Conrad Booker: Using artistic innovation to rejuvenate the runway

Conrad Booker: Using artistic innovation to rejuvenate the runway

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“Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening.”

— Coco Chanel

And this week, fashion is also in Philadelphia.

Attention, all you style mavens! Philly Fashion week is upon us and gets a great start Sept. 18 at Dilworth Plaza, with a showcase of new fall collections from 16 past and present designers of The Philadelphia Fashion Incubator. This must-see and be-seen event features amazing designers such as Gabrielle Mandel, Milan Harris, Sara Keel and this week’s Portrait, Conrad Booker.

Booker hails from upstate New York but has called Philly his home since attending Temple, where he was awarded the university’s Outstanding Thesis Award in Architecture. After exploring a career as an architect, Booker decided to focus his attention on his artistic side and quickly gained a reputation (in addition to numerous awards) for his innovative style and design in various modes. His handbags, shoes, clothing, decorative pillows, frames and murals have been featured in Architectural Digest, Interior Design and Southern Living, and can be found throughout the city. Booker is known for his strong use of architectural forms, bold colors and mixing luxurious materials like leather and fur with unconventional ones like door hinges and bike chains for pieces that are both forward-thinking and timeless.

PGN: You’re from Buffalo. What was your worst cold-weather experience?

CB: The blizzard of ’77. It was phenomenal. But the thing about Buffalo is that you regularly went to sleep without a drop of snow on the ground only to wake up to 5 feet of snow and be expected to go to school. The snow trucks would clean everything up with no problem and life went on. The first time I saw snow in Philadelphia, there was a dusting and people were leaving work early. I was like, Are you kidding?

 

PGN: What’s a favorite family tradition?

CB: Every Christmas and Thanksgiving, my mother would always cook dinner though I’m always in charge of the cranberry relish. [Laughs] Now she just cooks Thanksgiving dinner, cuts it in half and puts half in the freezer until Christmas.                                                                                                                                                          

PGN: That’s brilliant! You’re an architect. Were you inspired by your Lego set?

CB: No, it was actually “The Brady Bunch.” The dad, Mike, was an architect and I wanted to be like him. So when I was 10, I asked my parents to give me a drafting set. And that’s how I got into it!

 

PGN: That’s great!

CB: My guidance counselor thought I should do interior design but I felt that architecture would allow me to do far more, so I applied to Messiah College in Grantham, Pa. They were somehow affiliated with Temple and after two years I switched and graduated Temple with a degree in architecture. I got a job with a firm in Malvern that did a lot of mid- and high-rise buildings for companies like Rouse and Liberty Properties Trust. We did buildings like the Comcast Center and Liberty Place.

 

PGN: So are there buildings you can walk by and say, “I made that!”

CB: Yes, I designed two buildings right across from the stadiums on 95. Every time I go by them I say to myself, I did those buildings and they still look great!

 

PGN: That must be a great feeling!

CB: Yes, you put a lot of your effort and soul into it. Most people walk by buildings every day and have no idea where they came from. But it’s still a great feeling of accomplishment and pride.

 

PGN: How did you transition into what you do now?

CB: When I worked at Cathers & Associates it was the beginning of the ’90s and a lot of the architectural work dried up. I got laid off and decided to start doing architectural renderings but in a whole year I got hired to do one. So I then decided to offer the design and interior services I was doing at Cathers as a freelance service. I always liked doing upholstery; I enjoyed making pillows and sewing, so I wanted to see if that would catch on. Then I got a call from Cathers asking if I would come back. I said only if I could do it as a freelance designer and they went for it. I was there for 13 years and they made me the creative director of architecture, interiors and landscape departments.

 

PGN: When did you start your collections?

