How a Designer from Mississippi Nearly Conquered Paris

It’s too often the case that recently passed designers, struck down before their creative peak, are utterly forgotten, cycled out of memory by an accelerating fashion system. The American designer Patrick Kelly is one such case. And yet, with the clarity of hindsight, his work in the 1980s — before his untimely AIDS-related death in 1990 — is proving to be much more trailblazing than he’s given credit for, as a new exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art reveals.

The last (and first) institutional look at Kelly’s work was exactly a decade ago, when the Brooklyn Museum highlighted key pieces from his oeuvre. But the show in Philadelphia, Runway of Love, digs further into his life and work, displaying 80 complete looks on mannequins, as well as videos of his fashion shows and portraits by the likes of Horst P. Horst, Pierre et Gilles, and Oliviero Toscani. The retrospective delves into the psyche of the perpetually upbeat Mississippian, who essentially skipped the training wheels of New York for the hallowed runway of Paris — just as one of his idols, Josephine Baker, did half a century earlier.

“I wanted to look at his relationship to his upbringing in the South and the way he used his African-American identity as a resource,” curator Dilys Blum said during a pre-see. “For example, his collection of black memorabilia. I’m not sure you can show that to an American audience outside of a museum. This [golliwog face] became his logo, which he put on his shopping bags, and his mother made a black baby-doll pin that he handed out as souvenirs at his shows. America is too PC for that.”

Kelly was a self-trained designer, save for one year at Parsons in New York, where he didn’t exactly shine scholastically. Or as Blum put it, bluntly, “He was asked to leave. He was spending more time at Paradise Garage than he was in class. He was a better networker than he was a student.” Around the same time, the supermodel Pat Cleveland — no stranger to the black experience in American fashion — felt he needed to get out into the real world and gave him a plane ticket to Paris. He arrived in 1979 and began selling colorful tube dresses on the street, cut quickly from one piece of stretch fabric (a very early example of fast fashion) — while also hitting the clubs. “In Paris he worked at Le Palais, where he made costumes for the club’s skits. Everyone hung out there. That’s how he met Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé,” who, nearly a decade later, helped establish the house of Patrick Kelly Paris.

In Paris, Kelly quickly absorbed his adopted culture and became besotted, as one does, with the great 20th-century couturières — the women, specifically Elsa Schiaparelli, Coco Chanel, Madame Grès, and Nina Ricci. “Madame Grès is the one designer he said he’d do anything to work for,” Blum notes, “even pick up pins.” So deep was his infatuation with haute couture that, in 1989, Horst photographed the up-and-comer posing as Chanel and Schiaparelli, mimicking his own earlier portraits of the two rivals.

Kelly’s career took off in Paris. He became the first American and first black designer allowed into the esteemed Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-à-Porter. For his spring 1989 collection, the first following his acceptance, he showed at the Louvre and imagined that the Mona Lisa herself had invited him. “He had all these different Mona Lisa personas on the runway,” said Blum, “like Pinwheel Lisa, Jungle Lisa, and Billie Lisa, named after Billie Holiday. Grace Jones was in the show and she came out as La Joconde.”

A master magpie, Kelly collected and combined a lifetime of influences. His penchant for decoration stemmed from his childhood memories of church-going ladies in their Sunday best, while his signature use of all-over buttons harks back to his grandmother, who’d replace lost buttons on his clothes with buttons of contrasting colors. In this way, adapting the conservatism of the Deep South to fit a chic French mold is perhaps his greatest work of pastiche, his lasting legacy. 

Shortly before he developed AIDS and died on New Year’s Day in 1990, Kelly received financial backing from Warnaco, the American conglomerate that made headlines years later for its legal battles with Calvin Klein. Blum paints the picture: “I think Kelly was the first designer Linda [Wachner] brought on board. He found out he had AIDS right after he signed the contract, and back then you didn’t talk about having AIDS. Without knowing of his condition, Warnaco pulled its funding over his last show, claiming non-compliance. But he hadn’t been doing what they wanted for a while. He was pushing boundaries and they really wanted him to be more mainstream, like Calvin Klein or Michael Kors. I think Kelly had too much spirit. He belonged in Paris.”

Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love, Apr 27 – Nov 30, 2014, Philadelphia Museum of Art

Special thanks to the Four Seasons Philadelphia.

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