In Conversation With:
Jack Harper is shifting the narrative around fashion through his brand AELIZA, not by selling articles of clothing, but by offering a new mindset to people. Aiming to disrupt the typical consumer-producer relationship, AELIZA garments are much more than Harper’s designs brought to life, they are a study of the human on a quest towards freedom and a truthful existence. Exploring the question: “What does it mean to be a free individual?” AELIZA inspires its wearers to reflect on whether the answer to life’s questions can be found in their own existence.

Drawing inspiration from his time working at A COLD WALL*, and past projects with Off-White, and the Design Museum, Harper is carving a space outside of the meticulously calculated realm of streetwear. AELIZA is positioned as a multi-sensory brand, one that is entrenched in experimentation, philosophical questions, and what Harper calls “Ethos- wear”.

Original Shift caught up with AELIZA’s founder Jack Harper to discuss the significance behind the brand’s name, his journey as a multidisciplinary creator, and his future plans to continue bringing AELIZA to life.

Original Shift: What is AELIZA?

Jack Harper: AELIZA is a dialogic study of the autonomous individual. Our mission statement, “What does it mean to be free?” is deliberately a question. Dialogic means that, as a brand, we want to learn from people and we are a mirror of conversation. There’s no definitive approach or declaration on what we believe is right, we don’t know what is right. It’s a massive question. But it’s also sustainable because there are many possible answers and many perspectives, people to engage with to answer the question, which is the crux of it all.

Can you explain the inspiration behind the name of the brand?

ELIZA is the name of a computer that was built by a professor at MIT in the ‘60s, Joseph Weizenbaum, who was disillusioned by the state of Artificial Intelligence. He made ELIZA as kind of a joke, but the computer was programmed after a psychiatrist named Carl Rogers. His method of psychiatry was to repeat everything back in the form of a question. It sounds simple right now, but back then it was a complex set of programming. The first person to test it was Joseph Weizenbaum’s secretary and after three exchanges with the computer, she asked everyone to leave the room. She said it was because she didn’t feel judged, she felt safe, and secure. It's interesting to consider she didn’t feel safe and secure with her boss or colleagues she had worked with for a long time. But to add some context, she was a woman in the ‘60s America. That was a different time. What the computer showed was that we as individuals are only truly comfortable with the individual themselves. The computer acted like a mirror. It didn’t understand anything you said, and although you are aware of that fact, you continue speaking to it because it won’t judge you for who you are, how you dress, or who you want to be. To me, the mirror aspect was intriguing. I liked the dynamic that the computer is trying to reaffirm your thoughts and help you find yourself. All you need then, is you being you. You don’t need an outside opinion, you have to just explore your own mind.

So, could you replace the computer with a fashion project? The irony is fashion is the most judgemental and opinionated industry there is. Can you wear your curiosity and can you wear your questions while avoiding heavy scrutiny? Fashion hasn’t really been tapped into in that way. And if I think about myself, being a white straight male, there is a lot I have to learn and that’s why I’m listening to others. Fashion is my way of exploring the world and learning through the peripherals of others. It’s also a great place for people to participate and collaborate. I’m not the only one in the world who has questions. There is so much to explore and for that reason, it’s exciting to have this concept. That’s why I call it a case study – this isn’t a dissertation, this is the research. One day, a book might come out of it. But that’s the game.

You often use jersey products to communicate your message. What’s the reason behind that?

There’s two sides to that: business and conceptual. It’s the classic thing that Virgil used to say, “It all starts off with a T-shirt.” Which makes sense from an accessibility standpoint as well. I come from a streetwear background, so when I think about creating a suit versus a T-shirt, I don’t want to be focusing on things I know my market isn’t ready for. I have a ‘walk before you run’ mentality and that means making sure every piece is thorough. Everything with jerseys is specifically tailored and high quality. We care about how people feel emotionally.

You worked alongside Samuel Ross for a few years before you started AELIZA. Could you describe that experience?

He’s the hardest working person. I could put Clint beside him. But he’s shown me how much you can achieve in a day. I started with the brand when there were only 6 of us. I was the first full-time designer. I learned that Sam manoeuvres in a multi-faceted format. He got tasks done that were necessary to keep moving, and so job titles were completely irrelevant. He taught me how to be efficient, be quick, and stick by what you’re trying to put out without compromise. I’m very grateful for that experience. He was taught by Virgil, and to have that experience... there’s a lineage to it. You don’t get that level of teaching in the UK. I hope to carry that on in my business and pass it down to the people I bring on.

Did freelance work come easily after working with Samuel Ross?

No. It came terribly, I’ll be honest with you. I ignorantly thought I could get more freelance clients from certain pockets and places, and it just never happened. I still to this day don’t understand why. I think it might be because I’m very interdisciplinary. At A COLD WALL*, I was shooting, I was project managing, and I was travelling to the factories. People have a hard time understanding that one person can have all those attributes when it comes to freelance. I had reached out to a few magazines and it was always the same thing – “Your work is great, but I don’t know what to do with you because you could do this, but also do this, and this,” and the outcome just ends up being nothing. The only freelance work I got was from people who understood the interdisciplinary aspect, such as the shoot I did for Off-White. But that doesn’t come around often. I’m lucky to have done certain pieces of work, but interdisciplinary designers should be getting way more success and opportunities in the freelance space.

