The list of fashion dignitaries who existed in Patrick Kelly’s orbit is almost as inspiring as his work: Bette Davis, Grace Jones, Pat Cleveland, Pierre et Gilles, Vanessa Williams, Bill T. Jones and—in Kelly’s imagination—Josephine Baker. His runway shows were full of voguing, vibrant celebrations of life and, well, love. His models adored him, the crowds loved his work, and his designs were clearly necessities of expression. Still, Kelly’s legacy as a designer is one that seems oft forgotten, if not downplayed, when folks talk about fashion stars of the 1980s. That could simply be because he’s no longer here, and his line didn’t survive him. The visionary from Vicksburg died far too soon from AIDS in 1990, but his legacy is getting a boost with Runway of Love, a new exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The nearly 80 works that comprise six sections are each timeless and stylish; in fact, taking an earnest stroll through the looks, one could point to dozens of trends that have been either co-opted or were brazen nods to designers who Kelly revered. You’ll find overalls, denim dresses, full-length jumpsuits, trenches and one-seam simplicity amid celebrations of Chanel, Madame Grès and Elsa Schiaparelli. The exhibit comes as a gift from Bjorn Guil Amelan, Kelly’s business and life partner, and Jones himself. And while this exhibit isn’t explicitly gay, the queer flavors are up at the front—and they’re really rich and savory.
Kelly grew up with a love of women, namely his mother and grandmother. The former was a home economics teacher who taught him how to draw; her mama was a cook who brought her grandson fashion magazines from the homes where she served. He developed a deep love for black memorabilia and iconography, a theme he’d use to great effect in future collections, and for the buttons his grandmother would sew on his clothes after he’d lose them. He dabbled in Atlanta and New York City in his late teens and early ‘20s, but it was his love affair with Paris that would catapult his career in the early ‘80s—a relationship prompted by a one-way ticket, given to him in 1979 by Cleveland, his supermodel friend.
The first chronological “room” of Runway of Love, “Fast Fashion,” is comprised of work Kelly sold “on the streets” in France, items he got his model friends to wear around the city as moving advertisements: simple knits, raw but expertly cut and draped cotton jersey, a stunning one-seam overcoat inspired by Balenciaga and Issey Miyake. These looks caught the attention of Elle magazine and garnered him a six-page spread. Impressed, Bergdorf Goodman bought his collection in 1985 and threw him in the window that showcased new designers.
“He was always thinking of new ideas,” exhibit organizer Dilys Blum told attendees during a guided preview last week. “Kelly was a great storyteller, and one of his business associates said that he had a mind that just didn’t stop.” There’s hope, with Runway of Love running through to the fall, that Kelly may finally gain a little deserved recognition. “His official career was so brief, and he’s no longer a brand,” Blum added, “and hopefully this show will put him back into fashion history.”
Fashion and design history, though—a story that could not be told without queer voices—never really championed Kelly, perhaps because of his queerness or perhaps because he was black. As several characters in Jennie Livingston’s iconic 1990 documentary Paris is Burning point out, it’s already hard being a black man in America, but if you’re gay, it’s going to be even harder. Blum’s take? Kelly’s queerness wasn’t as big a factor as his race. (“He would make no bones about being gay,” she maintained.) He discovered he was HIV positive right before signing a gigantic contract with Guernica Fashion, an achievement he may have never earned if he’d disclosed it. “In the ‘80s,” Blum said, “no one talked about AIDS.”
Kelly’s narrative, however, is one that’s as inspiring as it is woefully undertold. From the deep South to France’s Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-á-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode, a theme to which he always held dear is “Nothing is impossible.” The phrase is etched on Kelly’s tombstone in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. Thankfully, in Runway of Love, he lives on. The mixed bag of influences that show up in the head-to-toe looks that populate the Perelman Building are as capriciously creative as Kelly’s “Love List,” a slew of inspirations in his life that he must’ve drawn upon for his work. It is full of ethereal and unconnected muses: “Fried Chicken and “Foie Gras” and “Fauchon Croissants,” “Pretty Girls and Valentine Candy Boxes and Fried Catfish,” “Parties,” “Music: Gospel, Loud, Classical, Rap, Jazz, Soul, Luther Vandross,” “Big Overalls” and “Fun.” C’mon, don’t you want to take a walk through Kelly’s world?
Through Sun., Nov. 30. Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2600 Benjamin Franklin Pkwy. 215.763.8100. philamuseum.org