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A fashion designer from Germantown and a contractor from Chester walk into a flea market.
Not the opening line to a dad joke. It’s the premise behind Kenya Abdul-Hadi and Steven Brown’s midcentury modern furniture store. The two men scour estate sales, flea markets, auctions and the homes of friends and neighbors for retro and vintage home goods — a $3,500 Frank Lloyd Wright frieze from the early 20th century, for example — to resell under the brand The Modern Republic.
Launched three years ago as a weekend pop-up that shuttered during the pandemic, the business found a temporary home in a shared Brewerytown warehouse, as its reputation continued to grow.
Inside, shoppers will find walls covered in large, vibrant abstract paintings, angular furniture in muted neutral or bright primary colors, and a section where chairs, tables, and lamps are displayed high above your head. One arched wall is yellow, another is orange. There’s a long, rounded, royal blue couch for sale. Part of the floor is checkered in black-and-white.
Most of the products are from the 1940s, 50s, 60s and 70s. There are also more vintage pieces, like 1930s Bauhaus, and a few more recent commodities, like post-modern Memphis style wares from the 1980s. “But our core,” said Abdul-Hadi, “is middle of the [20th] century.”
When the two men walk into flea market and estate sale spaces to either vend or forage, they’re usually the only Black people there.
“I’m sure we like less than 1% across the country in this business,” Brown said.
Rather than be a barrier, Brown and Abdul-Hadi said their race has added a fresh perspective to the industry.
“You get a chance to exceed the limits of what that person anticipates or who they anticipate you being,” said Abdul-Hadi. The duo is also intentional about the locations they’ve chosen, and what that adds to The Modern Republic mission.
“That’s also the pride of being in North Philadelphia,” Abdul-Hadi continued. “When you think of North Philadelphia, you think of guns, drugs, and all of the bad things, but we’re here to say we’re going to have a new narrative. We’re going to change the way that it looks, we’re going to change the things that people anticipate.”
In quarantine, people began noticing their homes
Furniture and home goods sales are a second career for the friends.
After earning a degree from Howard University, 52-year-old Abdul-Hadi conceptualized and launched a number of local brands, including the cult classic Miskeen Originals, which became a multi-million dollar, globally-recognized label worn by rappers and celebrities in the early 2000s.
Brown, 47, spent decades as a construction contractor, helping to design and build kitchens and bathrooms for clients’ homes. Age and maturation are what sent each of the men after their new career trajectories.
“For me, it was, your body starts to tell on you,” Brown said. “I was like, I don’t want to be 60 years old barely moving around. I don’t want to keep beating my body up like that.”
Sharpened by years of experience in the hip-hop and art scene, Abdul-Hadi said he was ready for a change of pace.
“I wanted to do something a little bit more mature, something a little bit more stable,” he said, adding that home decor “was more satisfying than just chasing around a young person that was 18, just recklessly spending money on clothes.”
The result has been an unusual and now-explosively successful venture into home and design. The Modern Republic officially began in 2018 with a recurring set up each weekend at the Brooklyn Flea.
The duo tried to get traction in Philly first, but said at the time, there wasn’t a market here for the colorful, distinct, and often pricey throwback furniture they were offering.
“We realized that our style and our sense of design, they didn’t really appreciate it that well here,” Abdul-Hadi said. “They would just not even look at it, wasn’t willing to pay the price.”
New Yorkers were willing, and the men set up shop there for a couple years, until COVID put a stop to things. One Wednesday in March of last year, Brown and Abdul-Hadi were told weekend vending was kaput. They’d have to come get their wares by Sunday.
That door slam unlocked another entrance, closer to home. The pandemic renewed peoples’ interests in home and design. And it boosted Modern Republic’s sales “100%,” Brown said.
“Leaps and bounds,” Abdul-Hadi added. During quarantine, people were faced with the reality of their homes’ designs… or lack thereof. “While you’re being in the house, you’re realizing, ‘Yo, I’m in the house and I don’t have a table, I don’t have a chair,'” Abdul-Hadi said. “‘Yo, my house is corny!'”
Good design for the neighborhoods
The Modern Republic duo capitalized on the general public’s pivot to focusing on home.
After getting shut down in Brooklyn, they opened their first Philly-based showroom at 3103 W. Glenwood Ave., in the Search and Rescue Drygoods building. Owned by Tawfeeq Gaines, Search and Rescue is a shared space where artisans, collectors and antique vendors sell items like art, vintage clothing and furniture. The area Brown and Abdul-Hadi designed was about 1,700 square feet.
The new store that debuted this week is inside the old chapel of The Civic Building, a mixed-use residential space at 1600 W. Girard Ave. They now have 5,000 square feet, decked out with a 30-foot-by-12-foot shelving system that Brown built himself.
Both areas are gentrifying, with demographics changing as new residents and transplants move in. Abdul-Hadi said these newer residents and non-Black shoppers make up a bulk of their customer base. Still, the neighborhoods are less traditional locations for a high-end furniture store, Brown and Hadi recognize.
In both Brewerytown and Francisville/Yorktown, where the new store is, the median household income actually declined slightly over the past decade. It went from less than $23k between 2005 and 2009 to less than $22k between 2014 and 2018, a census study found.
At the same time, the median home prices in Brewerytown jumped, going from $59,000 in 2011 to $105,000 in 2016, with property sales spiking too, according to the Inquirer. The neighborhoods are economically and professionally diverse, and were so even before gentrification began, but median household incomes there remain among the lowest in the city.
“That’s a bragging right for us because people don’t anticipate nothing good coming out of North Philadelphia,” Abdul-Hadi said. “So, it feels good for us to be able to say, ‘No, we’re down North.'”
For Brown and Abdul-Hadi, that’s kind of the theme of their journey.
Both men noted their upbringing in what Abdul-Hadi called “rough spots.” He hails from Germantown’s Brickyard neighborhood, while Brown grew up in Chester’s Bennett Homes. Because of their backgrounds, they said, The Modern Republic’s intent goes beyond luxury shopping.
“It’s about good design input, good moral character and good behavior,” Abdul-Hadi said. “I think that’s what society really needs. People need to be better.”
He continued: “You don’t have to be rich to be good. You don’t have to be poor to be good. You just have to exist and say, ‘I want to make a commitment to trying to be good.'”