Heroes: Patrick Kelly

Heroes: Patrick Kelly

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Heroes: Patrick Kelly

How the American designer infatuated a nation with his collections

How the American designer infatuated a nation with his collections

Text: Kala Herh

There are many designers who have revolutionized the fashion industry with their creative visions, but very few who have done so as profoundly as Patrick Kelly. Chipping away at the industry’s glass-ceiling one seam at a time, Kelly’s exuberant designs illustrated the complexity and beauty of Blackness. By creating designs that often incorporated traditionally racist motifs, Kelly not only confronted these stereotypes head on, but also reclaimed the narrative for his community. Kelly was an early pioneer for authentic Black expression at a time when those spaces were not traditionally available to designers of color. Fast forward almost three decades later, Kelly’s mission to combat racist ideology in fashion extends posthumously with a surge of contemporary Black designers at the forefront of fashion’s new order (think: Kerby Jean-Raymond of Pyer Moss and Telfar Clemens of TELFAR–all of whom have adopted Kelly’s seemingly effortless blend of social consciousness with luxury fashion).

Spring/Summer 1989 Collection. Photograph by Oliviero Toscani Image courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art / © 2020 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SIAE, Rome

In his early days, Kelly opened a makeshift shop Mothball Matinee tucked away at the back of a hair salon in Atlanta, which is where his creative sensibilities formed and also where he met his good friend and muse, Pat Cleveland. After dominating the ATL fashion scene Kelly set his sights on New York but after striking out the young visionary made his way to Paris. And while much of his accolades are placed on his time in Paris, Kelly’s creative vision was rooted in his experience in Vicksburg, Mississippi. It was here where Kelly encountered racist imagery that stuck with him and would later inform his design aesthetic and brand identity–for a while Kelly used golliwog illustrations he saw in mainstream media in its brand logo. Kelly’s childhood was centered in one of the state’s darkest times: The Jim Crow Era. With racism running rampant and the Civil Rights Movement in full swing, pastimes as simple as reading were tainted by bigotry. The pages of Kelly’s books were inundated with xenophobic imagery, including several characters whose faces were colored in with marker. Not to mention, the lack of Black model representation he noted in high fashion magazines like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar (which his grandmother provided him with). Instead of suppressing his ambitions to be a designer, these horrific encounters empowered him.

Earlier experiences in his local community and home became key pillars of Patrick Kelly designs. His trademark clingy, shift dresses covered in mismatched buttons in his Fall 1986 collection reference a technique that his grandmother (who also acted as his muse) used to mend Patrick’s clothes. The button became an emblem of his designs and if you saw a button dress in the windows of Harrods, you knew it was one of Kelly’s. And while Kelly experimented with various prints and silhouettes, these home sewing influences of his childhood were a constant theme throughout his career. It was ultimately Kelly’s workmanship, industriousness and determination that made him a lasting figure in fashion. In 1980, Kelly was voted into the Chambre Syndicale du Pret-a-Porter des Courturiers et des Createurs de Mode, which made him the first American and first Black designer to show at Paris Fashion Week. And these fashion accolades continued even after his passing in 1990. In 2004, his work was the subject of a retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum of Art and ten years later the Philadelphia Museum of Art highlighted some of his most groundbreaking designs.

And this year, the infatuation with Kelly is still as strong as ever–this fall, San Francisco’s de Young Museum looks back at Kelly’s decades-long legacy with its latest exhibition, Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love. On a whole, the exhibition (October 23-April 24) contextualizes Kelly’s work, exploring his childhood in the South and his experiences at New York and Paris clubs. And by bringing together both his work and personal life, the exhibition remembers the fashion icon not only for his one-of-a-kind designs, but also his larger-than-life personality. Along with the designer’s sketches and archival footage from some of his most famous fashion shows, the curators also selected 80 fully accessorized ensembles to be on display. These designs speak not only to an innovative use of textiles but also showcase the pure genius of an individual who paved the way for a new generation of Black designers.

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