Patrick Kelly Spring/Summer 1989 Collection. Photograph by Oliviero Toscani.
Patrick Kelly is perhaps one of the most important fashion designers you’ve never heard of. But that's set out to change with Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (April 27 - November 30, 2014), a new exhibition celebrating the legacy of this unsung fashion iconoclast.
Kelly made history by becoming the first American, and the first African American, to be elected to the Chambre Syndicale, France’s prestigious organization of fashion designers, before passing away from AIDS in 1990. At 35, he had only created a handful of collections, but his radical reappropriation of racial iconography turned the fashion world on its ear, and earned him fans from Bette Davis and Grace Jones to Princess Diana.
Growing up in Vicksburg, Mississippi, Kelly kept his fashion dreams a secret. "In Mississippi you had to be a boy," he told People in 1987. "A boy sewing a dress? Oooo-EEEE!"
Though his hometown was never known as a couture capital, Kelly contended that there was more fashion to be seen in one church pew on a Sunday morning than on any Paris runway. To wit, one of his first and primary sartorial inspirations was his grandmother, whose penchant for sewing on multiple buttons for lack of matching sets Kelly later adopted.
Kelly bounced around from Jackson to Atlanta to New York before finally ending up in Paris, where his fashion career began in earnest; first as a costumer at the Le Palais nightclub, then selling his clothes on the street. His bright, bold, body-conscious designs—influenced by the club and gay scenes in New York and Paris at the time—caught the attention of the editor of French Elle, which ran a six-page story on him ahead of his first collection in March 1985.
As they did for his idol and fellow ex-pat, Josephine Baker, the French went mad for Kelly. His work referenced the legendary chanteuse, as well as the less glamorous aspects of his racial history, including the pickaninny dolls he handed out to not only guests of his fashion shows, but to strangers on the street.
By embracing and subverting racist propaganda, Kelly’s exuberant designs offered a profound statement on American culture in the vocabulary of French fashion. For the otherwise forward-thinking fashion industry (which still has issues embracing diversity in 2014), Kelly represented a rare, crucial voice silenced too soon.
A selection of Gerlan Jean looks inspired by Patrick Kelly designs is also on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Yet Patrick Kelly’s legacy lives on, thanks in no small part to his business partner and lover, Bjorn Amelan. Amelan and his partner Bill T. Jones gifted the Philadelphia Museum of Art with dozens of Kelly’s pieces that, along with selections from the late designer’s collection of black memorabilia, offer a compelling glimpse at his unique impact on race, culture, and fashion.
A new generation now has the opportunity to learn what Grace Jones already knew 30 years ago: Patrick Kelly is everything.
Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love is currently on display through November 30 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.