Philadelphia-based designer Conrad Booker wowed the audience with his debut collection at Philly Fashion Week on Saturday, February 25 at the 2300 Arena. The collection was inspired by the 1975 cult-favorite documentary Grey Gardens. The film spotlights two aging relatives of Jackie Kennedy Onassis, who live in a rapidly decaying Long Island estate—and wear some exceedingly creative outfits while they’re at it.
As Booker describes it, “the vision for the collection is based off of Grey Gardens, but done in a more urban environment. You have people who are affluent who lose their wealth, but they don’t lose their mindset. Even in those down times, you can look within your environment and see all these things you never would have imagined being wearable and couture, like plastic. That’s a big part of my design philosophy.” Booker himself has overcome adversity on his journey to the Philly Fashion Week runway.
A Temple University School of Architecture graduate, Booker began his design career in that field. However, after he was laid off from a professional architecture job, he went in a new direction and joined the world of fashion. Booker started his new career in 2012 as a designer of handbags and accessories, using his architectural know-how to develop chic, structured clutches with funky metallic adornments.
As a favor to a friend who needed outfits for a photo shoot, Booker started exploring apparel design. He was inspired by an unusual source: “I just started making clothes out of painters tarps from Lowe’s. I was hooked with finding things to create from Lowe’s … it just spurs your imagination in that once you get a concept you can then use that concept to go in all kinds of directions.”
These diverse influences are evident in the playful designs Booker presented at Philly Fashion Week, which manipulate structure, proportion, and offbeat materials to spectacular effect.
For example, the opening look presented during the runway show was a sleek houndstooth skirt suit, topped with a deconstructed umbrella molded into a headpiece. “The whole concept of the umbrella being part of the canopy is a nod to the fact that I believe in fashion you have to have a structure in which to hang all of the other stuff on it,” Booker explains.
Booker’s bold experiments with structure are particularly evident in a design featuring the boning of a wide hoop skirt and tight bodice. It’s just the boning, the material framing the model like a cage, the empty space between the links bereft of fabric. It takes the Booker philosophy of design to its audacious conclusion: What if the structure for the dress was the entire dress?
Also the model is wearing a lampshade on her head, because why not?
The presentation at times recalled a topsy-turvy version of Hollywood glamour, like if Lady Gaga traveled back in time, raided the set design closet at MGM Studios, and constructed an outfit of what she found. For instance, in a sly nod to late-period Joan Crawford, at one point two models strode down the runway in comparatively simple white dresses—and with giants nests of wire hangers perched upon their heads. Booker’s designs, ultimately, are a little campy and a little scrappy, but constructed with a rigorous devotion to form that demands you take them seriously. Maybe the materials are from Lowes—but the ideas behind the clothes are straight-up couture.
So what’s next for Booker?
New York Fashion Week, for one thing. While he previously participated in the event for Macy’s Go Red For Women Red Dress Collection, he aspires to display his own designs on one of Bryant Park’s hallowed runways.
“I dream of having Anna Wintour look at my collection like she looked at Alexander McQueen. I have this picture of her looking at his collection and she has this look on her face of total wonderment. And I’m just like, that’s the look I want to get one day from her”.
Judging from Booker’s fabulous Philadelphia Fashion Week collection, he’s well on his way.