The late fashion designer Patrick Kelly’s career and charisma will be spotlighted in a new exhibition that will debut at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., in June.
First staged at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2014 and then reimagined last year for a run at the de Young, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, ”Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love” celebrates his primarily self-taught style and inspirational accomplishments. The sportswear designer died in Paris at the age of 35 from complications related to AIDS in 1990. Two years earlier he had become the first American and the first Black American to be invited to join the Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode.
Following his death, Kelly’s business and romantic partner Bjorn Amelan said, “Patrick’s role was more important than just as a fashion designer. He inspired people to pursue their dreams in many fields and we’d like to preserve his memory by encouraging young talent, and particularly young Black talent.”
With his bright hues, smiling runway models, high-low combos, whimsical designs and playful ad campaigns, Kelly shifted fashion from the intellectual styles in somber tones to more exuberant items in the late’80s. Colorful clingy dresses with heart-shaped buttons, a bikini made of plastic bananas and a biased black gown imprinted with “I ❤️ PATRICK KELLY” were examples of his exuberant creations. Born in Vicksburg, Miss., Kelly first worked in Atlanta handling the window dressing at an Yves Saint Laurent store for free before moving to New York, where he studied for a semester at the Parsons School of Design and sold his creations to club kids in New York City. After the model Pat Cleveland gave him a one-way ticket to Paris in 1979, Kelly did a few odd jobs such as catering and creating costumes for a nightclub. He also bought fabric at a local street market and used a borrowed sewing machine to make simple, interchangeable designs that he sold on the streets of Paris.
After several years of freelancing, he started Patrick Kelly Paris in 1985 with Amelan. Over time, the designer cultivated a celebrity following that included Bette Davis and Grace Jones. That exposure helped him to land a multimillion-dollar financial deal with Warnaco’s then-leader Linda Wachner in 1987 and he was admitted to the Chambre Syndicale the following year. His Chambre Syndicale fashion week presentations included one at the Musee du Louvre, where Kelly envisioned that the Mona Lisa had invited him to show his collection. Some of those styles will be featured in the PEM show.
Along the way he mentored such talents as Patrick Robinson, who worked for Kelly while studying at Parsons’ Paris outpost.
Diagnosed with HIV in 1987, Kelly did not reveal his illness publicly at that time due to its stigma.
In PEM’s “Hot Couture” section of the show, visitors will learn how Kelly opened a runway show by spray painting a heart on the back wall as a tribute to street art. He also riffed on fashion powerhouses like Saint Laurent, Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli and Madame Grès (whom Kelly held in high regard and emulated with his knitted jersey dresses.) The exhibition’s final section, “Two Loves,” highlight his fondness for America and France, which were also embraced by Kelly’s greatest muse Josephine Baker.
In a 2004 interview with WWD, Amelan noted that Kelly’s use of controversial imagery of African American memorabilia that was either imposed upon or chosen by the African American culture was very original and it was a precursor of a trend that later transpired in African American pop culture and high art.
Noting how Kelly suffered from racism in the’50s and ’60s, Amelan told WWD that the designer never discussed why he chose that interpretation. From Amelan’s perspective, it was “a conscious decision that a lot of the imagery had to be emasculated of its negative, white, repressive content and sent back with pride of ownership, in a broad sense of the term by an African American person.”
The retrospective show will be on view at PEM from June 25 through Nov. 8. The museum’s director of curatorial affairs and the Nancy B. Putnam curator of fashion and textiles Petra Slinkard said Kelly’s “short, but inspiring career” resulted in 14 collections in six years. “He promoted powerful messages of joy and love, while addressing important cultural and social issues head on. Kelly and his work have subsequently become touchstones for a number of established and emerging designers,” she said.