Billy Porter-inspired fashions bloom in Phipps Conservatory exhibit
In the summer of 2021, Billy Porter returned to his hometown of Pittsburgh to shoot his feature-film directorial debut, “Anything’s Possible.” The rom-com centering on a trans girl featured the city prominently, but no spot got more love than Phipps Conservatory & Botanical Gardens, where two scenes took place.
While Porter was there, Phipps approached the Emmy-, Tony- and Grammy-winning singer and actor and fashion icon about collaborating on an exhibit honoring some of his best-known styles from red carpets and beyond. “Anything’s Possible” hit Amazon Prime last year; this week, Phipps opens “Flowers Meet Fashion: Inspired by Billy Porter.”
The exhibit features 13 original garments created by local designers and Phipps staff — some made of actual dried plant material sourced at the landmark conservatory, and all of it drawing on clothes Porter wore at awards shows, the Met Gala, or on stage, as in his breakout Broadway role in “Kinky Boots.”
“He’s such an icon, it really made sense to partner with him on something big, something grand,” said Jordyn Melino, Phipps’ associate director of exhibits.
Melino described the show as one of Phipps’ biggest ever. The 13 pieces distributed amongst the conservatory’s eight display rooms include a gold costume suspended above the pond in the Victoria Room and, in the Serpentine Room, an aquaponics costume complete with live fish swimming inside.
One of Porter’s best-known outfits was a Christian Siriano-designed tuxedo dress he wore to the 2019 Golden Globes — a tuxedo-style top with a black ball-gown skirt. Local designer Damian Dominguez paid homage with his own tuxedo dress, this one adorned with embroidered flowers, elements representing Dominguez’s own Mexican heritage, and embroidered Pittsburgh bridges. It will be displayed in the Palm Court, where Melino is accenting the garment’s color palette with a floral display incorporating orange impatiens, red bromeliads, and purple foliage.
Other guest designers contributing garments include Madison Michalko, Thee Suburbia, Cathy Olivar, Daniele Mathews, and Mindy Eshelman.
Phipps also involved Porter’s alma maters here, Pittsburgh High School for the Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA) and Carnegie Mellon University. CAPA students contributed sculptures inspired by patterns in nature. And CMU design students created three garments inspired by Porter’s life and his memoir, “Unprotected.”
Melino said Porter himself offered suggestions during the design phase, including one to improve a decorative red carpet made of dried flowers in the South Conservatory.
“Billy said, ‘Oh, this red carpet is really begging to be walked on. Is there any way that you could make this interactive?’” she said.
Melino said the red carpet, originally positioned only in the garden area, was extended to include a longer, walkable portion in a main pathway leading to a selfie station.
While Porter, who is also a Phipps board member, visits Pittsburgh frequently, the opening of “Flowers Meet Fashion” overlaps with the first week or so of his national concert tour. However, in an interview last month, Porter told WESA he’ll visit the exhibit when the tour comes to Heinz Hall later this month.
“Flowers Meet Fashion” opens Sat., May 6, and runs through June 25.