying, “This music artist is really big. You know that this is a big thing?” It’s nice because it brings me back to appreciating everything we do. As it’s happening, though, you’re just kind of churning the shit out. You know what I mean?
I do hear that a lot. One day, you wake up realizing, ‘I have a history of really profound work.’
For sure. I think so much about the present. First and foremost, this is a business. You want something done? Let’s figure it out. Here’s what it is, here’s the price, and then you do it and move on to the next one. It’s only in those moments of accolades that you find yourself reflecting.
Now you have this roster of prominent names; Beyoncé, Melanie Martinez, Lizzo, Grimes, Cardi B, and Xtina.
Every time we get contacted by a new client, I’m used to the stylists doing the groundwork of seeking out the brand. But, it’s been a pleasant surprise to hear that some artists are requesting to work with us directly and intentionally put their trust in me and the team to share a vision of how we see them in whatever project they are working on.
Was that the case with Xtina? Or was this the brand’s first time working with her?
Actually, we have been working with Xtina throughout the years! It started in 2019 when she was performing at Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin Eve program, and we created a set of silver-taloned gloves and customized a pair of our sunglasses for her winter wonderland-themed look. Then we created some custom bodices and harnesses when she made her big comeback with the La Fuerza EP, following accessories we made for her Ladyland performance in 2021. That was when we truly started getting involved with crafting more detailed, conceptual pieces for her consistently. With Chris Horan as her current stylist, we have enjoyed creating a mix of looks and accessories, like this recently debuted 2023 Pride performance.
What were some of the inspirations behind her recent Pride getup? It had a futuristic aura and reminded me specifically of Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner, but much more queer— the Eighties-style raver glasses, the patent leather jacket, etc.
I’m glad you picked up on that! You’re definitely on the right track. I take so much inspiration from classic sci-fi visuals like Blade Runner whenever I imagine a design, whether it be a style for CHRISHABANA collections or a custom look.
When Chris Horan prompted us to reinterpret the rainbow pride flag, I thought about how we could reintroduce such an iconic symbol in an intriguing and unfamiliar way. As always, we have a forward approach, so I wanted a sense of futurism in interpreting the rainbow. This led to the idea of making it into a trench coat and moving light show where the colors chased and glowed around Xtina’s body. We extended this concept to two eyewear pieces where one custom piece had a grid of LED lights and the other, a customized pair of Inuit-style sunglasses that we embellished with Swarovski crystals in a rainbow pattern. I was also so happy to team up with my good friend Kerin-Rose Gold of A-Morir Studios, who crystallized the hell out of a two-piece catsuit with over 30,000 Swarovski crystals in a fluid pattern inspired by body heat maps.
You’re often integrating motion and lighting into your works, which not many designers are doing yet. We saw it in your work for Beyoncé’s Renaissance tour, and now we’re seeing it here. Get into detail about incorporating tech into these looks.
Most of our commissioned looks in the past few years were specifically for performers on stage or in music videos. This taught me to imagine our designs existing within that frame. Keeping that in mind, I fell in love with things like light and motion that can make a statement without adding too much impracticality to an outfit.
For the light-up visor, we custom cut and drilled holes into a face shield and filled each one with battery-operated LED spheres in a rainbow pattern that created an illuminated grid. Because of the limited power supply, the lights had to be turned on right before Xtina hit the stage to last for the performance. We also worked with an LED company to customize the chasing lights for the trench coat and sewed them onto strips of coated linen that were top-applied to the jacket. I wanted to avoid the lights giving a “Christmas tree” effect, so we layered the strips on top of the lights, then cut slashes into the strips so that the moving lights were revealed in thin slivers. It ultimately helped achieve a more space-age illusion of the jacket glowing and flashing from the inside out.
What’s it like creating performance wear rather than traditional ready-to-wear? It seems like your team thrives in this space, but unlike ready-to-wear, you’re constantly tailoring your designs to the artist. What are the challenges you face on commissions like this?
There are always positives and negatives either way. When it comes to performance wear, you consider the artist and client more, but you also get to explore other ways of creating things, thus expanding your skill set. Regarding ready-to-wear, you can push your aesthetic to the fullest, but you’re also limited to creating a formulaic “story” that limits your skills. Since I’ve been accustomed to both, I try and mesh both approaches so that we infuse our own ideas on the performance/client space, and when we do our own collections, I try and dream as much as possible, not limit my team’s skill set when producing them. As much as we thrive in the performance space, I’m lucky that the artists we work with see our perspective and want CHRISHABANA to design in a way that is true to our identity.
Your business has grown immensely, and we previously talked about knowing how big you are when you take a step back. Now that you’re on this trajectory and in the music scene, where do you think the brand is going, both from a visual and a growth standpoint?
From a growth standpoint, I’m so glad that I can pay my people here regularly. That might not seem like a stepping stone, but it’s a big step when you can maintain a studio of the size that we have. Right before Covid, we were sharing the space with two other people. Now I look back, and I can’t believe we have this. So in terms of growth going forward with the actual business, I can see us becoming a house, and it already feels like it’s starting to happen.
Visually, jewelry and accessories are where my pure vision shines; I always want to express that. However, this costume space has been a new and exciting thing for us. As you said, we’re very much into the music scene, and fashion seems to be something that will always be in that. I mean, it would be so thrilling for us to move into more art and film where maybe we’re costuming an entire sci-fi movie or something. Those are things that I could see in our future quite clearly. With the roster of clientele that we have now, both in fashion and music, everything is possible at this point.
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