Iris Bonner had already turned off the Oscars and gone to bed Sunday night when her phone started blowing up.
“I started getting all these notifications that Billy Porter was carrying my bag to the Vanity Fair [Oscar] party,” the 34-year-old Manayunk-based fashion designer told me Monday afternoon, her voice popping with excitement.
Porter arrived on the Oscars red carpet wearing a golden Buckingham-Palace inspired ensemble by British designer Giles Deacon.
But for the Vanity Fair soiree, he changed into a Christian Siriano royal purple ruffled blouse with a dramatic cape. He wore long gloves in the same hue and an extremely churchified hat tilted to the side. And he paired that with lavender skinny trousers.
If that ensemble wasn’t fierce enough by itself, on Porter’s arm was a black purse with a famous line from Goodfellas inscribed in white graffiti: “F— U Pay Me!”
The purse is a part of Bonner’s fashion line, Thesepinklips. It’s valued at $120.
In recent years, Porter has gained favor from red carpet enthusiasts for pushing up against traditional ideas of what men and women should wear. The Pittsburgh-based singer and actor bought the bag last year from New York’s Patricia Field ArtFashion Gallery. He also carried the bag to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Met Gala last May and a party in honor of Porter’s popular FX series, Pose.
“He carries my bag like one of his favorites,” Bonner said. “I talked to him on the phone once and he told me, ‘You’ve got to make me another bag.' "
Bonner launched her first collection, largely graphic tees, in 2010. Bonner’s messages have always been risque: She was one of the early millennial designers to reclaim words like slut and whore and display them prominently on her pieces. The idea, she said, was for women to find a sense of empowerment in words that had always induced shame. “It’s important we own the words that people throw at us to hurt us."
In 2015, Blac Chyna and South Philly’s own Amber Rose wore matching Bonner looks to the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards. In years since, she’s dressed Mary J. Blige, and Cardi B. Her pieces have been featured in Bergdorf Goodman’s iconic Fifth Avenue store window. Jill Scott wore one of her outfits for last year’s Afropunk Festival. And most recently, rap duo Salt-N-Pepa performed in Bonner’s fashions during their recent Mixed Tape Tour.
We chatted it up with Bonner about the Oscar after-party excitement and what she’s been up to lately. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
In 2015, the VMAs made you one of Philly’s designers to watch. How did your life change after that?
Ten days after the VMAs, I produced a collection of clothes, mainly jackets and boots. Up until then I was only doing T-shirts. I wanted to keep up the momentum. Patricia Field picked up my full collection in her art fashion gallery. From there, Linda Fargo [director of women’s fashion and store presentation at Bergdorf’s] found my “She’s the Boss” cape, so she put it in the window and it sold out. Alicia Keys found the cape in Bergdorf’s and performed in it a few times. I’ve also been to fashion weeks in New York, Berlin, and Greece with Patricia.
How did Cardi B end up wearing your jacket on the Amazon commercial the same year the Eagles won the Super Bowl?
Her stylist [Kollin Carter] reached out to me. I was one of the first designers to dress her. A lot of others wouldn’t. So she wanted to use me because she said I deserved the shine. It’s a white jacket with the words “Working Woman” written all over it in red. I like it because it’s kind of cheeky. People think women’s empowerment only applies to a certain kind of women. But you can be empowered if you have an executive job or work as a stripper.
Tell me about the bag Billy Porter is carrying.
I’m inspired by phrases and slogans. One day I was watching Goodfellas, and I heard the phrase in the movie and I thought that would be dope to put on a bag. I first put it on a black bucket bag with pink words. The idea was for it to be an everyday bag for the woman going to work every day to make her money. I’ve done it in neon, hot pink, and red. But everyone seems to love the classic black and white.
Why is women’s empowerment so important to you?
I am a woman, and people are always trying to put us in boxes. To me, it’s about expressing my authentic self. I mean why do people think the only way to be a woman is to be ladylike? Being ladylike is more than being dainty and soft. We can be loud and in your face. We can be anything we want to be. I think women should be confident. Period. Whatever kind of woman she is. She should be confident and own it.
Well, I just had a baby girl so I’m just getting back in the swing of things. I’m working on a new collection of gloves and earrings in collaboration with another Philadelphia artist, Rashida Girl, with sayings like “Black Girl Magic” and “F— U Pay Me!” I’m working on another exclusive collection for Patricia Field and maybe even perhaps a line of baby onesies.