Arts & Entertainment

Local designers strive to break ‘down barriers’

Conrad Booker and Ashli Reese want to change the landscape of fashion design.

Just days before Philadelphia Fashion Week, designer Ashli Reese wasn’t finishing her last-minute preparations for the runway like most of her peers in the industry. Instead, the lupus survivor of 13 years was preparing for the debut of melvetier, her new brand of convertible outerwear specially designed for women going through body changes.

Conrad Booker, Reese’s fellow designer-in-residence at the Philadelphia Fashion Incubator at Macy’s Center City, was busy finishing his design for The American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women Red Dress Collection at New York Fashion Week.

Booker, a 1986 architecture alumnus, accidentally landed in design after he was laid off following four years of work at a local architecture firm. From there, he decided to begin offering freelance design services for interior and architecture firms, but ultimately ended up in fashion.

“If you really stop and think about it,” Booker said, “it’s a natural progression in that architecture is all about structure and form and the greatest piece of architecture is the human body.”

Conrad Booker, a graduate of the Temple School of Architecture, used paper cord to create part of the dress he made for New York Fashion week. Ta’Rhonda Jones, who plays Porsha Taylor on FOX’s “Empire,” wore the dress for Go Red for Women to promote heart health in women. | EVAN EASTERLING TTN

Conrad Booker, a graduate of the Temple School of Architecture, used paper cord to create part of the dress he made for New York Fashion week. Ta’Rhonda Jones, who plays Porsha Taylor on FOX’s “Empire,” wore the dress for Go Red for Women to promote heart health in women. | EVAN EASTERLING TTN

Reese recently signed on for an additional three months with the Incubator, which she compares to a fashion MBA program, as she prepares to debut melvetier. After struggling with lupus for several years, Reese found herself with a huge wardrobe due to constant changes in her body.

Although she started designing clothing for men and women, Reese quickly realized she wanted to solve a problem. With that realization, she launched melvetier as a solution for women experiencing body changes due to illnesses, pregnancy and general life changes.

Reese’s main goals are to solve the problems in women’s fashion that traditional designers do not always pay attention to, as well as prove it is possible to be successful in spite of obstacles.

“I love breaking down barriers because I think I have such a unique story and I don’t mind a challenge and I don’t mind going into this paving the way for a woman of color, a woman with a chronic illness, a single mother, a mother in general,” Reese said. “Whatever hand you’re given in life, it’s still possible to live your dream and turn your dream into a career that is successful.”

“More diversity is going to come and more women are going to be taking charge of more couture houses,” she added. “I think women designers are coming full force and they’re coming with problems that have not been solved yet.”

Both Reese and Booker cite the Incubator as a large step forward in their fashion careers.

Booker said his time with the Philadelphia Fashion Incubator has given him the necessary resources, contacts and experience with the business side of fashion design to grow his brand, conradbookerCOLLECTION, as he prepares next fall’s collection, which he describes as “very artisanal in its selection of materials and its application and handwork.”

“Having been on my own as a freelance designer for years, you struggle with making those connections and hoping that one day you’re going to meet people who might lead you in the right way and give you the right guidance,” Booker said. “It wasn’t until I got into the Incubator that I was exposed to so many industry professionals.”

Reese also initially struggled with settling into her niche in the fashion industry, but the Incubator helped her focus her creative energy and set career goals.

“It has helped me answer the question, ‘How do I make my talent into my career?’” she said. “That’s something that I think a lot of designers struggle with.”

Conrad Booker keeps the person who will be using one of his clutches in mind when he designs it. He wants someone at an event to be able to hold a glass of wine, a plate, their clutch, and be able to shake someone’s hand without putting anything on a table. | EVAN EASTERLING TTN

Conrad Booker keeps the person who will be using one of his clutches in mind when he designs it. He wants someone at an event to be able to hold a glass of wine, a plate, their clutch, and be able to shake someone’s hand without putting anything on a table. | EVAN EASTERLING TTN

While neither Reese nor Booker are participating in this month’s Philadelphia Fashion Week, they both have plans to shake up the scene before the next fashion week in the fall.

“I think Philadelphia is going in a direction that people are going to be proud of and people are going to be excited about purchasing from,” Reese said.

“Philadelphia is a manageable city,” Booker said. “You can meet a lot of people and get a lot of stuff done and you have the room and the resources to do it. Philadelphia will never be New York, but it has its own identity when it comes to fashion.”

Reese and Booker both contribute to Philadelphia’s fashion identity through their creative projects, such as Booker’s upcoming handbag debut and art showing at the James Oliver Gallery on Chestnut Street near 8th and Reese’s venture with melvetier.

“Be true to who you are. I am living proof that it can be possible,” Reese said. “I believe it’s possible because I’m doing it.”

Erin Moran can be reached at erin.moran@temple.edu.

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