For the past several summers, I’ve headed to the Met’s Costume Institute in New York to get my artsy fashion fix. There was the sensational “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” in 2011 and the unexpectedly bland “Punk: Chaos to Couture” last year. Although I missed 2012’s “Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations,” I more than made up for it by seeing the exhilarating Jean Paul Gaultier exhibition in San Francisco.
Which brings me to this year. With no plans to visit NYC by early August to catch the Charles James show, I had to look for other options. As luck would have it, the Philadelphia Museum of Art is holding a retrospective of the late African-American fashion designer Patrick Kelly. You may not recognize his name, but he was a visionary pioneer in so many ways: first American to be elected to the French fashion industry’s elite Chambre Syndicale and first to stage fashion shows like theatrical performances. With his sharp commercial instincts and marketing savvy, he was at the forefront of “fast fashion.” His witty and sometimes provocative graphics pushed racial boundaries. He elevated ordinary items like buttons and bandanas to high fashion. And in a sea of self-serious brands and designers, Kelly’s colorful creations were a breath of fresh air, mirroring his refreshingly warm and generous personality.
As part of a recent trip to my mom’s house in the Philly ‘burbs, I traveled downtown one day to check it out. I’m very glad I did!
The Philadelphia Museum of Art in all its Greek Revivial glory. (I might add that this is one of the best panoramic images I’ve ever taken with my iPhone.)
The exhibition brochure. Patrick Kelly was the first American to be voted into the prestigious Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode, the French fashion industry association. He was sponsored by Pierre Bergé, cofounder of Yves Saint Laurent, and designer Sonia Rykiel.
“Love” was Patrick Kelly’s central theme. He was a young, self-taught designer whose fashion aesthetic was exuberant and fun but also “pushed racial and cultural boundaries.” And his runway shows were among the first to be produced like performance art: “every show had its own story line and was composed of vignettes with music to match.”
His ready-to-wear designs epitomized “fast fashion” in the ’80s: “simple, narrow silhouettes paired with interchangeable pieces insured maximum impact for minimal fashion and cost” and enabled the designer “to respond immediately to ever-fluctuating trends.” (Hello, H&M and Zara?)
Kelly’s muse, Josephine Baker, is captured in the pattern of the pink coat. The black dress with bolero design (center) reflects his signature use of colorful, oversized buttons. The idea was “inspired by the mismatched buttons that his grandmother used to mend his shirts as a young boy.”
“Kelly’s Spring/Summer 1989 collection paid homage to the Mona Lisa.” In fact, he “owned a large collection of post cards that parodied the famous painting.”
An admirer of the great couturiers like Madame Grès, Chanel, and Schiaparelli, Kelly often reinterpreted their classics with a cheeky twist. For example, his versions of Chanel tweed suits were more colorful and used plastic buttons.
Red lips, one of Surrealism’s most identified images, was used by Schiaparelli, Man Ray, and Salvador Dalí. “Like his buttons, Kelly’s lip brooches were available as separately packaged sets that the wearer could apply herself.”
A complementary exhibition by streetwear designer and outspoken Patrick Kelly fan Gerlan Marcel conveys his lasting influence on fashion today, almost a quarter-century after his death from AIDS at the age of 35.
In an interview with Vogue, Gerlan Marcel said, “The idea of using imagery and glyphs in unexpected ways is definitely something that comes from Patrick…” She has long idolized his work and joie de vivre.
“Paloma” Cigarette Dress, Fall/Winter 2013 collection. Strong, unconventional women inspire both Kelly and Marcel. This dress is a tribute to Paloma Picasso who is famous for her individual sense of style—and her love of cigarettes.
Colors galore: a partial view of the gallery space.
“Riot Princess” Bustier Dress, Spring/Summer 2013 collection. A nod to Kelly’s famed button-covered designs, this dress also evokes “the slogan buttons of the 1970s feminist movement.”
I left the exhibition feeling happy that Patrick Kelly is finally getting some well-deserved recognition—and wistful, wondering what new styles his joyous creativity would have brought us had he survived. He would have turned 60 this September.
“Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love” and “Gerlan Jeans Loves Patrick Kelly” run through November 30, 2014.
Philadelphia Museum of Art | Perelman Building | 2525 Pennsylvania Avenue | Philadelphia, PA 19130 | 215.763.8100 | philamuseum.org