Mateo's Matthew Harris talks love for Jamaica, unity in fashion
Montego Bay’s Matthew Harris has made it big in the world of jewellery and fashion design with his lauded brand Mateo, but he hasn’t for a second forgotten where he’s coming from.
“I had a great childhood,” says Harris of growing up in the Second City. The Cornwall College alum also credits his mother Carmel Harris, a seamstress, for “turning water into wine” to ensure he had everything he needed to grow into the man he is today.
Working from bed at his home in Houston, he’s reminiscent of a chocolate seraph encircled by clouds as he’s surrounded by fluffy white pillows and enveloped in a pristine comforter.
He’s been up since 4 a.m.: it’s when he does most of his sketching, meditates, does yoga, and gets inspired. And while he’s been in the jewellery business for 14 years, Harris tells me his foray into the craft happened somewhat spontaneously. “I literally stumbled upon jewellery making. I did not set out to be a jewellery designer. This happened organically.”
After high school, he moved to the United States to pursue a degree in hotel management at New Hampshire State University. Thinking back, he utters, “I grew up with two entrepreneurs. My mom and my dad; and naturally for me I never wanted to work for anyone.”
Focused on figuring out his passion and turning it into something tangible, jewellery design proved to be the nucleus for his ascension. Noting that quality jewellery has always been important to his family, in the past he simply wasn’t gravitating to what was on the market. So he decided to create chic elevated jewellery that suited his taste and style. “It started as a need to make jewellery for myself,” he says.
The first piece of jewellery he made was a zipper necklace, which ended up being worn by none other than Bajan pop star Rihanna. It went viral and changed the course of his life forever.
“I realised I was quite good at it and developed my own point of view in making jewellery,” Harris says humbly. “I just wanted and still want to make really great fine personal jewellery that people can wear.”
Mateo is now sold in some of the best stores worldwide. He gets his inspiration from many things… New York, his mother, and Salvador Dali among them. But one thing is always constant in the Mateo aesthetic – simplicity. “It’s always coming back to simplicity. That is a massive part of the ethos of the brand,” says the 37-year-old whose personal style comprises mostly muted tones.
Certainly, Mateo made a name for itself through jewellery, but the brand's handbags are also coveted. Named after regal women, Elizabeth (the former Queen), Catherine, Diana, etc, I ask what’s the rationale behind this and he says with a smile, “I try not to take myself too seriously so I make fun of these things in a very nostalgic way.”
For many different reasons, a high percentage of Jamaicans who accomplish major feats off the island sometimes never return, but Harris makes it a point to come “home” as often as he can and tries to be accessible. “I speak to as many people that I can [when in Jamaica] and let them know that their wildest dreams are possible,” he says.
Asked about his recent trip to Jamaica, his face lights up. “I always love going home.” He then informs me as his pearly white teeth glisten that he will be spending more time on The Rock, as he’s building a house in the Montego Bay environs.
Has Harris arrived? When asked if he considers himself a success story, he has a hard time answering. “I don’t like the concept of success. I think it is an external validation that people give, and I don’t think I am successful at all. I think I am constantly pushing for more…and not in a greedy way. But I want to leave a legacy. So have I ever sat down and said, ‘I am successful’, no, for me I’m always thinking what’s next and what barriers can I break.”
He’s always been a dreamer. “I’ve always been thinking big for a very long time. I have dreamt up quite a few things and they have happened.”
Other than skill his advice to people in fashion is to “be nice.” Being a pleasant person and being his authentic self have helped him to rise the ranks in the jewellery world. “Just be nice 'cause you never know, ” he says. Explaining that many of his accounts have been solidified by people simply saying, ‘Oh, you should meet Mateo, he’s so down to earth'. “I have just been nice to people because it costs me nothing,” he adds.
He then expresses his concern that locally he finds many don’t follow this credo. The politics, competition, and crab-in-a-barrel mentality in his estimation reeks, and is holding the country back. “Why can’t we all get along and really build and develop something concrete in the country in terms of fashion?” He answers,“Because behind the scenes, everyone is fighting each other.” Mic drop!
The future generation of Jamaica is important to Harris and in closing, he is clear that a major part of his purpose is to inspire. Representation matters and if he can do it, others can too.“ I want young people to dream and believe that they can accomplish whatever they set their minds to.”
Editor's Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Matthew Harris as Matthew Harrison. We regret the error.