The year was 1987. A young and radiant Princess Diana was at the very height of her reign as the world’s most dedicated clotheshorse. During a clandestine afterhours stop at London’s Harvey Nichols, the svelte blonde was distracted from the rows of Christian Lacroix and Escada by a sequined, leopard print number designed by Paris’ newest bright star. After slipping it onto her 5’10 frame, she turned from the mirror to her male bodyguard, “It’s too tight, isn’t it?”. When the blushing sentinel agreed, her blue eyes flickered back, “I’ll take it.” So it was that a few short years after his prêt-à-porter premier, Patrick Kelly, the King of Cling, was blazing his way from Parisian showrooms into the wardrobes of the world’s most glamorous and discerning women. The designer’s meteoric rise will be celebrated next week, when the Philadelphia Museum of Art will premiere “Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love”, a comprehensive retrospective celebrating the singular spirit of the American Designer.
By 1988, Paris was burning with the openhearted magnetism and sheer velocity of Patrick Kelly. His client roster ranged from Grace Jones to an eighty-year-old Bette Davis. At the insistence of Pierre Berger, Kelly became the first American (and first black) designer to be voted into the prestigious Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode. As the City of Lights warmly cast the limelight on the southern transplant, he shined it right back, breathing new life and energy onto the runway. The first collection he showed at the Louvre, as the newest member of the coveted inner circle, was a blithe lampoon of the Mona Lisa, featuring “Billie (Holiday) Lisa”, ”Jungle Lisa Loves Tarzan” (a décolleté leopard print gown) and “Moona Lisa” (a silver paillette gown topped with Plexiglas-bubble headgear). His runways featured mermaids and cowboys, his muses ranged from the Eiffel Tower to Jessica Rabbit. The response to his robust, vivacious shows was rapturous. By 1989, he was bringing in $7 million a years, expanding licensing to included menswear. He was in talks with Hollywood executives to produce a movie based on his life. But the F/W 1998-90 show would be his unexpected final bow. In the blink of an eye, his colorful life was tragically cut short, a victim of the AIDS epidemic, the emotional maelstrom in which fashion lost an entire generation.
Grace Jones in Patrick Kelly.
Kelly’s collection of Mona Lisa cards.
Invitation to Kelly's Spring/Summer 1989 show. Designed by Christopher Hill.
(L) Moona Lisa "Woman’s Evening Dress," Spring/Summer 1989. (R) *Women's Ensemble Dress and Hat, F/W 1989.
It was less than ten years earlier that Patrick Kelly had arrived in gay ole’ Paris. He had come by way of Jackson, Atlanta and New York, but when the Vicksburg Mississippi native step foot in the mecca of flea markets, the one time refuge of dazzling Josephine Baker, he knew instantly he was home. Along the circuitous route, he had taken up any sartorially inclined task that came his way: sorting clothes at AmVets, opening his own vintage boutique, dressing Yves Saint Laurent windows (for free), coaching models at Barbizon, and hawking assignments for fellow students at Parson’s. In New York, his knotted tees gained a cult following among Studio 54 regulars, but the granite coolness of Seventh Avenue’s “line of snobbery” wore on his sunny disposition. A fairy godmother (in the form of the divine Pat Cleveland) intervened with a one-way ticket to Paris.
Freelance design work came plentifully. Kelly began selling soul food feasts of fried chicken and Aunt Jemima mix biscuits to Paris’ hoity toity. A personal folklore began to take form. But never one to rest on his laurels, the smiley designer would zip on his skateboard to the Church of St. Germain des Prés. Clad in denim overalls and a flipped brim baseball cap, he would peddle his skintight, cotton tube jersey dresses to the off-duty models leaving Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent and Ungaro. Word spread quickly. Nicole Crassat, an editor at French Elle, offered a six-page spread in the magazine, with one caveat – that the designer appear in his own insouciant uniform alongside the gaggle of models. His appearance was a pivotal ingredient in the creation of the Patrick Kelly persona, mixed in with the color of his skin and the cultural heritage of his upbringing. It is a truth no one was more aware of than the designer himself.
French Elle, Feb 18, 1985.
The aesthetics of the American South derive from a culture that is rich in visual, musical, culinary traditions. The earliest sartorial codes Kelly realized were informed in this tradition, where parishioners at the Sunday service at a black Baptist church were “just as fierce as the ladies at Yves Saint Laurent haute couture shows”. In his work, southern mythology mixed with personal experience. As a child, Kelly complained to his grandmother about the mismatched buttons on his clothes. In response, she sewed on a haphazard dash of buttons all over his shirts and suits. The practice inspired the funky, tessellated patterns that would become his signature. Other accents carried shreds of his past; king-size dice buttons, bandana skirts, watermelon minaudieres and the omnipresent golliwog logo. The French were enchanted by his brazen whimsy. And Kelly, for his part, was able celebrate a past that had not yet found its way to the hallowed tents at the Musée de Louvre.
