Catching up with Chris Habana
The in-demand jewelry designer on the evolution of his brand, the custom looks he’s created for music superstars, and where he finds inspiration in the East Village.
There’s no stopping CHRISHABANA, the head-turning jewelry brand, as seen on every major music star who happens to have great taste (and a great stylist), from Madonna and FKA Twigs to Bad Bunny and Megan Thee Stallion. Beloved for its unapologetically bold aesthetic influenced by punk, goth, and tribal iconography, the ever-buzzy brand was launched by designer Chris Habana in 2008, where he created his accessories from his Alphabet City apartment. A magnet for downtown artists, club kids, and fearless-in-the-fashion-department types from the get-go, the brand’s “big break” arrived in 2014, largely thanks to Instagram follower @badgalriri aka Rihanna. The famous fan liked a pearl septum cuff that she spotted on Habana’s Instagram account, and she ended up wearing it in a punked-out Paolo Roversi-shot i-D magazine editorial. Suddenly, everyone wanted a piece of CHRISHABANA.
Fast forward to today, and the designer’s subversive namesake brand is more popular than ever. (And the septum cuffs continue to be one of their best sellers.) As of late, Habana is many a music superstar’s go-to designer for dreaming up psychotically memorable looks, with wearers of his striking custom designs including Nicki Minaj, Doja Cat, and Xtina. The Manila-born designer’s custom pieces have appeared in music videos, on the Met Gala red carpet (Diddy, SZA, Grimes), and on stages around the world. But not just any stage–Queen Bey’s! Beyoncé could be seen rocking a sexy cyborg number by Habana (in collaboration with latex design house Venus Prototype) in the Renaissance Tour’s video interludes and throughout the tour book. Meanwhile, Bella Hadid recently donned another sexy cyborg Habana creation for HEAVEN’s Fall 23 campaign. In other words, someone please greenlight an Ex Machina sequel where Habana is the costume designer ASAP.
Over the years, he’s collaborated with several big names in the fashion world, from Prabal Gurung to LaQuan Smith, and his pieces have appeared on the glossy pages of countless fashion magazines. And though the brand has clearly gone global, it has maintained that rebellious Below 14th Street spirit–chill out in Tompkins Square Park long enough and you just might spot a CHRISHABANA thorny choker-clad club kid strutting by.
We recently met up with the creative, who still lives in the same East Village apartment building where it all began for his now in-demand brand, though he now works out of a studio with his team in Chinatown. Habana discussed his career’s trajectory, the iconic looks he’s created for iconic stars, and where he hangs and finds inspiration in the East Village.
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How would you describe CHRISHABANA? What kind of individual wears your pieces?
Chris Habana: We always say that we take the lines that thread goth and punk iconography and tow them to the future. Our pieces are meant for outcasts who think differently than the status quo and are for creatures who want to project a more aggressive version of themselves in the future.
Tell me a bit about your journey with CHRISHABANA, from launching it in 2008 to where it is today. Are you surprised about how it’s evolved?
CH: Wow! It’s been a long journey. Well, I actually had more of a clothing brand prior to 2008, but after dabbling in a bit of jewelry from 06-07, I came to the conclusion that jewelry and accessories were the best way for me to express my ideas so I started CHRISHABANA as a jewelry brand. For years, we not only wholesaled to shops and sold to our e-comm customers, but we also collaborated with various fashion houses such as Opening Ceremony, Prabal Gurung, and Gypsy Sport. What’s been so surprising to me is that as the years have progressed, and especially during Covid, the brand has grown exponentially in large part due to our custom work with music and visual artists worldwide. It all happened gradually but it became one of those things where I turned around and poof… we were costumers.
Who were some of the first musicians you created custom looks for?
CH: Our first custom job for a music artist was Nicki Minaj and the “Ganja Burn” video, where we created a gold-plated brass bikini set for her and stylist B. Åkerlund. We then started working with Brett Alan Nelson who styles Doja Cat, and at the beginning of our working relationship, we created pieces for Doja Cat and did a lot for her ‘Planet Her’ album and music videos/tour. I don’t know how it happened, but more stylists kept requesting custom pieces and we became the brand that, apart from realizing punk and robot-inspired pieces, also could create more complex and lofty ideas. As much as this has its challenges, I love exploring and gaining new techniques in crafting. At this point, we are a one-stop shop creative studio, creating full clothing pieces as well as jewelry/accessories and eyewear, either from our own house line or custom work. So we always say bring it on!
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Countless pop stars have worn your pieces. Can you choose any favorites and walk us through the looks?
CH: For Paris Couture Week a couple of seasons ago, we were approached by Brett Alan Nelson to create a Patron bottle holder for Doja to tote around Paris. We 3D printed an oversized glove bag that literally held the bottle that she could put her hand into. We then encrusted the bag in pearls and even added custom-painted long nails to give the bag more of an edge. It was so cute!!!
For Beyoncé’s Renaissance tour that just ended, we were commissioned by the team to create a robot suit in conjunction with Venus Prototype X who made a latex catsuit base. We designed and 3D-printed robot parts that we affixed to the suit and connected them with wires, tubes, and LED ball lights. I ended up flying to LA to finish off the look and worked on set with it. I didn’t even know that Beyoncé was going to be submerged in water! That made it extra special for me.
Chris Horan who styles Xtina asked us to create looks for her recent Gay Pride performance. This was extra special because I had never been tasked to create fashion pieces out of the rainbow flag. The end result was a fully crystallized catsuit that we worked with Kerin Rose Gold to execute, creating ombre heat sensor patterns in rainbow colors. What I felt was extra special, however, was how we integrated animated lighting to the coat that chased in fine tiny points. We also created eyewear that had these elements in it as well. It all looked intergalactic and queer–what a special look for us.
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You’ve lived in Alphabet City since 2008. What’s your go-to restaurant in the East Village? What’s a must-order?
CH: Well, I never go out anymore BUT I love Pylos in the EV. It’s Greek–taramosalata and the moussaka are a must!
Do you have a favorite local coffee shop?
CH: I know I’m in the minority but I don’t drink coffee actually. Now a good bagel spot? Tompkins Square Bagels on any day except the weekend when it’s overrun by all the NYU kids and millennials.
Favorite East Village bar?
CH: Since my whole East Village life centers around Tompkins Square Park, I like having a nice chill drink at Dream Baby on Avenue B. The times I’ve gone there it’s been cool to hang and catch up with friends.
Any cool EV shops?
What would your ideal day-to-night look like in New York?
CH: Oh wow, well, I feel like a nice, easy morning in Alphabet City, followed by a bike ride to my studio in Chinatown, and maybe a long walk back, passing through the LES and popping into shops and galleries that look cool. And no day would be complete without people watching at Tompkins Square Park.
What is your favorite album that reminds you of the New York you love?
CH: PJ Harvey ‘Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea.’
What do you do when you’re feeling uninspired?
CH: These days I really like to clear my head by either stopping into the community gardens that surround my apartment or lighting a joint and chilling out at Tompkins. It’s a great way for me to decompress, watch cool NYC kids walk by (especially if there is a punk festival happening), and get re-energized to design again!
What’s next for CHRISHABANA?
CH: There’s so much opportunity out there! I’m really excited about where the brand is headed, so stay tuned. What I will say is that I am so ready to release my “IT” accessories for the CHRISHABANA brand. I hope to have these released in 2024. You all will just have to wait till it comes out!
WORDS: Alex Catarinella