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A fashion designer from Germantown and an entrepreneur from Chester walk into a flea market.
Not the first line of a father’s joke. This is the premise behind Kenya’s mid-century modern furniture store Abdul-Hadi and Steven Brown. The pair scour real estate sales, flea markets, auctions, and the homes of friends and neighbors in search of retro and vintage household items – a $ 3,500 Frank Lloyd Wright Frieze from the turn of the 20th century, for example – to resell under The Modern Republic brand.
Launched three years ago as a weekend pop-up that closed during the pandemic, the company found a temporary home in a shared warehouse in Brewerytown, as its reputation continued to grow.
Inside, shoppers will find walls covered in large, vibrant and abstract paintings, angular furniture in neutral or bright primary colors, and a section where chairs, tables, and lamps are displayed high above your head. One arched wall is yellow, another is orange. There is a royal blue long rounded sofa for sale. A part of the ground is squared in black and white.
Most of the products are from the 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s. There are also more vintage pieces, like the Bauhaus from the 1930s, and a few more recent products, like the post-modern Memphis style items from the 1980s. “But our core,” Abdul-Hadi said, “is in the middle of the [20th] century.”
When the two men enter flea markets and real estate sales spaces to sell or forage, they are usually the only blacks there.
“I’m sure we like less than 1% across the country in this business,” Brown said.
Rather than being a hindrance, Brown and Abdul-Hadi said their run added a new perspective to the industry.
“You have the ability to go beyond the limits of what this person anticipates or who they expect you to be,” Abdul-Hadi said. They are intentional about their location and what that adds to The Modern Republic’s mission as well.
“It is also the pride to be in North Philadelphia,” continued Abdul-Hadi. “When you think of North Philadelphia you think of guns and drugs and all the bad stuff, but we’re here to say we’re going to have a new story. We’re going to change its appearance, we’re going to change the things people anticipate. “
Selling furniture and household items is a second career for friends.
After graduating from Howard University, Abdul-Hadi, 52, conceptualized and launched a number of local brands, including cult classic Miskeen Originals, which has become a globally recognized multi-million dollar label worn by rappers and celebrities in the early 2000s.
Brown, 47, has spent decades as a construction contractor, helping to design and build kitchens and bathrooms for clients’ homes. Age and maturity are what sent each of the men after their new career paths.
“For me it was, your body is starting to worry,” Brown said. “I was like, I don’t want to be 60 barely moving. I don’t want to keep beating my body like this.
Sharpened by years of experience in the hip-hop and art scene, Abdul-Hadi said he was ready for a change of pace.
“I wanted to do something a little more mature, something a little more stable,” he said, adding that the interior design “was more satisfying than chasing after an 18-year-old, from recklessly spending money on clothes “.
The result was an unusual and now extremely successful venture in the home and design. The Modern Republic officially began in 2018 with a recurring set-up every weekend at the Brooklyn Flea.
The duo first tried to gain traction in Philly, but said at the time that there was no market here for the colorful, distinct and often expensive throwback furniture they were offering.
“We realized that our style and our sense of design, they didn’t really appreciate it here,” said Abdul-Hadi. “They didn’t even want to watch it, weren’t willing to pay the price for it.”
New Yorkers were willing to do it and the men settled there for a few years, until COVID put a stop to it. One Wednesday in March last year, Brown and Abdul-Hadi learned that the weekend sale was banned. They had to come and collect their goods before Sunday.
That door slam unlocked another entrance, closer to the house. The pandemic has renewed people’s interest in homes and design. And that has boosted Modern Republic sales “100%,” Brown said.
“By leaps and bounds,” added Abdul-Hadi. During quarantine, people were confronted with the reality of their home designs… or the lack thereof. “While you’re in the house you realize, ‘Yo, I’m in the house and I don’t have a table, I don’t have a chair,” Abdul-Hadi said. “’ Yo, my house is out of date! ‘ “
The Modern Republic duo capitalized on the mainstream pivot to focus on the home.
After closing their doors in Brooklyn, they opened their first Philly-based showroom at 3103 W. Glenwood Ave., in the Search and Rescue Drygoods building. Owned by Tawfeeq Gaines, Search and Rescue is a shared space where artisans, collectors, and antique sellers sell items such as fine art, clothing, and vintage furniture. The area designed by Brown and Abdul-Hadi was approximately 1,700 square feet.
The new store that debuted this week is inside the Old Chapel of the Civic Building, a mixed-use residential space at 1600 W. Girard Ave. They now have 5,000 square feet, adorned with a 30-foot-by-12-foot shelving system that Brown built himself.
Both areas are becoming gentrified, with demographic changes as new residents and transplant recipients settle in. Abdul-Hadi said these new residents and non-Black buyers made up a large part of their clientele. Still, neighborhoods are less traditional places for an upscale furniture store, acknowledge Brown and Hadi.
In both Brewerytown and Francisville / Yorktown, where the new store is located, median household income has actually declined slightly over the past decade. It went from less than $ 23k between 2005 and 2009 to less than $ 22k between 2014 and 2018, a census study found.
At the same time, median home prices in Brewerytown have jumped from $ 59,000 in 2011 to $ 105,000 in 2016, with property sales also increasing, according to the Inquirer. Neighborhoods are economically and professionally diverse, and were even before gentrification began, but median household incomes remain among the lowest in the city.
“It’s bragging rights for us because people don’t anticipate anything good coming from North Philadelphia,” Abdul-Hadi said. “So it feels good for us to be able to say, ‘No, we are in the North’. “
For Brown and Abdul-Hadi, this is a bit the theme of their trip.
The two men noted their upbringing in what Abdul-Hadi called “difficult places”. He is originally from the Brickyard neighborhood of Germantown, while Brown grew up in the Bennett Houses of Chester. Because of their origins, they said, The Modern Republic’s intention goes beyond luxury shopping.
“This is a good design contribution, good character and good behavior,” Abdul-Hadi said. “I think that’s what society really needs. People need to be better.
He continued, “You don’t have to be rich to be good. You don’t have to be poor to be good. You just have to exist and say, “I want to commit to trying to be good.”