Iris 'Barbee' Bonner is unapologetic about womanhood

💡 Get Philly smart 💡
with BP’s free daily newsletter

Read the news of the day in less than 10 minutes — not that we’re counting.

Iris “Barbee” Bonner’s art has always centered women, but a recent experience brought her full circle: at 2:48 a.m. on Nov. 17, the hit fashion designer gave birth to a daughter.

Motherhood isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you see the Philly native’s designs. As popularized by Cardi B and other stars, Bonner’s work features phrases like “Pussy Power” and “Executive Bitch” in giant strokes across skintight bodysuits, sharp-edged jackets, sexy slacks and must-have clutches.

That unapologetic woman-forward theme is what makes Bonner’s pieces stand out, according to Emmy Award-winning costume designer Patricia Field, whose body of work includes Sex and the City and The Devil Wears Prada.

“Iris has a very unique aesthetic,” Field told Billy Penn. “I have always been attracted to style that is both colorful and happy. I think Iris emulates that, as well as female boss power.”

Instead of softening that boss lady touch, Bonner’s firstborn child is providing additional motivation to create, the Philly fashionista said — and no one is more surprised than she is.

“I was the person who said I’m not having kids,” Bonner explained, adding that she always took care of her 9-year-old younger sister. Now, she’s both older sibling and mother at the same time.

“I’m so happy, just being able to do this and do my work,” Bonner said. “My boyfriend is super supportive.”

A lifelong Mount Airy resident who recently moved to Manayunk, Bonner’s artistic journey started with her family. She credits her home life with inspiring her to create; her dad owned a construction company and encouraged her creative bent, sending her to an elementary school with a built-in art program from kindergarten on up.

“I always knew I wanted to draw since a young age,” Bonner recalled, “I just didn’t know what kind of art.” It was after graduating from Arcadia University in 2007 with a degree in graphic design that Bonner found her niche: using words as visual tools to uplift and encourage other females.

“In the beginning, I drew women with quotes behind them that were cheering them on. It’s about appreciating yourself, your body and not being ashamed as a woman,” she said.

Bonner had been working full time as an artist for just over a year when her name blew up.

From canvas to clothing, courtesy of the VMAs

The road to Bonner becoming a famous designer with more than 100k Instagram followers started with a request from model and actress Amber Rose in 2015.

Tired of being what she called “slut-shamed” by her haters, the Philadelphia recording artist wanted an outfit that would call them out. When Bonner got the call from Rose’s assistant, clothing was not yet her main gig.

“They were asking for all of this stuff and I said I would figure it out,” Bonner said. “I hit up a girl in Philly and asked if she could sew the pieces. [Amber] came up with the words to put on there. I painted them on and it turned out well.”

Rose and Blac Chyna showed up on the red carpet at that summer’s MTV Video Music Awards in those nude catsuits, which Bonner had covered head-to-toe with words like “slut,” “hoe,” “whore” and “golddigger.” Photos of the duo went viral — and sent Bonner’s career to the next level.

Becoming courtier to the stars didn’t happen by accident.

“I decided that I had to do a fashion show and take advantage of the moment,” Bonner said. “It was just crazy. I had never done anything like that before, but I tell people you shouldn’t let the opportunity pass you by.”

Field, the Devil Wears Prada stylist, remembers one standout moment when Bonner’s work infiltrated the echelons of traditional haute couture. Bergdorf Goodman senior vice president Linda Fargo was visiting Fields in search of a piece to wear to a store opening on Fifth Avenue. She gravitated toward a cape on which Bonner had printed “She’s the Boss” over and over across its form.

“Linda even wore it and showcased it in the windows of Bergdorf,” Fields recalled. “I think it was a proud moment for both of us, and I’m happy we could share in that joy together.”

From visual artist Andy Warhol to neo-expressionist Jean-Michel Basquiat to actor Grace Jones, Bonner said her work is inspired by people who are unapologetically themselves.

“Another artist, Miss Van, does art that is really risque and feminine,” Bonner said about the modern French painter who came up through graffiti culture. “Her art made me want to come out of my shell and paint what I want to paint.”

What she wants to paint includes the truth about women’s bodies — something she feels is unfairly censored in media today. “I see people getting their heads blown off on Instagram, but a woman with her nipples out will get deleted. This is the world we live in.”

‘But I’m just Iris…’

The self-empowerment message plastered across Bonner’s clothing can translate to power in real-life situations, said Philadelphia entrepreneur and local fashion icon Rakia Reynolds.

Reynolds, who founded public relations firm Skai Blue Media in 2009 and grew it into a nationally recognized agency, is a longtime Bonner supporter. The “She’s the Boss” cape that ended up in Bergdorf’s windows once helped Reynolds command the stage at Lincoln Center, despite being in front of a crowd she didn’t know.

“I think it helped me channel my inner badass boss,” Reynolds said. “Her piece helped me remind myself who I was, when there was a moment when I’d forgotten.”

Reynolds believes Bonner’s ideas about identity are what resonates with her fans. “People are attracted to her work because they’re wearing an artist who gets them, gets the time that we’re in, and gets what it takes to get us to who we need to be and how we can get there.”

While Bonner’s fashionwear is known for lush colors and emphatic statements, her personality is almost the opposite. “When people say, ‘You’re so dope; I think [your work] is really cool,’ I often think, ‘But I’m just Iris,’” Bonner said. “When going out with friends, I’m lowkey embarrassed.”

These days, she regularly gets shoutouts from celebrities like Cardi B. and actor Billy Porter, but is still taken aback each time she gets a request.

“I still haven’t gotten used to people hitting me up, so sometimes I still get shocked,” Bonner continued. “I’m forever grateful that people like my work and that I can do it as a living. I’m thankful for every second of it and don’t take it for granted.”

Bonner views her creative journey as a catharsis, she said, and music has served as the soundtrack to that process, everything from gospel to The Roots to Lil’ Kim. “When I first started painting women and words — when I was younger and my most depressed — I’d listen to certain songs and lyrics that made me feel good and put them in my art as therapy.”

Proud of her Philly heritage, Bonner cites several other local artists as current sources of inspiration, including Distortedd, Gianni Lee and Yoko Jak.

For her daughter and other young Black girls looking to find their way, Bonner preaches independence and fearlessness. “Don’t be afraid to be yourself. If it’s something you like it, don’t be scared to do it. I used to say I wish I found myself as an artist earlier, but I believe everything happens for a reason,” she observed.

“Art,” Bonner said, “is where you’re supposed to express yourself and not care what people think.”