Fashion is celebrated this spring at the Philadelphia Museum of Art
in the retrospective Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love, which explores the meteoric rise and remarkable achievements of a 1980s legend whose clothing was worn by women of every age, from actress Bette Davis, late in her life, to singer Vanessa Williams, then in her twenties.This is the first exhibition to showcase the full scope of Kellys head-to-toe runway ensembles, and includes selections from the artists significant holdings of black memorabilia, videos of his exuberant fashion shows, and works by renowned photographers Horst P. Horst, Pierre et Gilles, and Oliviero Toscani.
Kellys bold and bright creations stood out on urban streets, nightclubs, and fashion runways, and his remarkable talent, exceptional charisma, and branding savvy catapulted him to success. His work had a broad popular appeal, yet it was also intellectually edgy, challenging racial and cultural boundaries. Kellys muses ranged from his Mississippi grandmother, to the American expatriate entertainer Josephine Baker, to the couturiers Madame Grès and Elsa Schiaparelli.
Dilys Blum, The Museums Jack M. and Annette Y. Friedland Senior Curator of Costume and Textiles and organizer of this exhibition, said, Patrick Kellys bold colors, playful aesthetic, and voguing runway shows have inspired todays designers such as Gerlan Marcel and Michael Bastian, who has drawn inspiration from Kellys incredible spirit and love of France in his Spring/Summer 2014 menswear collection. What Kelly achieved during the 1980s has continuing resonance today. While the many barriers he faced remain, Kelly was always positive. His branding and self-marketing were unique at the time, but now, in an age of fast fashion and brand-driven sales, it is a perfect time to reexamine Kellys contribution to fashion history.
The exhibition is organized into six sections, beginning with Kellys 198384 collection for the Italian experimental design group Studio Invenzione and continuing through his final Fall/Winter 198990 collection. It opens with Runway of Love, highlighting the designers heart-shaped embellishments to his clothing, often composed from his signature buttons. As a child growing up in Mississippi, Kelly would often lose his buttons, which his grandmother replaced with those of many different colors, a look that Kelly later adapted for his fashion designs.
Fast Fashion includes designs that Kelly assembled quickly to sell on the streets of Paris after he moved there in 1979. He dressed his model friends in body-conscious knits, which they would wear around the city, becoming in effect living advertisements of his vision. These dresses quickly caught the attention of ELLE magazine, which featured Kellys fashions in a six-page spread in February 1985, as well as the Paris boutique Victoire. His first collection was purchased by Bergdorf Goodman, who found Kellys designs fun, chic, affordable, and Parisian, and the store showcased them in a window display reserved for new designers.
The American South, where Kelly was born and raised, informed and inspired his brand from the very beginning. He used the concept of women dressed up in their Sunday best as a point of departure for many of his looks. Mississippi in Paris features Kellys work that boldly addressed the designers upbringing, as well as racial tropes, from his insouciant Aunt Jemima bandana and golliwog dresses, the latter of which was adapted as his logo.
Hot Couture is a playful tribute to Kellys muses and to fashion history. Many of Kellys own presentations parodied fashion show traditions and riffed on the work of famed couturiers such as Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli, and Madame Grès, the designer whom Kelly admired most and held in highest regard. A master at draping and manipulating fabric into Greek goddess-like gowns, Madame Grès inspired Kellys much more practical body-conscious knitted jersey dresses with wraps that could be tied around the body in various ways.
In 1988, shortly after receiving financial backing from the fashion powerhouse Warnaco, Kelly became the first American and the first black designer to be elected into the elite Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode. Membership in this exclusive group allowed Kelly to present his ready-to-wear collections in the tents at the Musée du Louvre. The section titled Lisa Loves the Louvre features designs from this Spring/Summer 1989 collection, for which Kelly fantasized that the museums most famous resident, Mona Lisa, invited him to show his latest designs. His collection was a spirited evocation of all his favorite Lisas, from Billie (Holiday) Lisa to the other-worldly Moona Lisa.
The exhibitions final section, Two Loves is a tribute to Kellys loves, America and France, which were also embraced by his muse Josephine Baker. The designs in this section are from Kellys final Fall/Winter 198990 collection, and pay homage to cultural icons from both countries, including the Eiffel Tower and the cartoon character Jessica Rabbit. The exhibitions rousing finale is an allusion to the Casino de Paris music hall, where Baker performed during the 1920, and which Kelly transforms into the Casino de Patrick.
Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love will showcase over eighty ensembles recently presented to the Museum as a promised gift by Kellys business and life partner, Bjorn Guil Amelan, and Bill T. Jones. The exhibition will be accompanied by public programs this fall, including a fashion film series and a conversation about Patrick Kelly and his fashion designs and career with supermodel Pat Cleveland, writer Michael Gross, and fashion journalist Carol Mongo.
Patrick Kelly (c. 19541990) was born and raised in Vicksburg, Mississippi. His mother, a home economics teacher, taught him how to draw, and his grandmother, a cook, fostered a love of fashion by bringing him fashion magazines from the family for whom she worked. Kelly briefly studied art and history before moving to Paris in late 1979. In 1988, he became the first American and the first black designer to be voted into the Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode, the French fashion industry association and standards organization. Kellys career was cut short by AIDS in 1990. The epitaph on his headstone in Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris, is emblematic of the designer and his legacy: Nothing Is Impossible.