Fashion Hall of Obscurity… Bern Conrad

Raw silk suit by Bern Conrad, c. 1982

Today is the first installment of what will be a returning feature – the Fashion Hall of Obscurity. Almost everyone knows the names Chanel and Dior but recognition fades as you delve further into fashion history, especially for those who worked for a short time, behind the scenes, or under someone else’s label.

Bern Conrad is my first ‘obscurier couturier’ inductee because I recently acquired a red raw silk two piece outfit with his label. The outfit consists of a pair of jodhpurs and oversized blouse with drop shoulder seam, similar to Vivian Westwood’s 1981 Pirate collection. The outfit has little hanger appeal but shows quality construction and fit, and when displayed on a mannequin it is clearly a classic example of an important early 1980s design. After a lot of web searching I managed to piece together a bit of a biography for Bern Conrad.

He was born in the early 1940s in Brooklyn New York and studied fashion design at the Fashion Institute of Technology. In 1975 he became the designer of a new sportswear firm called Irka, founded and financed by Peter Seng, an importer of Chinese silk. It was here that he also met his future wife, Ilonka Frias, who worked as his design assistant.

Bern Conrad, 1980

Bern Conrad, 1980

As one of the new wave of American designers (alongside Perry Ellis, Betsey Johnson, Norma Kamali, and Willi Smith) Conrad became known for his simplicity in design and excellent fit, especially when working with silk and other natural materials as well as knitwear. Sometime between 1977 and 1982 Conrad began designing under his own name. The red silk two piece outfit illustrated here is from c. 1982, and I found a clip of his 1985 Fall fashion show online. If you look closely you may recognize one of the models as the actress Suzy Amis, the most recent Mrs. James Cameron, who began her career as a Ford fashion model in New York.

After closing his label in 1988, Bern Conrad took a four year hiatus but returned to the fashion industry in 1993 in a less visible role, designing knitwear and sportswear under different labels, including manufacturing a line of clothing in Hong Kong for Ann Taylor. A web search for Bern Conrad shows that he is currently living in Florida with his wife Ilonka, but a business also exists under his name in New York at 525 Fashion Avenue.

About Jonathan

Jonathan Walford is a fashion historian and co-founder of the Fashion History Museum in Cambridge, Ontario. The FHM maintains a collection of nearly 12,000 artifacts dating from the mid 17th century to the present. Jonathan has authored various books and museum catalogues, including The Seductive Shoe, Shoes A-Z, Forties Fashion, 1950s American Fashion, and Sixties Fashion.
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30 Responses to Fashion Hall of Obscurity… Bern Conrad

  1. Gaynor Mullins says:

    I have a bern conrad dress which I bought at a bring and buy sale in my village hall. At the time the person who brought it to the sale had connections with fashion houses in London Ithink she was a free lance journalist. The dress has a 40’s/50’s style to it but I bought it in the early 80’s I would love to know if it’s genuine. It is so well made and flows with the material . I have only worn it twice and felt it had a touch of class.

    • Jonathan says:

      Hi Gaynor;
      If you can send me a picture c/o the Fashion History Museum email: Curator(at)FashionHistoryMuseum.com I can take a look at it if you want. I keep hoping someone from Bern Conrad will contact me with an ultimate history of dates and labels! (hint hint)

  2. Colter Rule says:

    I am in touch with Bern and Ilonka…

    • Peter says:

      Next time you speak to them, please let them know that Spiros Zakas passed away on November 7, 2011 of Parkinson’s. Thanks

      • John says:

        I knew both Bern and Spiros from years ago in New York. Very sorry to hear of Spiros passing. He was a unique, imaginative, and creative man. I was very happy to have had the chance to have known and worked with him. I learned a lot from him as I also did Bern.

        I also knew Colter and often hear his voice on my TV.

  3. Kate says:

    I found Bern Conrad by chance and kept on looking ever after. I wore my Bern Conrad raw silk jodpurs, big shirt and a culotte for years until they finally fell apart. Amazingly well designed and tailored, a quality that was hard to come by, and sadly, was no longer available by the time mine wore out in the early nineties. Bought it in a retail clearance store like Dots or Winners in Edmonton in the early 80’s along with some Adrianne Vittadini silk blouses for a miniscule amount and loved them for years.

  4. I worked for Bern and Ilonka in New York in 1991 as a design assistant. They started a company called Loft designs and after that moved to a chinese company owned by a guy named Conrad something. They called it Conrad & Conrad I think?

  5. Rosalinde Weber says:

    I still have a wonderful muted heather jacket I bought around 1978 with the Bern Conrad label. The quality and workmanship are something special. It’s my favorite jacket decades later. Think about that!

  6. Alice Gee says:

    I have a practically identical Bern Conrad bigshirt in chambray – same dropped shoulders and blousy sleeve. I bought it in the mid-80s, possibly – although I am extremely unsure here – at Ann Taylor. Still looks great over leggings and boots!

