Aretha Franklin liked to perform in white, black, or aqua outfits; occasionally, she would wear pink. She had a thing for jackets lined with turkey or ostrich feathers. With her detailed knowledge of couture, she could spot the difference between French and Chinese silk. And there was one thing her designer couldn’t get wrong: He could never make anything too magnificent. “No matter how many feathers I put on, she would never say, ‘That’s too much,’” says Kenny Bonavitacola, Fashion Design ’75, who made some 35 looks for Franklin from 2001 until her death in 2018. She told Bonavitacola she wanted styles that matched her talent. “If you got it, flaunt it, darling, and I’ve got it.” In August, the Queen of Soul was back in the news with the premiere of the biopic Respect, which premiered in theaters nationwide.
Growing up, Bonavitacola expected to inherit his family’s sandwich shop in South Philadelphia. But in high school, he and close friend Bil Donovan ’78, hatched another plan. Bonavitacola applied to FIT behind his parents’ back, and in a few years, he had a degree and a position with designer Giorgio Sant’Angelo. (Donovan followed him to FIT, and is now a noted fashion illustrator and professor at the college.) Bonavitacola left to start his own line, and dressed Diana Ross, actor Beverly D’Angelo, and the Studio 54 crowd, in what his friend Ralph Rucci, Fashion Design ’80, described as “disco couture.” In the ‘90s, Bonavitacola’s business manager met Franklin, who said, “Do you know a designer who will collaborate? I know what I want.”
When they met, the singer asked Bonavitacola, “Have you seen Imitation of Life with Lana Turner?” He replied, “Miss Franklin, I was reared on that film.” Franklin wanted a short opera coat like the one Turner wore, and Bonavitacola knew it well. In fact, he knew all Franklin’s references—fabled Hollywood designers Orry-Kelly and Jean Louis; the cape Bette Davis sported in Now, Voyager. He reinterpreted the outfit Marilyn Monroe wore to sing “Happy Birthday” to President Kennedy for Franklin’s frame. Each dress had a corset and those corsets had a special consideration: “I had to make sure she could sing and not be restricted,” he says.
Sometimes he submitted sketches; other times, she sketched what she wanted herself. If she liked the result, she said, “You nailed it.” If not: “Kenny, that’s not what we talked about.” But anyone hoping for gossipy horror stories of diva behavior will be disappointed. “I don’t have any,” he says. “She was the most gracious person.”
For the Franklin biopic Respect, costume designer Clint Ramos studied Bonavitacola’s costumes; Ramos also invited him to the New York premiere, bringing him one step closer to his dream of designing for star Jennifer Hudson. Bonavitacola thinks Franklin would be pleased by the selection of Hudson to portray her. Not long after the actress was voted off American Idol in 2004, he ran into her on the way to fit Franklin. He introduced himself and praised her talent. When he told Franklin about the encounter, the Queen of Soul replied, “What a travesty [that she got voted off]. That girl can sing.”