Wafiyyah Packer: Designing clothing and a better society

Wafiyyah Packer: Designing clothing and a better society

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If you look up “can-do spirit” in an encyclopedia, you’ll probably find a picture of this week’s profile. Wait, that’s making me sound old. Let me rephrase: If you google “fixer,” you might just find a picture of Wafiyyah Packer. Even as a new mother, Packer makes time to jump into multiple projects, usually behind the scenes. And like James Bond, she always gets the job done.

PGN: So, I just learned you’re from Buffalo, N.Y.

WP: Yes, can you smell it? I feel like I smell wind-torn and a little lake-shoreish.

PGN: I’ve only been to Rochester. Is it similar?

WP: A little, but I don’t think Buffalo weathered the changes to the economy as well. It used to be a steel town but when the jobs left, the drug culture came in. Where Rochester built up its arts community and brought in corporations with money, we stagnated. It’s a shame because Buffalo had a huge music community — singers and musicians everywhere. Some of the best artists and session workers all came from our area back in the day.

PGN: The Nashville of the Northeast?

WP: Yes, in some ways. But it’s all changed now. I grew up in a nice house; it was a two-family house that my father converted into one. Even before he converted it, it was pretty spacious. My aunt lived in one side until she died and we merged houses. I’d get to hang out with her watching soap operas and drinking coffee; don’t tell anyone about that! It was a beautiful place to grow up and I have a dream of going back some time and buying a whole block to restore it back to what it once was. Sadly, once the industry went away, it seemed to change overnight. It went from being clean and pristine to wartorn in the blink of an eye. There was a woman across the street who got addicted to heroin and she’d literally run out of the house naked or with the needle still stuck in her arm. It was horrible!

PGN: What was your upbringing like?

WP: It was interesting. I grew up practicing Islam but went to a Catholic school, which was confusing. I’d get up in the morning and make Salah and then have to attend Mass; what do you do with that? And then with other family members, do they celebrate holidays, do we give gifts? It was perplexing.

PGN: What was your favorite class in school?

WP: Can I do different phases? When I was very young, I was really intrigued by religion. Since there were so many different religions practiced in my immediate and extended family, I really wanted to figure out what was going on. Was this person right, was that person? Then in about fifth grade I was heavily into science. You know what, I hadn’t thought about it until now, but it was probably because with so many contrasting thoughts from the various faiths, I was drawn to science and math because it was something with definitive answers. Something solid and quantifiable.

PGN: Tell me about a family member.

WP: My dad was a real renaissance man; he went to school at the University of Buffalo for engineering. He was very intelligent, the type of guy to always figure things out. Just the fact that he was a member of the Islamic religion and yet sent his kids to Catholic school shows he was never one to conform to societal norms. To him, the Catholic schools had the best education and that trumped everything.

PGN: What brought you to Philadelphia?

WP: As I mentioned, I was into the sciences. I went to Hutchinson Central Technical High School and excelled at physics. I got a full scholarship offer from VMI and Virginia Tech through the ROTC program but I did the math and my very young brain realized that I would be committing to six years with service. I knew I was ready to get out there on my own and start being my own adult so, when I was offered money to go to University of Pittsburgh, I took it. From there, I met a lot of people from Philly. I bought my first Roots CD and I was hooked. I really liked the music scene here. My dad was also a drummer and a bassist so I’ve always had music around me. I planned to move here and went to a job fair at the Convention Center. I thought Philly was my destiny, but I got offered a job in Connecticut!

PGN: What was the job?

WP: I was working in the research department at General Dynamics. I worked in the electric-volt department, which was their nuclear submarine and power division. I worked on things like propulsion technology, which was fine at first. I was in R&D and one of the things we worked on was a heart pump. Then 9/11 happened and people would hang up posters at work saying “Bombs over Baghdad” and I’d be like, “You do realize that Baghdad had nothing to do with 9/11, right?” It started to get to me because it was so wrong. I didn’t want to work on a project that had the potential to be used on a device that would be able to create mass destruction on a big level. No thank you. So I left and came back to Philly.

PGN: And now what do you do?

WP: I’d call myself a creative director. I do a little of everything, from coordinating events to doing graphics for fliers, fashion, consulting, social media, whatever it takes to make an event or job successful. I was raised to be helpful. I like to help make things grow for other people. “What are you working on? Oh, let me help you!” I had the luxury of time and the means to volunteer for a lot. I never worried about getting credit. I just like being a part of things.

PGN: I’ve personally witnessed that!

WP: Ha. Yes, it just comes naturally. Now I have a baby, so it’ll change, but not too much. We had a photo shoot recently and I just strapped the baby on and carried on! It’s funny, someone on the set asked what my title was and another person shouted, “It’s Waf! She’s Waf! That’s all the title she needs!”

PGN: You’re the fixer.

WP: [Laughs] Are you saying I’m like [“Scandal”’s Olivia] Pope? I’ll take it!

PGN: Tell me about Urban Karma.

WP: It’s a fashion and lifestyle brand I’m working on. I believe in karma. I’m going to give you something and I may never see you again, but somewhere in my life that good energy is going to flow back to me. Any deeds, for better or for worse, do not go unrecognized. So our line is all about unity and sharing, giving … even taking! All the things that are part of our life. My friends joke and say I’m “Hood to the Hill,” meaning that I can get down with folks in what used to be called BlackBottom to being able to fit in on Capitol Hill if needed. And I’m always myself wherever I go.