    • Jonathan says:

      I never could find dates for when he was designing for Ann taylor, but from what I could find it sounded like it was the early 90s – maybe it was earlier!

  7. nancy says:

    At this very moment, I am wearing a Bern Conrad black velour jumpsuit, I guess you would call it.. . full, pajamay in the hip, close fitting cropped leg- fall off the shoulder neck line. Bought it in 1985 – had another one in a summer knit which I wore throughout the Mediterranean. I just checked the label and found the name and decided to see if this designer still existed. It was funny reading your post. Love the shoe museum in Toronto, and I can’t bear to throw this almost thread bare at-home ‘schmata’ out. It still looks good and feels so comfy. Had to have the elasticized wait replaced…but so what after 28 years!

    • Jonathan says:

      It seems Bern Conrad had a following of happy clients. I have since added another Conrad to the Fashion History Museum collection – in velour – but you can’t have it!

  8. It is with fond memories that I remember what Bern Conrad, did for me, in my early career stages of working in the garment industry.
    My father, a friend of some of Bern Conrad’s inner circle heard of my fathers passing and said we would like you to meet Bern Conrad!
    Bern, and Ilonka were wonderful to me! Bern, told me not to be afraid and go for it! ” We all have to” He helped me with one of my first design jobs in New York. Introduced me to president, and said you have to hire this girl! Bern Conrad was so instrumental in my career, and taught me to not be afraid reach for your dreams, branch out and said to me ” You can have it” Bern knew of my love for Costume Design told me to go & do that too! I did! Much love & respect goes to him & his lovely wife!

  9. Carla Ryan says:

    I still have a beautiful Bern Conrad for Irka knit long maxi coat I bought in 1975. I think I paid about $200.00 for it, a lot of money for me at the time as I was in college, but it was certainly worth it! It’s been my favorite coat ever since & I was pleased to find your post with information about the designer. I may be buried in it.

    • Jonathan says:

      If you decide to not get buried in it, you could always pass it on to a museum! First collection items are always popular… I know the Fashion History Museum would take it!

      Jonathan

  10. Qwendy says:

    I have been making a digital sketch notebook of the clothes I had that most influenced me in th 70’s …. I swear I had a pair of bern conrad dark leather sandals, very organic rich hippie style. Am I the only person in the world who had them or remembers them? I was a bit too young for his clothes, which would have been too sophisticated for me, and I wonder how these sandals came about! Any ideas?

    • Jonathan says:

      I don’t know if he ever had a line of shoes or sandals, but maybe another reader will remember…

  11. Irka Seng says:

    Hi.

    I am Irka. My father was Peter Seng. I knew Bern and Ilonka, but only as a child knows people her father worked with. I have some photos of Ilonka with my brother when he was used as an extra on a fashion shoot. Nice to see this write up.

    • Jonathan says:

      Thanks for sharing that. Would love to see the photos!

      • Megan says:

        I was just bought a pail blue/grey jumpsuit at a local vintage shop in Canada and it fits so beautifully. I was curious about the origins of the ‘Irka’ label and I am happy I stumbled upon this thread!!!! It doesn’t look like much on a hanger, but on its unique and fitted beautifully.

        • Jonathan says:

          I don’t know much about them. I believe they were founded in the early 1970s and were around into the 1990s, perhaps as late as about 2000/2001, but then they seem to disappear. I think they were based in Montreal, and may have started off as a manufacturing company, but by the 1990s they had everything made off shore and imported the finished goods.

  12. Kay says:

    I’m excited to read about Bern Conrad! I collect vintage knits, and especially love those made in Italy or Hong Kong (best cashmere!). I just bought an “Irka by Bern Conrad” wool blend sweater and started to research the label and found this blog. It’s always clear to me when a piece is special and well made. Lucky day! Thanks for posting.

    • Jonathan says:

      Your Welcome i seem to be getting more comments on this post than almost any other, so Bern Conrad is obviously well remembered.

  13. Carlene says:

    Are Bern and Ilonka still alive? I decided to search Bern up because my mom has fond memories of working for them. She was a nanny for their son Cole.

    • Jonathan says:

      I haven’t heard anything to the contrary… maybe someone else who has posted here will know for sure.

  14. Lynette says:

    I am an amateur dressmaker and whacker extraordinaire of clothes that don’t fit or can be improved upon. I bought on sale a lovely Bern Conrad cotton blouse in a wonderful shop in Birmingham, Michigan in 1978. I wore that thing until it wore out, and kept it because I thought I would at some future moment pick it apart for use as a pattern for a new one. I rescued it from the throwaway pile several times because I just couldn’t bear to part with it. The delightful, slightly early 1900s design aside, the sewing on that garment is just beautiful, the stripes lining up wherever possible and every seam straight and tight. I knew it was something special.

  15. Joan Ellen says:

    I have a number of items that I purchased in the early 80’s when I loved fashion. As a professional woman at that time I appreciated the quality. I still have several pieces and wear them today. Right now I am wearing a knitted sweater that I love!!

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