Kelly’s emergence on the scene coincided with a significant cultural shift in which fashion was suddenly regarded in a more reputable light. A 1989 article in The Sunday Times UK (“Patrick Kelly Gets His Kicks”) suggests that the intellectual stew of the Parisian fashion scene at the time primed an audience for Kelly’s brand of design.
“The fashion industry has in the past decade gained an intellectual and cultural respectability that it never enjoyed before. Suddenly everyone had to have a look or participate in the creation of one... Yves Saint Laurent staged a fashion show at the Fête de l’Humanité, the annual outdoor bash thrown by the French Communist Party, and Mitterrand, in his first term, made it a priority to establish the Musée des Arts de la Mode in the Louvre. There is a Chanel look, a street look, an androgynous look, and even a presidential look. Now, with Patrick Kelly, Paris figured, it had its ‘look black’.”
But to write off his success a pure novelty would be a naïve misstep. Kelly was, after all, raised in the Deep South at the height of the battle over Civil Rights. (In a 1989 interview for Time Magazine, he refers offhandedly to a own short-lived ‘militant stage’.) Even an ocean away, only the nimblest hands can handle a topic as charged as race. In this, Kelly showed inimitable dexterity. His bombastic success lay in the lighthearted air he lent the heavy topic, an approach that was disarming – and effective. His riffs on African American stereotypes provided a new audience access to the pulsating energy of urban culture. And of course, gentile irreverence was conflated with precise tailoring. There always existed an infectious authenticity at the heart of his work, that which ultimately sold the product.
Kelly loved putting on a wild show full of “happy” clothes, but for all the zany flourishes, hearts, stars and rainbows, his collections were built on solid foundations, pieces that were commercially viable, easy to merchandise, and long lasting. He admired the modern practicality of Donna Karan as much as the kooky witticisms of Elsa Schiaparelli. Most remarkable of all is what an imaginative and broad oeuvre he created in so little time. In six short years he established codes, explored themes and put forth a bold, unpretentious aesthetic based on his own personal philosophy. The recent return of playful fashion in the work of Jean Charles de Castelbajac, Jeremy Scott and Nicola Formichetti as propagated by pop stars Lady Gaga and Katy Perry can be traced back to Patrick Kelly. The loss of his wit, joie de vivre and raw talent were devastating to the fashion industry, but through the generosity of his partner Bjorn Guil Amelan, and in the hands of veteran curator Dilys Blum, the retrospective assures that his legacy will shine as brightly as he once did.
(L) Women's Ensemble Bra Top and banana Skirt, F/W 1986. American supermodel Pat Cleveland wore this ensemble on the runway, and brought down the house with her spirited interpretation of Baker’s famous banana dance, originally performed at the Folies Bergère in 1925. (R) Josephine Baker. (Kelly dedicated his Fall/Winter 1986–87 collection to Josephine Baker).
(L) Invitation to Patrick Kelly's Fall/Winter 1986–87 fashion show. (R) Close up of Banana Skirt.
Patrick Kelly Designs.
Patrick Kelly Designs, 1985.
(L) Patrick Kelly with Models for Good Morning America Taping, 1986.
Close-ups of Patrick Kelly Button work.
Patrick Kelly from "Backstage" photo by William Klein, 1987.
(L) Kei Ogata for Mademoiselle magazine, Dress by Patrick Kelly, November 1987. (R) Madonna at Home 1989 - in Patrick Kelly.
Kelly anonymously designed jeans and clothing for the Italian fashion brand Benetton.
Photos by Oliviero Toscani.
Photos by Oliviero Toscani.
Photos by Oliviero Toscani.
(L) Photo by Oliviero Toscani. (R) Outfit worn by Patrick Kelly for his final fashion show, Fall/Winter 1989–90.
(L) Women's Bodysuit and Veil F/W 1988. (R) Women's Dress F/W 1986.
(L) Women's Ensemble Jacket, Skirt, Headband, Gloves and Lapel Pins F/W 1988. (R) Women's Evening Dress and Two Pairs of Gloves F/W 1988.
(L) Patrick Kelly Autumn-Winter 1989-1990 Fashion Show (we have this one in the shop now ). (R) Patrick Kelly, Vanity Fair.
(L) For his Spring/Summer 1986 collection, Kelly featured fabrics printed with the golliwog, which was once an extremely popular children’s doll. Rooted in the American blackface minstrel tradition, the image had become a symbol of racist stereotyping by the mid-1900s. Kelly’s vast collection of black memorabilia included various representations of the golliwog, and he adopted it as the logo for his brand, Patrick Kelly Paris. (R) F/W 1986-87.
(L) Women's Ensemble Dress and Gloves F/W 1988. (R) Woman’s Ensemble Trenchcoat and Belt, S/S 1989.
Today's top purveyor of kitsch and whimsy, designer Jeremy Scott has pulled heavily from Patrick Kelly's aesthetic. The following looks are from his F/W 2009 collection "Mouse Trap".
Lady Gaga and Katy Perry in Jeremy Scott designs.