PGN: That’s pretty Olivia Pope-ish.

WP: Ha, yes. And our clothing is designed for everyone: men, women, non-binary people. We worked hard to make sure we have clothing that is flexibly gendered. For instance, we might have a traditionally “men’s”-style top, but it’s cut for a woman’s arms. And we teach about styling so if a guy likes a shirt that’s considered “feminine,” we can show them how to tuck it in and wear a belt, or roll the sleeves so it suits you. Our clothes are very versatile. It reflects me because I can come off uber-feminine on one day and out-stud the best of them the next. I never felt like I had to pick a certain role or label. I just am who I am. I think my dad unconsciously instilled some of that in me. He used to be a bit of a misogynist until I was born. My aunt says I made him into a feminist because once I came along he was like, “My daughter can do anything and be anything she wants!” He might not have been pro-women, but he was pro-Wafiyyah. He never let me feel like I couldn’t do anything. I worked alongside him when he was doing construction. He used to joke that I was his oldest son, though I don’t think my brothers cared for that too much!

PGN: That’s cool.

WP: Our launch is on Father’s Day because I feel a little paternal. Though I am and identify as a woman, my partner was the biological mother for our baby so I’m on the equivalent of paternity leave.

PGN: Congratulations on the baby and your marriage to the lovely Dr. Sheena Johnson.

WP: Thank you. It’s so odd to be married. It wasn’t something either of us was concerned with but when the baby came into the picture we realized that we needed to safeguard ourselves legally, especially in Pennsylvania, where we don’t have statewide protection. If something happened to Sheena today, would someone be able to take him away? Even with the marriage and adoption, it’s still an uncomfortable position, especially with the current political climate.

PGN: When the baby came into the picture? [Laughs] Was this a shotgun wedding?

WP: [Laughs] No! We’re lesbians so there was a lot of planning involved. None of this was a surprise. But she was pregnant when we got married so it was a little under the chin.

PGN: Let’s talk about your other baby, Levitate Philly.

WP: Levitate Philly was a Philadelphia art and music collective for women. At the time there weren’t a lot of venues for artists, and the ones that were around had their own people and if you weren’t in those circles you didn’t get shown. I’d just gotten fired from my job for insubordination, which was the best thing that could have happened to me. I met Macy Soloman, who became a good friend and we collaborated to create Levitate Philly. It became a spot for female artists to present their work in all sorts of mediums, from fine art to music to body painting, you name it. It was pretty amazing. Then I got a new job, which took up a lot of my time and I wasn’t able to give Levitate the kind of love I could before. I didn’t want to short-change it so we kind of wrapped it up.

PGN: That sounds amazing.

WP: Yeah, I’m getting a lot of people asking us to start it up again. Women are thirsty for a place to congregate. We have Toasted Walnut now, which is great, but we need a place that’s not a bar to be able to meet people, to make eye contact and have a conversation. So we may have to do a reboot this summer.

PGN: I understand that you recently experienced some unexpected homophobia.

WP: Oh geez, yeah. For the most part, my family and friends have been wonderfully accepting but a recent incident made me wonder about if it’s acceptance or just avoidance of the topic, especially since it was someone who has been around Sheena and me for a while. They’ve been around and welcomed past partners and friends so it came from left field when they went on a rant after we had the baby saying things like, “You need a man now.” This is a person whose kids have stayed with me and been around my friends, and there was no objection before. Part of me was like, “You’re mad at something else so this is how you choose to hurt me,” and the other side was like, “Now that I have a baby I can’t even let a little bit of that energy seep into my baby’s world.” I came out officially to my parents on my 30th birthday. It was my gift to myself. It was one of those things where everyone knew — they loved my girlfriend and would stay with us — but I wanted it to be official. It was after I saw the documentary “Edie and Thea.” I wanted the words said out loud so that there would never be a time when anyone could say, “What? We never knew, we just thought she was your roommate!”

PGN: Great film.

WP: Yes, being young and gay, you had few examples of how it looks to be an older gay couple: what happens with aging and marriage and what happens to assets, etc. So I felt compelled to make it clear to everyone. But even at my wedding reception, I felt that there were a couple of people who were a little surprised to see us becoming a family. I mean they love me and all showed up for me, but it was a little uncomfortable for them. [Laughs] And I was a little like, “Hey, we’re following your rules. Getting married for the sake of the child! What more do you want?”

PGN: True. Now for the random questions … Which animal language do you wish you could speak?

WP: Cat, so I could communicate with my cat, Mya, and dolphin, because they’re so intelligent.

PGN: “Star Trek” or “Star Wars”?

WP: “Star Trek!” I am such a Trekkie. I had a friend once who said, “Do you realize that you figure out a way to bring ‘Star Trek’ into almost every conversation!”

PGN: Deanna Troi or Seven of Nine?

WP: Troi! All the way! Sorry, I yelled again. Seven of Nine is awesome but you have to give it up for the brunette. She’s an empath, so I wouldn’t have to say anything, she’d just know how I felt. Oh, yeah.

PGN: Where can people find Urban Karma?

WP: We’re having a launch party at 7 p.m. June 18 at the Reading Terminal. There will be a fun fashion show for everyone.

For more information about Urban Karma’s launch party, visit https://www.eventbrite.com/e/amazulu-collections-presents-urban-karma-a-fashion-showcase-tickets-34462887424.

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