CB: I had two friends with businesses on Fourth Street; one is a hair salon called Follicle and the other a shoe store called Bus Stop Boutique. Bus Stop needed handbags for a special event and Follicle needed clothing for photo shoots, and they both knew I could do pretty much anything when it comes to design so I started creating things for them in 2012. I didn’t have much money at the time so I went to Lowe’s to find interesting materials to sculpt the clothes out of. And that’s how I got started in the fashion end of design. I’ve really embraced … not necessarily sustainable, but materials that people walk by every day and don’t notice. We use so much plastic and other inexpensive materials that I wanted to elevate them to more of a couture status.

 

PGN: Cool, my mother is a Dumpster diver, so I am familiar with found materials used for art. In fact, there was a Kmart that went out of business in New Jersey and I bought up a lot of their Plexiglas display boxes for her, the things with all the slats that pop forward for displaying makeup, etc.

CB: Oh my God, I love all that stuff! I get excited walking into Lowe’s, perusing the aisles and developing my own language of things that I use based on materials I find there.

 

PGN: You describe your work as wearable works of art. What’s the most functional but outrageous piece you’ve made?

CB: My bags of course, and I’ve also done headpieces and veils, but everything I make is wearable. I’ve made a bodice out of wooden skewers, I’ve done a full-length gown out of paper cord that you use for pillows and in my last collection I made a two-piece suit out of vinyl wood flooring.    

 

PGN: You do such amazing work. There’s one I’m looking at now with a huge headpiece that Patti LaBelle would be proud to wear.

CB: Is it a gold outfit? With an umbrella on the head? That was a Chanel-inspired suit with the framework made out of umbrellas.

 

PGN: No, this one is all black and it looks like the top part is all skewers painted black and strategically placed around the chest.                                                                                      

CB: Oh yes, that piece went to L.A. for the BET Awards two years ago. No wait, I think the one you’re speaking about was in the Macy’s window for Fashion Week.

 

PGN: I read a quote from you saying, “When I hear that something can’t be done, it challenges me.” What’s something you did that they said couldn’t be done?

CB: The skewer dresses. I was told it wouldn’t work but I did it and that piece went to L.A., it went to New York. It’s a great piece. And just in general, people always question my bags and accessories: Are they really wearable? Are they really comfortable and usable? Yes, they are. It’s my way of providing myself with a challenge. I’m always looking for new and interesting materials. There’s so much wonderful stuff around us but sometimes it seems like no one is paying attention but you.

 

PGN: Do mannequins have a special meaning for you? I see them a lot in your displays.

CB: Yes, I like them because they can express the mood that I’m trying to create. In fact, I’m in the process of creating mannequins that are going to be more realistic and flexible than usual. I’ll be able to give them the emotion that fits the work.

 

PGN: I also felt that they gave your displays a human touch even though they were dummies. There was a Flower Show display with legs and a torso coming through a set of stairs as well as a photo I saw with your bags on display being held up by mannequin arms. It felt like a personal touch but without having to have a human standing there for hours holding a bag.

CB: Exactly, and a lot of those decisions were originally because of budget, just not having the funds to have the luxury of a live model or expensive display units. So I came up with my own vocabulary to find things that enhanced and expressed my work and my products. In the end it worked because it forced me to step out of the box. And it’s neat because the original pieces and settings then allow photographers to get creative too when documenting something they haven’t seen before. I keep that in mind whenever I send something down the runway. How do I make this exciting for everyone, especially the photographers and people who have been to thousands of these shows? How do I inspire them to be creative when they go to take a picture? There are a lot of different layers to it.

 

PGN: You’ve been here since the late ’70s. How has fashion elevated in Philly? We certainly haven’t always been the most fashion-forward city.

CB: I don’t know about that, I think there were a lot of great stores around back in the ’80s; John Wanamaker’s was the big cheese but there was also Nan Duskin, Strawbridge & Clothier and Dorothy Lerner’s interior-design center had incredible window displays, which changed every month. She was probably the one who influenced me the most. I remember standing outside the windows and wondering who lived in incredible spaces like that. It was breathtaking. We still have amazing window displays, but I think a lot of them have lost that dream quality. So many people order things online that the brick and mortar stores don’t get the attention they once did.

