Meet the Teams: Kelly Cobb and Bentley Robe Company

Kelly Cobb’s study of garments, as she described it to the Structure and Surface group, looks at social economics as much as clothes and their production.

Cobb is notable for the Philadelphia Institute of Contemporary Art exhibit, the 100-mile Suit, where she worked to produce a full suit culling all the necessary raw materials from with a 100-mile radius of Philadelphia. She said it took 608 hours to make a suit that was (unofficially) 98 percent local-sourced, from wool underwear and a tie dyed with walnut, to deerskin shoes.

“It was a gamechanger for me as far as art and practice,” Cobb said.

She worked with various groups on the project, and said it played into her interest in engagement with other people, as well as evebts. “I’m a twin,” she said. “I think that’s a lot of it.”

Cobb comes from a family of textile people in Ware Shoals, South Carolina – her family worked in the textile mill until it closed in the 1980’s, devastating the local economy and leaving a toxic wasteland where the factory once stood.

Her current project works with her students at the University of Delaware, tracing the denim supply chain across north America and learning about its production along the way – how distressed tears and fades to make jeans look vintage and unique are actually very strategic and mechanized, using tools from sandpaper to dremels. Cobb said she sees herself going to a sculptural place with the denim techniques she’s picking up along the way, from fabric-shredding to asymmetric stacks of denim on the factory floor.

“This is sculptural to me,” she said, pointing to a flat of jeans. “So when I’m wearing my two hats [teacher and artist], I’m trying to figure out what to make of it.

Cobb’s manufacturer partner is Bentley Robe Company of Germantown, who was represented at the meeting by Vernard Trent, husband of owner Robin Trent.

“She’s coming down off of graduation season,” he explained.

The company was founded by the Rev. Dr. William L. Bentley in North Philadelphia, who worked with  Rev. Dr. Leon Sullivan to start small factories in church basements because African-Americans were shut out of working in the tailoring industry during the 1940s and 50s. Bentley took root at Emmanual Baptist Church, and now operates out of a storefront on Germantown Avenue.

It’s a niche company, Trent described, working to make robes for churches, universities and college, high schools, even judicial robes. He said his wife specializes in custom, handmade work – for example, when Enon Baptist Church comes in with an order for their 15 choirs, they are not getting the robes off the rack – each group is has its own specifications, and Trent says he and his wife are looking for ways to expand their company and its mechanization, and upgrade everything to meet their business demands.

“The machines in my wife’s shop remind me of my mother’s old singer sewing machines,” he said.

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