Q & A with Gary Harris

Q & A with Gary Harris

A Conversation with Cat & Nat and Jaimie Reading Q & A with Gary Harris 8 minutes

A Conversation with Gary Harris

This month, we sat down with an exceptional man for the June edition of our Comfort Series!  Meet Gary Harris - father of This Is J’s founder, Jaimie Harris.

Gary grew up surrounded by textiles in his family’s business: Harris Men's Wear. His father, Lou ran the store alongside his grandfather, Nathan and so Gary was immersed in textiles, tailoring and style from an early age alongside the men in his family. Meanwhile, his love of art and creativity was inherently from and fostered by, his mother, Anne Harris - a famous sculptor who travelled around the world showing her art with her children by her side.  Although Gary chose a different career path as an accomplished lawyer, he continues to nurture his love of textiles through his carefully curated style choices and his love of art by collecting unique pieces and unexpected collections.

In this month’s Comfort Series, we chat with Gary (father of 3 and grandfather of 8) about: the history behind his family business and how it inspired This Is J’s menswear line HARRIS; how creativity has infused his family life for generations; and what his father and grandfather would think about the Harris Men’s Wear logo’s second act. 

We’re so excited to bring you our conversation with Gary Harris.

Cat & Nat Line BreakIn the 1950's, a store on the main street in a small town would have been considered an extremely important part of the community. What do you remember most about growing up in your family store and what lessons did you learn from your father and grandfather along the way?

Everyone in town knew our family and the store as it had been around since the 1920s. I would walk there most days after school and would help my dad with whatever was needed. As I got older, I would work in the store over holidays and summer break. Hard work and education are very important and family always comes first.

It sounds like there is a lot of creativity in your family that has been passed down through the generations. Can you tell us a bit about where that creativity comes from?

My father’s creativity was evident in the very unusual displays he created in the store and especially in the store windows to attract customers. The real creativity came from my mother, Anne Harris. As a child she used to paint and collect scraps from her father’s junk yard and turn them into art. She started sculpting in her 40s as a form of therapy while undergoing treatment for breast cancer. She created a career as a sculptor and became internationally known.

What was a favourite family tradition growing up?

My mother’s brothers lived in Florida and we used to spend extended periods of time there with all my cousins, aunts and uncles. I would stay with my family on Alton Rd. near South Beach, Miami and we’d spend time on the beach and hanging out in all the art deco hotels.

What made you decide to pass on the Harris family corporation to your daughter, Jaimie?

I was watching Jaimie's business grow and couldn't help but think of how proud of her my dad would have been. I imagined that if he were still with us, he would have loved helping out with the design, fabric choices, and even the bookkeeping. I gave her the Harris logo and company for her to have if she ever wanted to do anything with it. I know that having it was a big inspiration for expanding This is J into men's products.

Harris Men's Wear
The original Harris Men's Wear Store in Tillsonburg, ON, circa 1945

There is also a connection between your mom and the This is J origin story, can you tell us a bit about that?

Jaimie's first big show selling her products in 2003 was the One of a Kind Show in Toronto. That was also a show my mother, Anne Harris, sold her sculptures at almost 30 years prior. My mother got such a thrill out of seeing Jaimie design and create. Their creative processes of turning nothing into something are so similar. They were cut from the same cloth of people who can find inspiration anywhere, even the most unexpected places.

If we look up Anne Harris, can we see any of her work now?

She has a sculpture in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in New York, a sculpture in Windsor that stands 11.5m high, 2 pieces in the Prime Minister's residence at 24 Sussex Drive, as well as in La Citadel. Her sculptures can be found in Toronto outside Sunnybrook, North York General, and Baycrest Hospitals, and in museums in China and Japan.

We've heard Jaimie talk about how your creativity played a role in her childhood from out-of-the-box family portraits to unexpected commissions from local artists. Tell us about it.

I used to commission artists I knew to do interesting family portraits. Hand-painted black & white photographs and oil painted portraits of my girls' faces done on metal. My love of art and Canadian artists fostered personal relationships with art dealers and local artists which lead to creating interesting pieces together.

Can you tell us any key moments from Jaimie's upbringing where you knew she was heading down a creative path?

When she was in her teens, she'd collect things on her walk home from school - such as discarded window panes, interesting metal scraps, and pieces of wood and then turn them into pieces of art. She loved to scour antique markets for interesting finds and was always making something out of nothing. Our house is filled with hand-painted plates, mosaic trays, random window panes, and all sorts of treasures that we're still waiting for her to come pick up LOL. A key moment from adulthood was when she graduated from university and her mom and I wanted to commemorate the occasion with a watch or a piece of jewelry that she could have forever. She thanked us, but point blank said she'd rather have a piece of art from our collection instead.

Harris Loungewear

Harris Loungewear x This is J, circa 2021

Well now we have to know, what was the piece of art?

It was a large photograph from Canadian Photographer, Edward Burtynsky's Shipbreaking series.

What is it like to see the Harris Men's Wear logo in its second act?

It's thrilling. Not only because it's my father's legacy carried on, but because of the quality and craftsmanship Jaimie and her team put into every piece. I'm so lucky I get first dibs on all the new collections.

Speaking of, what are your favourite Harris Loungewear pieces and why?

The long sleeve shirts and lounge shorts are my favourite combination. They are what I sleep in and lounge around the house in. I have them in every colour and pattern. The t-shirt and pajama pant in black or navy are my other staple pieces - I wear those out of the house all of the time. If you throw a sporty vest over, you've got a pulled-together casual look that my dad would have approved of.

Why do you think Harris Loungewear resonates so well with customers?

The brand is so much more than just the products. Yes, the fabric is exceptional and milled in Canada. Yes, the fit and feel is amazing. No, you'll never want to take them off once you put them on. But all that really comes together with the thought, care, and craftsmanship put into the products and brand. Canadian-made for over 20 years, ethically produced by employing people in the community, connection with customers, and brand authenticity. I couldn't be more proud of Jaimie, This is J, and having the Harris brand legacy carried on. I know my mom and dad are looking down and smiling.

Lastly, and since it was Father's Day this month, what is your favourite memory of being a dad?

I would say the quality time spent together. We made it a priority to let our kids experience life alongside us. From exploring new parts of the city to attending gallery openings; trying new restaurants and memorable family trips. My greatest accomplishment is the relationship my adult children have together - as best friends, raising their kids together with the same bonds.