Iris Barbee Bonner: The Clothing Is The Canvas.
Imagine turning on a nationally broadcasted award show and seeing a celebrity pose for pictures dressed in something you made. For aspiring designers, this sight could be validation, signifying success of their artistry.
Mount Airy native Iris Barbee Bonner, the fashion mastermind behind These Pink Lips clothing line, has made this dream a reality. For the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards, singer/actress Amber Rose wore a jumpsuit designed by Bonner with words and phrases like “gold digger,” “slut” and “bitch” painted in bright pinks and greens.
Vivid colors are a key element to Bonner’s artistic style, representative of her readiness to come out of the shadows and showcase her work.
“You have to be confident to wear some of the things I make because people will stare,” Bonner states. “I went to the post office and wore a shirt of mine that says ‘Pussy Not War’ and the lady asked me who would wear that? I said, ‘You have one between your legs, what’s the big difference if it’s on your shirt?’”
To draw inspiration, Bonner will listen and watch the visuals in music videos and start painting.
“One day my little sister asked me to come watch Beyoncé’s music video [for] Lemonade and I got so inspired by the music and visuals that I just started painting whatever came to my head,” says Bonner.
Her “Queen Bitch” collection, which Bonner explains is for strong females who do not concern themselves with what others think, was inspired by a Lil’ Kim song with the same title.
“She is a music artist I truly love,” Bonner says. “In college I did a project on her for graphic design, and that was the first time I really felt like I did something cool. I’ve even made some pieces for Lil’ Kim and I keep emailing her, trying to find a way to get her to wear them.”
Walking into Bonner’s Mount Airy studio, it is clear why Bonner is drawn to the bold music icons like Lil’ Kim and Beyoncé. Immediately noticeable are big pink and red lips on the floor with exposed teeth, a silhouette painting of a bare chested woman hanging on the wall, a rack of hand-painted, neon leather jackets and three-inch lace-up boots ready for purchase.
“I still don’t see myself as a fashion designer,” Bonner says. “I see myself as an artist and the clothing is my canvas.”
Starting at a young age, Bonner, now 31, explains she always had a love for drawing and wanted to be a fashion designer but never thought she could do it. Instead, when it was time for her to go to college, she used her artistic talent and interest in graphics as a graphic design major.
The first steps toward recognition as a designer were unanticipated. They were the result of using her graphic design skills to begin painting images and phrases on clothing.
“I was making T-shirts and sweatshirts for me and my friends, and people would see us and ask me to make them one,” Bonner says. “I never thought it would become my way of living.”
Seeing the public’s response to her clothing, Bonner’s friends convinced her to have an art show that featured some paintings she had been working on.
“I didn’t want it to be the traditional white walls with hanging paintings because that’s just not me,” Bonner says. “My paintings at the time were very provocative with naked women, and I wanted it to have a brothel feel under black lights.”
The show was called Black Light District and was presented in March 2012. Her friends helped with money, supplies, food, music and even lent her the space. To make some extra cash, Bonner brought some of her clothing to sell also.
“Iris is actually very shy and introverted, which is funny because, based on her art, you would think she was bold and aggressive,” says Angelique Hunter, a close friend of Bonner’s. “She must create her art to express all the things in her head.”
Black Light District sold out before the doors even opened and people left with her hand-painted clothing. Shortly after, Bonner made an Instagram account for her wearable art pieces that drew the attention of fashion guru Patricia Field, who styled for Sex and the City.
“What makes her clothes unique for me is the female expression that we are experiencing,” says Field. “I call it feminist hip-hop, with a great sense of humor.”
Field also sold Bonner’s clothes in the Philadelphia store bearing her name, in addition to the New York location, before it closed. Such exposure proved worthy for Bonner, as celebrities like Missy Elliot bought Bonner’s items.
“Her clothing empowers women in several ways,” says Hunter. “I think it’s a way for women to express their sexuality and feminism. The message is something that everyone thinks but won’t say.”
Today, Bonner’s clothes are featured on Field’s website along with seven other hand-picked artists. In the meantime, she is hopeful overcome her fear of leaving her comfort zone and support system in Philadelphia to travel abroad to Tokyo, where her out-of-the-ordinary clothing can meet a new market.
“I love Philly but I feel like you have to leave your city to be appreciated by your city. I’m seeing I have a lot of customers out of state and I plan to travel to those places to do pop up shows. I’ve already made steps to do so and I won’t let fear hold me back any longer,” Bonner states with confidence.