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.
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.