South Philadelphia man who dressed Aretha Franklin recalls time spent with Queen of Soul

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Friday, August 13, 2021
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Getting the Queen of Soul's look just right involved a call to the South Philadelphia man who created all of her dresses for a decade and a half.

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- "Respect," the movie about "Queen of Soul" Aretha Franklin, is now playing in theaters.

Getting the Queen of Soul's look just right involved a call to the one man who created all of her dresses for a decade and a half: a South Philadelphia fashion designer with a distinct place in music history.

Kenny Bonavitacola's story starts at his grandparents' luncheonette at 20th and Mifflin.

"They wanted me to take over the luncheonette," Bonavitacola recalled. "I said, 'I'm not. I'm going to New York I'm going to be a fashion designer.' And that was it."

In 1977 he started his own collection worn by some of the biggest stars, like Beverly D'Angelo, Rena Marino, and Diana Ross.

"Diana Ross. Oh, that was a highlight," he said.

And then, he dressed the Queen of Soul.

"It was the honor of my lifetime," Bonavitacola said.

Bonavitacola was Aretha Franklin's designer for more than 15 years.

"I don't know that I'd ever be able to dress anyone more talented or iconic, with the legacy that will live on long after you and I are gone," he said.

For "Respect," costume designer Clint Ramos reached out to Bonavitacola, who shared Aretha's fashion favorites.

"There were particular silhouettes and colors that she was drawn to, like aqua," Bonavitacola said. "And she loved white. She also loved big jackets in feathers and ruffles.

"No matter how many feathers I put on a jacket, she would never say 'Kenny, that's too much.' Her talent was so big that nothing could eclipse her. Nothing," he said.

He made custom corsets inside each gown that were comfortable enough for Aretha to sing and he says seeing her perform while wearing his pieces was "the thrill of a lifetime."

Jennifer Hudson plays Aretha in the new film and Bonavitacola met her at the premiere.

He shared what Aretha said when she saw her on American Idol.

"She said, 'That girl's got a voice. I have chills!'" he recalled.

And like Aretha, he hopes Hudson will consider his custom designs.

"I am just putting this out into the universe. I will dress her someday, I know it," he said.

For more information on Kenny Bonavitacola's designs, visit his Instagram page.