SALEM, Mass. – The Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) is currently hosting an exhibition that celebrates the life and legacy of the late fashion designer Patrick Kelly. Rooted in expressions of love and joy and inspired by his experiences growing up in the American South, Kelly’s fearless yet lighthearted designs pushed racial and cultural boundaries. First exhibited by the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2014, and reconstituted for a run at the de Young, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco in 2021, Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love will be on view at PEM through November 6.
Born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1954, Kelly was primarily self-taught and drew inspiration from his Black heritage, his days in the New York and Paris club scenes and his personal muses. Drawn from the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the exhibition – which features footage from the designer’s exuberant and groundbreaking fashion shows and more than 75 fully accessorized runway ensembles created between 1984 and 1989 – situates the artist and his work in the broader context of fashion history by exploring the provocative objects and lived experiences that inspired his clothing. Patrick Kelly’s promising career was cut short by his premature death from complications related to AIDS on January 1, 1990.
“Since his passing more than 30 years ago, Patrick Kelly’s vibrant aesthetic has become part of the lexicon of global fashion,” said PEM’s Director of Curatorial Affairs and the Nancy B. Putnam Curator of Fashion and Textiles, Petra Slinkard. “Kelly’s short but inspiring career produced 14 collections in just six years. He promoted powerful messages of joy and love, while addressing important cultural and social issues head on. Kelly and his work have subsequently become touchstones for a number of established and emerging designers.”
Kelly credited his grandmother for introducing him to high fashion through Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. The designer quickly observed that no Black women were featured, which sparked a young Kelly to proclaim that he would design fashionable clothing for all. With strong Black women as his supportive foundation, Kelly took exceptional pride in his Southern origins, even once declaring, “At the Black Baptist church on Sunday, the ladies are just as fierce as the ladies at Yves Saint Laurent couture shows.”
Kelly’s grandmother was one of his greatest muses. As a child, she would replace his missing buttons with those of many different colors, a look that Kelly later adapted for his fashion designs. To keep wholesale costs down, he often featured dresses sold with separately packaged buttons, bows, and hearts that wearers could pin on themselves. He began by designing clothes for his friends at university and later after moving to Atlanta; he styled store windows and opened a vintage clothing shop.
The designer’s work unflinchingly explores charged imagery drawn from Kelly’s life and his personal collection of racist memorabilia. These include the image of the golliwog adapted as his brand’s logo. (A golliwog is a fictional and racist Black character that first appeared in a British children’s book in 1885.) Kelly’s adaptation of this cartoonish symbol would prove controversial in the United States, as the golliwog was, and still is, widely known to be a symbol of racism. Yet for Kelly, there was power in taking control of these images to share his own story. Kelly even extended the conversation to his own signature look, a pair of oversized, bibbed denim overalls, which harkened back to the laborers, tenant farmers and civil rights activists of the American South.
“Patrick Kelly’s collecting of objects and reimagining of imagery inherently racist and anti-Black into a sartorial critique is evidence of his belief that ‘nothing is impossible’,” said Advising Scholar and the Penny Vinik Curator of Fashion Arts at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston theo tyson. “His astute understanding and command of fashion as a language allowed him to innovate and transform the lived experiences of his youth in a Jim Crow-sanctioned South intolerant of Blackness and queerness into an entrepreneurial expat in Paris exalted for that very Blackness and queerness. Kelly’s colorful, joyful designs fashioned with DIY flair embodied his sensibilities of freedom and epitomized the glamorous, ballroom, camp-inspired drag of ‘80s fashion — anything was indeed possible.”
While attending New York’s Parsons School of Design, Kelly channeled his creativity into dressing club kids in his latest designs but became stymied by a lack of opportunity. In 1979, with the gift of a one-way ticket, Kelly moved to Paris and began selling his designs on the street. Kelly’s early ready-to-wear designs embodied 1980s fast fashion which, at that time, referred to simple, narrow silhouettes paired with interchangeable pieces that ensured maximum impact for minimal cost. Fast fashion of the 1980s responded to fluctuating trends and allowed designers to be experimental in their use of fabrics. With little money, Kelly bought fabric at local street markets and did the sewing himself with a borrowed sewing machine, turning out a number of items a day.
Kelly dressed his model friends in body-conscious knits, which they would wear around the city, becoming living advertisements of his vision. These dresses quickly caught the attention of an editor at French Elle magazine, which featured Kelly’s fashions in a six-page spread in February 1985, as well as the Paris boutique Victoire. Bergdorf Goodman, who found Kelly’s designs fun, chic, affordable and Parisian, purchased this first collection. The New York–based department store displayed them in their 57th street windows reserved for new designers.
Kelly spent several years as a freelance designer and, in 1985, he founded Patrick Kelly Paris with his business and life partner Bjorn Guil Amelan. By 1987, he signed a multimillion-dollar contract with the American apparel giant Warnaco. Moreover, by 1988 Kelly became the first American and the first Black designer elected into the elite Chambre Syndicale du Pret-a-Porter des Couturiers et des Createurs de Mode. Membership in this exclusive group allowed Kelly to present his ready-to-wear collections in the Fashion Week tents at the Musee du Louvre. The exhibition section titled Lisa Loves the Louvre features designs from this Spring/Summer 1989 collection, for which Kelly imagined that the museum’s most famous resident, Mona Lisa, invited him to show his latest designs.
Kelly’s originality and distinctive vision came through in his exuberant runway shows, which opened with the designer spray-painting a heart on the back wall of the stage in the spirit of urban street art. In the exhibition section called Hot Couture, a playful tribute is made to Kelly’s muses and to fashion history. Many of Kelly’s own presentations parodied fashion-show traditions and riffed on the work of famed couturiers such as Yves Saint Laurent, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli and Madame Gres, a designer whom Kelly held in highest regard. A master at draping and manipulating fabric into Greek goddess-like gowns, Madame Gres inspired Kelly’s much more practical knitted jersey dresses with wraps that tied around the body in various ways.
After Kelly debuted his Fall/Winter 1988–1989 collection in Paris, he presented it in Atlanta for Heart Strings, a touring fundraiser held by the Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS (DIFFA). During the 1980s, AIDS decimated the fashion community. Although Kelly was diagnosed with HIV in July 1987, the stigma at the time prevented him from revealing his illness publicly. The exhibition’s final section, Two Loves, is a tribute to America and France, which were also embraced by Kelly’s greatest muse, Josephine Baker. The designs in this section come from Kelly’s final collection, which pay homage to cultural icons from both countries.
“We hope our visitors are inspired by the life and work of this incomparable, prolific artist,” said Slinkard. “Despite the personal and professional challenges he endured and his premature death, Kelly made a lasting impact on the fashion world through his belief in the power of love and joy, and his unapologetic use of fashion as resistance.”