Lamar Johnson designed garb that made Phila. men stand out

Lamar Johnson (left), Jamie Foxx, and Johnson's wife, Gloria. Johnson's dressy styles outfitted local athletes and entertainers, among others.
Lamar Johnson (left), Jamie Foxx, and Johnson's wife, Gloria. Johnson's dressy styles outfitted local athletes and entertainers, among others.
Posted: January 06, 2011

When designer Lamar Johnson died Dec. 30 of colon cancer at age 46, Philadelphia lost a trendsetter in local men's fashion.

Contemporary Couture, which Johnson owned for 12 years, was one of the few Old City shops owned by African Americans. He designed head-turning linen ensembles and sharply tailored suits worn by local celebrities, including Philadelphia Eagles players and members of Boyz II Men.

"To me, Lamar Johnson was like the Gianni Versace of Philadelphia," said Ron Wilch, a fellow Philadelphia-based menswear designer.

Fondly known around town as Marty, Johnson helped define the dressy, urban-contemporary look popular with Philadelphia men in the 1980s and '90s. In the tight-knit African American fashion community, Johnson leaves a respected legacy.

"Lamar believed in colorful looks that made people stand out," Wilch said. "He was a trailblazer - an example to young designers."

Johnson began his career at 16 designing his own version of the popular "Joseph Palmieri" pants in the basement of his Mount Airy home. Palmieri was a local tailor known for skinny trousers with two side buttons on the waistline.

Johnson "would make clothing for all of his friends. He was just so talented," said his mother, Helen Johnson.

He moved on to pleated Eddie Murphy-style leather pants and jackets and transitioned to Crayola-colored three-button tailored suits - popular in the new jack swing era. He designed alligator suits that would fetch upward of $6,000.

Johnson opened Contemporary Couture in 1993 on Market Street, and after four years moved to bigger digs across the street. When the store closed in 2005, he opened Blaque Linen on South Street - which closed in 2009 - and a showroom on Allegheny Avenue in North Philly, which remains open.

It was in the late 1990s when Johnson started the Blaque Linen line known for neutral shades and pastels, featuring oversize shirts with round or pointy collars. Often Johnson embroidered dramatic designs, such as dragons and centipedes, on his shirts.

"You would see men wearing these suits all the time at Bluezette's and Swanky Bubbles," said Kim Schneider, who had managed his business with him since the early '90s. "You could identify Lamar's look from the stitching and the collar. It was always something out of the ordinary."

During Johnson's nearly 30-year career, he designed tailored, one-of-a-kind pieces for popular '90s rap and R&B groups including Slick Rick, New Edition's Michael Bivins, and Mike McCary of Boyz II Men. Members of KRS-One's Boogie Down Productions also were fond of his gear, as were Philadelphia hip-hop legends from the Tuff Crew.

Johnson also dressed local athletes, including former Philadelphia Eagles Irving Fryar, Hugh Douglas, and Brian Westbrook. Former quarterback Donovan McNabb used Johnson as his go-to guy for the linen suits he would wear to his annual White Party. 76er Allen Iverson too was a client.

"Guys went to Lamar for fashion when they didn't want to be fabulous, but well-dressed," said the Philadelphia-bred, L.A.-based stylist Anthony Henderson. Henderson had been friends with Johnson since the mid-'90s; in fact, Johnson was the first retailer to lend Henderson clothing for a fashion show. "I really learned a lot from him."

Johnson supplemented his menswear line with custom-made prom dresses.

Although Johnson's pieces were picked up in a handful of boutiques outside of Philadelphia, his reputation didn't expand much beyond the City of Brotherly Love. By the height of Johnson's success, urban fashion changed from suits to baggy jeans and athletic jerseys.

Men had stopped wearing suits, he said in a 2002 interview with the Philadelphia Daily News. "The dress code has really slacked off," he said. "At one time, you used to see a lot of guys wearing suits [at parties]. Most guys don't wear suits anymore."

Johnson never expanded his manufacturing beyond his second-floor location on Market Street, so at a time when fashion manufacturing moved overseas to take advantage of cheaper labor, it was hard for him to compete.

Johnson grew up in Mount Airy, attended Martin Luther King High School and Community College of Philadelphia, and took fashion classes at Craft Institute.

In addition to his mother, he is survived by his wife, Gloria; and two children, Lamar, 14, and Lamarra, 10. Services will be held Friday at Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church at 230 W. Coulter St. in Germantown.


Contact fashion writer Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704 or ewellington@phillynews.com. Follow her on Twitter at ewellingtonphl.

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