A Conversation with Highland

Highland FW13 Lookbook

After discovering Highland online last year, I have been tracking the development of the New York based men’s label. I always give alot of credence to any brand who takes risks with their fashion week shows and the one Highland put on last NYFW was one of the most memorable I’ve ever attended.  The presentation was delivered in a room with sururban wallpaper backdrops on one side and on the other: anteractive stoner basement set (complete with Doritos, a N64, bongs and a PBR pyramid). 

I visited Cramer Tolboe (Co-founder of Highland) and Lizzie Owens (Head Designer and co-founder) in their Brooklyn studios to have a conversation on the origins of the brand, the trails and tribulations along the way and where Highland is going next. 

Read the full feature after the jump

 Lizzie Owens and Cramer Tolboe

How did Highland start, how did the two of you meet?

Cramer: We’re cousins, we grew up together. I took a job in LA after college on the sales side of the fashion business. Lizzie went to school for fashion design at RISD. We entered the workforce in fashion at about the same time, me in LA and Lizzie in NYC.

Lizzie: We grew up together and we were at the stage of our lives where we went off and started working. We both went into fashion. As kids that were never something we knew we were going to do but we both fell into it.

Cramer: Pretty soon after working for other people, we were both like this is whack. The pressure and being under someone else’s thing. I distinctly remember a conversation; let’s learn the business as much as we can under these big guys and eventually do our own thing.

We had talked about doing our own thing awhile back, four years passed and Lizzie came out to LA. We were sitting in my apartment and we said remember that thing we planned on doing? We were all in southern California and we decided to start a menswear brand. Mike (our other partner) and I had sales experience so we couldn’t really do a womenswear line. Lizzie was down because she was costume designing for bands like MGMT and familiar with styling boys.

Lizzie: I like the confinement of menswear, there’s only so many elements you can work with. Thanks to Mike and Cramer and our timing. We had been working for these big guys and had taken some time off , enough time that we knew we wanted to do something. We were all at the exact same point, at the exact same time and place.

That’s how you know you should though.

Cramer: I think the naivety certainly plays a role. You have no idea how much work it’s gonna be, how much pressure you’re gonna be under to make it go. You kind of need to be naive to be that.

Lizzie: If you build it they will come is kinda the idea I guess.

Highland FW13 Lookbook

Was Highland the original concept or you just knew you wanted to do a men’s line?

Cramer: We went to LA and went to some of the more progressive independent boutiques.  We found ourselves at Fred Segal No disrespect to what they were doing but then it was all sort of this one note tailored stuff. If we’re gonna do something it should resonate authentically.

We just found between sportswear and a love for gear –  stuff inspired by Patagonia and North Face. We found inspiration in our upbringing and how our parents lived, . All the stuff we grew up around, no one was taking this from a fashion perspective.

Were these the clothes you were wearing when you were younger?

Lizzie: There’s always an element of that yeah. It’s like I can’t even avoid designing from my past. The things that stick out to you and things you’re inspired by, always come from deep in your psyche. It feels really west coast to us but it has threads of NYC which you can’t avoid when you live here. I’ve lived here for almost nine years. It took us a minute to find a balance with the brand. I have a lot of fashion in me that’s in my background so it’s finding a balance between that and making wearable wearing recognizable stuff with a new edge. It’s always gonna feel very American and very nostalgic.

Highland SS13

How did you put all the branding and the name together.              

Cramer: I remember being pushed by Lizzie ‘we have to come up with a name.’

You had the concept first?

Lizzie: It all kind of happened at once.

Cramer: Our first season was Fall 2010, so we did all this conceptualization in Fall of 2009. It all came together over a two month period. Highland is loosely referencing this street called Highland drive. I had some romantic notion of her dad driving down it in the 50’s. High land is also a play on words. It represents a blanket state of mind.

The stoner element?

Lizzie: There’s that haha.

Cramer: It’s broad enough that it can represent a lot.

Lizzie: Right at the beginning we were looking at this Ralph Lauren book and it was all about lifestyle and branding.

Cramer: Our first season was a pretty full collection. It’s direction was very clear and  very outerwear based.

Are there clear roles you each play in the company?

Cramer: It’ s pretty clear now.

Lizzie, I agree, we do help each other a lot.

Cramer: As soon as you have more than one thing going at once, you just have to divide and conquer.  She’s in the mode of incubating the ideas for Spring/Summer 2014. She’s left alone to go as far as far and wide as she wants to go. I have to worry about producing Fall/Winter 2013, and we’re also running a business.Now that we’re year three, four into this, we can go into our directions because we know what we are doing.

I wasn’t sure where to place Highland when I first saw it, but I thought it was interesting how the brand was presented from the graphic design to the lookbook shot in places like a grocery store.


Highland SS13

Lizzie: There’s a bit of a lineage from Spring 2012 which was all about getting back to the suburbs and exploring that part that we were missing in New York and seeping out of every crevice. The suburbs, we need to be there. It was just about being bored in the surburbs and innocent fun. You don’t have everything at your fingertips and you just have to get creative. It might be as simple as some shopping carts and an empty parking lot. It’s just that moment of your youth.

The next collection after that was supposed to be the next summer and how the highland guy has a summer job now.  They don’t get to fuck around, they actually have to work these dismal made-up jobs.

Highland NYFW Presentation

How did the stoner collection presentation come together? I thought it was such a fun, creative show to go to.  Drinking a free beer and seeing a bunch of dudes hang out in a surburban basement set… that was entertaining.

Lizzie : It goes back to what we idealize. It was a time in my life that I glorify.

Cramer: It continued to hone this character. This ‘Highland’ guy, different phases and different things.

Lizzie:  This was just for us and our people to have a really great party and celebrate highland. The only real criticism was none of the important editors got to see it because there was such a riot there. There’s more pressure now for the shows to be a bit more traditional to cater to these editors but also be a great party for your friends. It’s the balance of getting the benefits of formal press.  

Cramer: Was it a specific moment?

Lizzie :It’s coming from a similar space.

Cramer.  Its this time when you are pretty free. An aspiration aspect of Highland is freedom. It’s not necessary luxury or anything.  It’s about being open and free. Those guys in a weed then, it’s a good state of mind. How would you not recall that fondly? I don’t think NYFW needs any more people taking it too seriously.

What do you want to achieve with Highland moving forward?

Lizzie: Not much more than what we got to now. Just getting better at things. I would like to have another show and have it be something that noone can step to. Something that the editors will be able to experience, I don’t care if they like it or not but they saw it.I just want to keep developing and supporting and being able to do what we want to do.

Cramer: I just want to keep developing. Keep being able to do exactly what we want to do. Just keep putting out stuff that’s hard to catergoize that comes from an honest place and people like. Even if we grow and change, we don’t want any restrictions put on us.

For more on Highland visit their official website.