|Photos: Joel & Laurel Marcus|
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From his birth until his untimely death Patrick Kelly was an anomaly: a gay, black boy with an Irish sounding name growing up in Mississippi; an oversize overall-wearing southerner whose presence and talent were welcomed and celebrated in Paris more than in his own country; an African-American who embraced the controversial symbols of racial stereotypes and collected Aunt Jemima's, little black baby dolls which he pinned to his clothing and gave away by the dozens, golliwogs and watermelon artifacts making them his own “brand.” But the biggest contradiction was at his death. How could someone so "alive" have their flame extinguished so soon? For a designer who was just attaining critical mass after five short years (1985-1989) in business with tremendous financial backing and his meteoric star on the rise, it was an unthinkable tragedy although unfortunately, not that unusual in the early days of AIDS. Patrick Kelly's light went out on January 1, 1990. He was 35 years old. The inscription on his gravestone reads "Nothing is impossible."
On Saturday night I relived the 80’s as I attended the exhibit opening of "Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love" at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The night had some inauspicious beginnings including a missed train (have you ever tried to get to Penn Station in weekend rush hour traffic)? When I finally did arrive at the Museum’s Perelman Building (2525 Pennsylvania Ave.) I was excited to see a huge banner out front and several smiling, gracious hostesses at the top of the red faux carpeted (it was a red painted stripe) stairway checking names and giving out wristbands, assuring me that I was right on time.
Patrick Kelly had said that he wanted his clothing to make people smile and judging by the happy crowd assembled, he readily accomplished that dream. In attendance were Bjorn Guil Amelan, Kelly’s former life and business partner and Bill T.Jones, his current life partner who donated as a permanent gift the over 80 ensembles that are showcased in the exhibit. There were several of Kelly’s former models including the influential Pat Cleveland who is attributed as the mystery donor of Kelly’s one way ticket from New York to Paris which gave him his start; as well as people who worked with him in various capacities, Philadelphians who support the Museum and several New Yorkers involved in fashion and Kelly devotees. As the first American and the first Black designer to be voted into the Chambre Syndicale du Pret-a-Porter des Couturiers et des Creatueurs de Mode (the French fashion industry association and standards organization) Kelly had his grandmother; American expatriate entertainer Josephine Baker; as well as couturiers Madame Gres and Elsa Schiaparelli as muses. Kelly’s love of mismatched and colorful buttons came from his grandmother who would replace one of Kelly’s frequently lost childhood buttons with a variety of colors.
The exhibit is divided into six themes or time periods in Kelly’s design career as well as the center aisle “Runway of Love” featuring his button heart dresses. The title of the exhibit plays on the theme that, as a nod to street art, he always spray painted a heart at the end of the runway right before his show was to begin. The first grouping known as “Fast Fashion” refers to his tube dresses sold on the streets of Paris which led to his 1995 discovery and six page spread in French Elle as well as to his five- year contract with Warnaco. In the “Mississippi in Paris” section Kelly was inspired by the women that he remembered from his local Baptist church back home in small town Vicksburg who looked “fierce” in their Sunday best, “Hot Couture” references fashion from icons such as Chanel, Madame Gres and Schiaparelli from old copies of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar that his grandmother used to bring home from her job working as a domestic in a white woman’s house.
Upon not seeing any black women modeling the magazine’s fashions Kelly asked why no one designed for the black woman and vowed to do so himself. In 1974, Kelly moved to Atlanta and began designing window displays for Yves Saint Laurent’s Rive Gauche; a line which was helped to democratize high-end fashion. Model Pat Cleveland told Kelly he needed to try his luck in New York but after little success he uprooted again. “Lisa Loves the Louvre” features Kelly’s Parisian move and his foray into creating costumes for Le Palace, Paris’ version of Studio 54. The energy and theatricality of this time greatly influenced Kelly’s runway shows. Lastly, “Two Loves” breaks down the theme of his fondness for both France and the US featuring Eiffel Tower embellished clothing as well as some native American serapes and fringed denim suits. This was to be his last collection.
The exhibit shows video from Kelly’s fashion shows and they were always a party! The models did not walk down the runway but rather danced, pranced, boogied and generally looked like they were having a blast accompanied by some of the greatest popular music of the time. The energy was so electric that the audience would dance along with them and by the time Patrick would come out at the end in his over sized overalls it would bear more resemblance to a celebratory Mardi Gras parade or a church revival than a fashion show. Kelly hired models of all colors and once had a visibly pregnant model walk in his show, he truly celebrated women’s bodies of all shapes and sizes. His love of bright color and ornamentation gave some of his simple silhouettes their great interest and all women wanted to wear his designs. Indeed all ages did wear his designs including an 80 year old Bette Davis on David Letterman when she called out for Patrick Kelly to get a sponsorship as well as a 20 year old Vanessa Williams
Philadelphia Museum of Art Curator Dilys (rhymes with Phyllis) Blum mentions that you could wear any of Kelly’s designs today and I would love to! Even the 80’s shoulder pads somehow looked fresh. I spoke to one of the volunteer assistants in the “behind the scenes” dressing the mannequins department who shared a few tricks of the trade in conservation and curating. For instance, when dressing the specially ordered mannequins of various “skin tones” care must be given to always wrap any area that will be covered in clothing first with a layer of stocking material. There is something in the paint that could rub off so the clothing can never come directly in contact with the mannequin. The clothing was stored in a huge freezer and then vacuumed carefully to make sure anything animate (bugs) or inanimate would not survive. Many of the accessories such as hats, gloves, jewelry, and shoes were original but when necessary some shoes of the era were located and purchased and earrings were sometimes made. It’s important to note that flash photography is not allowed inside the exhibit making it near impossible to take any good photos.
Knowing a few months in advance that I would be attending this event I decided to attempt to stay in theme as well, which meant taking my first foray into vintage collecting. First I found an awesome black leather peplum jacket with silver Eiffel Tower pulls on the sleeves and front zipper at the Metropolitan Pavilion vintage sale which I had planned to wear with a skirt from my closet however literally two days before the event I scored a black tank dress with gold stars and crystal embellishments from private dealer Diane Schieck of Vintage Schieck . Incidentally, both of these items were represented in a slight variation in the show. Regrettably and unbelievably, Patrick Kelly was not on my radar in the 80’s however I do have some Stephen Sprouse pieces from his neon 1984 collection in case anyone has a retrospective of Sprouse’s work (I’d just have to lose about 10 pounds to get into the orange leather skirt suit I own. Ha!).
In addition to the Kelly exhibit there is a companion exhibit of New York-based graphic artist and designer Gerlan Marcel entitled “Gerlan Jeans (hearts) Patrick Kelly” which explores Kelly’s relevance as inspiration for her contemporary line worn by pop and style icons including Beyonce and Katy Perry. There is no doubt that Patrick Kelly influenced many of his time. While viewing the Kelly exhibit with New York fashion designer and contributor to Lookonline.com Stacy Lomman admitted to feeling nostalgic. "I remember seeing all of these designs in magazines and I remember the fabrics," she said, adding that she must have been influenced by Kelly because she once sewed multicolored buttons onto a jacket.
I did not attend the 2004 Brooklyn Museum retrospective of Patrick Kelly but I believe this one is much more comprehensive showing full outfits rather than just individual items. I highly recommend seeing this show if your plans call for a trip to Philadelphia. The exhibit runs until November 30.
- Laurel Marcus