 

PGN: How did a gay fashion designer end up with a bunch of Jokers from South Philly?

CB: [Laughs] They don’t know I’m gay! I’m kidding. It was a strange connection. I used to teach upholstery at some adult community centers and I would get my materials at a shop in Fishtown. One day the owner called me and said, “There’s a Mummers group that needs an artist to paint murals for their ‘Show of Shows’ backdrop, would you be interested?” I said sure and I’ve been working with the Jokers Fancy Brigade for eight years now. I really enjoy it.

 

PGN: With Fashion Week here, what things are you looking forward to?

CB: I look forward to seeing the innovation and watching the designers develop their own identifiable language — not all just cute skirts and dresses but new creations. Philadelphia has a lot of ingenuity that can’t be outsourced and Fashion Week is all about showcasing it. The Philadelphia Fashion Incubator does an amazing job of helping designers reach their potential. I love seeing designers who are asking the questions [about] where we are as a society in terms of our economy, our environment. What is our way of life going to be 10 years from now? Thirty years? Are we pushing to the next level of what fashion can be? Those individuals who pursue that are the ones I’m looking forward to seeing.

 

PGN: Name a Philly designer who’s working it.

CB: I’m always excited to see Milano Di Rouge, she’s an innovator and the hardest-working designer in Philadelphia today. She has a store on Spring Garden.

 

PGN: And you’ll be presenting again this year.

CB: Yes, I’ll have a different take on presenting my collection of bags this year and, of course, I’ll be continuing to showcase the concept of art within my work.

 

PGN: Switching back, how was it growing up in Buffalo as a gay youngster?

CB: I didn’t come out until I came to Philadelphia and had a sense of independence, when I was able to develop my own persona instead of the person that everyone wanted me to be.

 

PGN: Do you think the family had an inkling?

CB: Oh God, yes! I think a big giveaway was when I crocheted a pink tank top for my G.I. Joe. I was always called certain names, but you know what? All of that made me who I am today. It’s who God made me, perfect as I am, whether other people feel the same or not.

 

PGN: Tell me about your partner.

CB: We met 25 years ago when we both worked at the same architecture firm. He doesn’t do fashion though. He works for a company that does wall systems and high-end furniture and fabrics, more on the corporate side.

 

PGN: Favorite fashioned-themed film?

CB: “The Devil Wears Prada.” I love that film.

 

PGN: Were you a crafty kid?

CB: No, my brother was much more skilled at art than me; I was always the dreamer. I was always in trouble in school for daydreaming, but I soon taught myself how to do things. If I saw something I wanted, I figured out how to replicate it. I remember Cher’s TV show. She had this stage that rolled out and I was determined to make a whole set just like hers, so I took my toys and took them apart and created a platform that I could turn on and have move just like hers. Whatever I wanted to do, I’d find books or TV programs that would teach me how to do it. I always loved the pursuit of learning; I still do.

 

PGN: It sounds like you were not just creatively talented but also mechanically.

CB: I think that’s where the architect side came in.

 

PGN: What did your parents do?

CB: My mother worked in HR at a hospital but she also loved to knit and sew, and my dad worked at Bethlehem Steel before he passed away at 49, but he was very hands-on, intuitive and creative. He was into cooking and building. He could pick up a tool and know what to do with it. My grandfather was a mason, so there are creative genes on both sides.

 

PGN: What’s the most gratifying part of your work?

CB: That fact I get to create. It seems simple but it’s like no other feeling in the world — to push my own boundaries every day and take the things that I imagine and make them a reality. To have the ability and knowledge to make my own things, which not all designers can do. I’m truly blessed.

 

For more information about Conrad Booker, visit www.conradbooker.com. For more information about Fashion Week, visit https://www.phillyfashionweek.org.

 

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