NEW YORK — In the great time line of fashion history, Patrick Kelly would appear as a blink of the eye — a fruitful five years as a major provocateur and then gone, remembered for his whimsical button dresses, if recalled at all.
“I am very aware that the nature of fashion is to die the minute it is born,” said Bjorn Amelan, who was Kelly’s business partner and lover during the designer’s brief career in the late 1980s.
Since Kelly died of AIDS in 1990, Amelan has maintained his collections, campaigning for a museum retrospective that will finally take place, opening on April 17 at the Brooklyn Museum.
“Strictly from an historical point of view, I want to see his contribution better known and not forgotten,” he said.
Amelan expects the exhibit of roughly 60 looks from Kelly’s estate will be an opportunity for scholars to reexamine his impact on design and for younger designers to be introduced to his work. Looking back at the colorful clingy dresses, covered with big plastic buttons sewn in heart-shaped patterns or a bikini made of plastic bananas, it is entirely possible they will have no more lasting impact on style than that of a small town arts-and-crafts fair.
But on another level, Kelly’s work opened the discourse of fashion to areas that had usually been taboos — as a black man appropriating stereotypical or racist imagery into his work, as an American succeeding in Paris, as a designer employing a sense of happiness and humor in a traditionally sober pursuit.
“He was a person who turned fashion to a certain point,” Amelan said. “He was a person who moved fashion from the very intellectual, very minimalist, dark and somber colors, from the cerebral approaches that were predominate in the first part of the Eighties, and brought whimsy and a sense of gaiety and happiness to fashion.”
Certainly, Kelly can be credited as part of a lighthearted moment for fashion that was in sharp contrast to the political and economic climate of the time, including the devastating impact of AIDS on the fashion industry. Those who worked with him said Kelly somehow managed to make light of all manner of personal hardships and that his upbeat collections were a reaction against them.
Kelly had traveled to Paris from a rural upbringing in Vicksburg, Miss., via Atlanta, where he dressed windows for no pay at an Yves Saint Laurent store, and New York, where he studied at Parsons School of Design for a semester before the model Pat Cleveland gave him a one-way ticket to Paris in 1981. There, he did a few odd jobs catering or creating costumes for a nightclub before a series of introductions, including that of Amelan, enabled Kelly to begin producing his own collection.
As his reputation grew, Kelly drew a following of models and celebrities like Bette Davis and Grace Jones who helped to promote him, landing a financial deal with Linda Wachner from Warnaco in 1987 and becoming the first American designer admitted to the ranks of the Chambre Syndicale in 1988.
“He went from selling dresses in the street to just exploding into this phenomenal success around the world,” recalled Perry Ellis women’s wear designer Patrick Robinson, who worked for Kelly while studying at Parsons in Paris. “The first thing about Patrick is that he was one of the kindest, nicest, most graceful persons I’ve ever known. He was such a gentleman and a beautiful human being on the inside, which is why he had so much success.”
Kelly was charming and flamboyant, wearing denim overalls at least two sizes too big, working late into the night and often sleeping underneath a work table. His designs drew on his experience and his culture, both the good and ugly of what he had seen as a child. The mismatched buttons, patchwork bandannas and miles of grosgrain ribbons were tributes to his mended clothes, an innocent reminder of his Southern roots; but his incorporation of another sort of iconography —?images of Aunt Jemima, watermelons and characters in black-face — made him a controversial figure.
Whatever the stereotype or caricature, Kelly embraced it, displayed it in his home and built it into his collection as his own, like the black plastic baby-doll pins he gave away as signs of friendship.
“His use of very controversial imagery, of African-American memorabilia and other components either imposed upon or chosen by the African-American culture, was very original, and it was precursory of a trend that has been seen in African-American pop culture and high art ever since,” Amelan said. “We never really discussed why he did it, so this is a personal interpretation, rather than a scientific one. But I do know Patrick suffered a lot from racism growing up in Mississippi in the Fifties and Sixties, and rather than cower and try to repress that, the most effective way to deal with it was to appropriate and send back that image in an empowered way. I feel that it was a conscious decision that a lot of this 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.”
Several pieces of Kelly’s collection of black memorabilia will be included in the exhibit, along with shopping bags and fashion show invitations that feature his logo, a cartoon golliwogg. Thelma Golden, deputy director for exhibitions and programs at The Studio Museum in Harlem, who is serving as guest curator for Kelly’s retrospective, said she was astounded by the depth of Kelly’s archives.
“There was a whole realm of classic, iconic Patrick Kelly designs, but also things I’d never seen before,” said Golden, noting that the exploration gave her a better appreciation of the designer’s work than her memories of reading about him while she was in college. The retrospective is planned to run through Sept. 5 in the museum’s Robert E. Blum Gallery, adjacent to a new $63 million front entrance and plaza, which also opens April 17.
“Patrick remains in the hearts and minds of many people,” Golden said. “His work is being referenced even second- or thirdhand now. This show is the beginning of a reassessment of Patrick’s impact on the cultural world and the fashion world. People remember the style, the humor, the wit, the embrace of culture, and they certainly remember it with a smile.
“It was an approach that embraced fashion and glamour, but it was more than that — there were runways filled with models who smiled, with the high and the low brought together. All of these things still resonate today.”