When Carmen Harlan’s TV career ended, a new one began in fashion. She tells SEEN about her new Carmen Harlan Collection.
By Stephanie Steinberg
Photography by Justin Milhouse
After 20 years as Detroit’s beloved TV anchor on Channel 4, Carmen Harlan signed off for the final time in 2016, wrapping up a career covering Detroit auto shows, America’s Thanksgiving Parade and big stories like Pope John II and Nelson Mandela’s visit to Detroit.
While she may have stopped covering breaking news, her work ethic hasn’t slowed down.
“I thought I was retired. I’m anything but,” she laughs, her hair whipping during a recent windy day on Belle Isle, where Harlan recalls happy summers swimming at the beach with her kids and enjoys walking her dog.
The 64-year-old Detroit resident launched her first clothing line called The Carmen Harlan Collection last spring. The collection features high-end blouses made in New York City and named after famous Detroit places or fashion icons. There’s the Coco (for Coco Chanel), The Michelle (for Michelle Obama) and The Woodward (no need to explain that one).
“Detroit has been home for me,” says Harlan, adding that her co-founder and daughter Jessica Hall was born here. “She lives outside of Cincinnati, but she knows my attachment to the city and how much it means to me.”
The clothing line that includes $325-$590 blouses and blazers features fabrics imported from Italy. Harlan partnered with fashion designer Ping Pong Khoom Wan of Maison Khoomwan to design her collection — an idea she’s harbored even while at WDIV-TV Channel 4.
“I had a sample of the blouse in my office just to get an idea of what women in the newsroom thought of it. I think they liked it, but it wasn’t until they actually saw it — I invited many of them to the launch — they’re like, ‘Oh, my god Carmen! This is really great!’ ”
Her inspiration traces back to the early days of her 40-year career, when she was a young mom and didn’t want to think about what to wear when not on camera. Harlan says she had a “go-to blouse.”
“I kept that blouse for as long as I could, and I wore it through every decade,” she says, letting out her familiar, friendly laugh. “What we did was we resurrected the blouse and found some fabulous fabrics to cast it in, and this is the collection.”
Hall, a 35-year-old with three boys under 9, shows off a tangerine blouse with a bow she designed with her mother. Though she enjoys fashion, she says the collection was all her mother’s idea.
“Everything we do, we do it ourselves, and that is what I feel makes this collection so important. We are all there touching it, feeling it, seeing how it will look on the plates before we even put anything into production,” she says. “We try to style each blouse as its own entity so that each blouse has a story. That’s where we got our names from.”
“It’s an opportunity for me to express a creative side,” Harlan adds, “and also to give back.”
For her April launch event at The Factory in Corktown, she donated 10 percent of sales to Alternatives for Girls, a Detroit nonprofit she’s supported for years. All pieces are sold only at carmenharlancollection.com, but Harlan says she’s hoping to expand to stores.
The new collection out this fall includes French-inspired names focused on earth, land and sea. The blouses feature the signature pleats in front and back — a look that flatters women who wear sizes from extra small to extra large.
“We’re making it more modern, but it will still remain the original style: classic and chic,” says Khoom Wan in a call from New York, adding they’re introducing ribbons, patterns and stripes like the beachy Soleil d’or blouse Harlan is modeling above.
The 36-year-old Manhattan resident works with emerging designers in the fashion industry, and Harlan says it was “divine order” that they met.
“If you don’t have connections, or prior reputation in the industry, people are like, ‘Who is that?’ ” Harlan says. “But she was like, ‘Oh, no I would love to meet her!’ and I think she did her homework, so when I did get a chance to meet face to face, she knew I was from Detroit and I was probably more serious than not.”
Khoom Wan says “it’s like a dream” working with Harlan.
“She’s very easy to work with, and she’s a joyful woman,” Khoom Wan says. “She has a beautiful attitude, and she’s very calm and she knows exactly what she wants.”
The theme of the collection is “bring on the fun” — a tagline stitched on the care label — “because once you put the blouse on,” Harlan says, “it just makes you want to enjoy your life, enjoy yourself and enjoy the moment.”
The clothing label also includes words you don’t typically see on designer apparel: “Detroit — New York.”
“We should probably put Cincinnati on there too,” Harlan says, smiling at Hall who’s been the force behind the lookbook, social media (Harlan jokes she’s “learning” how to Instagram) and everything in between.
“I couldn’t have done it without my daughter,” Harlan says. “She is probably the smartest, most talented woman I know.”