Fairfield fashion designer dies at 84, shortly after launching new collection

Photo of Josh LaBella
Fairfield-based fashion designer Bern Conrad died late last month at the age of 84.

Fairfield-based fashion designer Bern Conrad died late last month at the age of 84.

/ Birgitta Stone / Contributed Photo

FAIRFIELD — Renowned fashion designer Bern Conrad died late last month, according to his obituary.

Conrad, 84, died in his Fairfield home on Nov. 20. Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., he studied fashion at the Fashion Institute of Technology after serving in the U.S. Army.

Conrad then went on to start a career in the fashion industry, which lead to the creation of his own women's clothing brand.

He produced a significant amount of silk apparel, sportswear and knitwear over the course of his career, according to U.S. News and World Report, and once said a unique perspective and a distinctive identity are essential for a career as a designer.

“Design is all about getting to know who you are, because you have to express who you are, and you have to be able to convey that to your ultimate customer and client,” he said, later adding, “Just do who you are - what you want to be, who you want to be or are being.”

Jonathon Walford, the curator of the Fashion History Museum in Ontario, Canada, said in his blog in 2019 that Conrad became the designer of a new sportswear firm called Irka in 1975, which was founded and financed by Peter Seng, an importer of Chinese silk.

“It was here that he also met his future wife, Ilonka Frias, who worked as his design assistant,” Walford said.

Conrad was part of a new wave of American designers at the time, Walford said, and he became known for his simplicity in design and excellent fit, especially when working with silk and other natural materials as well as knitwear. In the late 70s and early 80s, he said, Conrad began designing under his own name.

After closing his label in 1988, Walford said, Conrad took a four year hiatus but returned to the fashion industry in 1993, designing knitwear and sportswear under different labels, including manufacturing a line of clothing in Hong Kong for Ann Taylor.

Conrad’s obituary said he never truly retired, as he spent his later years designing and building high-end residential homes.

“His thirst and passion for creativity never faded. He was always full of new ideas and plans, forever thinking about what’s next,” it said.

In early November, Conrad returned from a sabbatical and released a new Bern Conrad collection. A release at the time noted it “embodies gorgeous flowy and playful lines that embrace movement and comfort.”

As a prominent figure from the inner sanctum of New York City’s garment district, the release said his love of style and comfort has never left him. The new collection featured maxi dresses, muscle T-shirts, short-sleeved, T-shirts, ponchos and hoodies fit for any occasion.

“I have a critical definition of function,” Conrad said in the release. “Of course, it includes comfort and wearability but I believe a garment is truly functional when it can also stand the test of time, the passing of trends and has the versatility to complement a person’s existing wardrobe and lifestyle.”

In his younger years, according to his obituary, Bern loved to ski and play tennis and even created his own court on his property. It noted he was a great lover of music, and would break out in song if he heard someone say part of a lyric.

“Always upbeat and friendly, there were few people in and around the Fairfield area that didn’t know Bern,” it said. “He loved to bring people together.”

Conrad is survived by his wife, Ilonka Conrad, son, Cole Conrad, as well as a grandaughter and his siblings.

Services were held at Greenfield Hill Congregational Church in Fairfield, on Dec. 1 with military funeral honors. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made to Saint Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

joshua.labella@hearstmediact.com