I don’t think it’s widely accepted that people can be good at multiple things.

Yeah. I don’t like to be defined by what I do, but rather defined by what I care about. So, if you take AELIZA or the work I did for the Design Museum, or anything prior to that, there is a commonality. You have to think a little bit more to understand it, and that’s why the brand is the way it is. I want people to think more and go beyond face value. If we change our sight and how we perceive things, the world can be a brighter place.

Your latest physical activation was a sensory installation followed by a party. How did you get the idea for the installation?

The idea for the installation came from a conversation I had with my dad. He’s black cab driver and interacts with fairly interesting people. Prior to Covid, he picked up the CEO of Highland Spring. My dad is a chatty person so he told me about the conversation they had. With Highland Spring, all their bottles are 100% recyclable and they use recycled bottles. As a business, they can only take a certain amount of water from their source for it to replenish each year. Essentially, their operations are responsible. But the point the CEO was making was that “People still chuck their water bottles in the bin. There’s nothing we can do as a business to improve consumer behaviour.” That inspired me to think about how to change consumer behaviour. For me, it’s similar to when you watch the best film you’ve ever seen for the first time. It hits you and you see the world differently. I wanted the installation to be a perceptual moment where nothing in front of you changes, but your mind and the way you see something does. The space itself is a sensory experience. You walk in and it’s a beautiful arrangement of lights and it’s completely analog. If that’s not good enough, there’s an extra element. You put on diffraction glasses and everything you see completely transforms. It’s quite overwhelming to the point where it’s similar to viewing something through an Instagram filter then seeing it in real life with your own eyes. The party was the installation itself, because it wouldn’t have been an installation without the participants. What people don’t know is that the installation was a case- study. I needed to document how people respond to the space. I observed that people were respectful, and they felt less insecure because they were having their own individual experience. It didn’t matter what anyone else thought. It abolished the networking aspect.

How do you want to continue engaging with your community in a physical capacity?

I want to introduce a different way of seeing things. It doesn’t always have to be sensory. I want to challenge myself and see how I can get people to interact with things differently, maybe with products. We have a plan to release a journal. I want to explore how people can engage in a space more intimately whilst having a product that requires them to think. The point of the journal is to ask the question “What does it mean to be free?” I want people to think about the answer and write about it in the journal. The same way the computer programme revealed answers without actually revealing anything, I want to inspire that within people as well.

You want to create your own ELIZA.

Yes. Completely analog though. I kind of see this as an emoji, and even with AELIZA’s symbol, it’s universal. No matter what language we speak, we know the difference between the male and female symbol. These symbols help you navigate through a very complicated world. With AELIZA, the main logo is more about the brand itself. I see the symbol as a flag, and it’s the flag of humanity. It’s meant to identify everyone as human beings in a purer sense. I want people to look at the symbol like they’re looking at themselves in the mirror. I’m not in a rush to make anything too complicated either. This isn’t storytelling, this is non-fiction. I want the way the clothes are displayed and the way people shop to have a truth to it. I can’t lie about the space I’m in, and if you show things with honesty, you can get people to ask a few more questions.

What other mediums would you like to use to develop this narrative?

I am massively influenced by musicians like Brian Eno and Burial. Music isn’t to be articulated logically, it's to be felt. I can sit there and look at the world differently when I listen to this music, and I want the brand to embody that sensory feeling. On one of our tags we have a QR code, but it doesn’t say ‘scan me’. For those that scan the code, they’ll be taken to a music playlist so they can experience the brand in as many senses as possible. It’s to create a feeling for when you’re wearing our hoodie because I want people to go even deeper with the products. My business partner, Nosa is a DJ and he helps support that experiential part of fashion.

From a product stand-point, I know I wouldn’t like to go into jewellery. I’d rather focus on the piece of self. Things like homeware and bedding, the products we use every day. The most overvalued thing is the unattainable, and I’d like to bring an appreciation for the everyday object to the game.

Those are the things that connect us as people, and my objective is to reconnect with the things we take for granted.

What is the end goal for AELIZA?

I don’t like to look too far ahead because the journey in between can become bleak. I don’t have a definitive answer, but that’s the point of this pursuit as a whole. Our target market is curious individuals between the ages of 18-30. It’s people who thrive for more than what’s in front of them. I want to promote curious, critical thinking because what I’m selling is a mentality. That’s where my ‘Ethos-wear’ term comes from because having a mentality is synonymous amongst class and gender, and I don’t even want to build a community, I want to bring different individuals together who can be accepted for who they are.

Sometimes the newest thing isn’t always the best. It’s upgrading and refining the existing things in the world. To be a sustainable brand in the impact sense, you don’t have to sell a physical product for something to resonate. Our captions and descriptions are written well before the product. There’s so much thought before its actualisation. Right now, we don’t have a massive following but the people that do follow us want to buy into the complete brand. I want to see for myself if I can create a brand I’ve always wanted to exist, without exploiting the individual. I don’t want to dilute the potency of the concept.