From Mississippi to Paris, the playful and critical fashion of Patrick Kelly

SAN FRANCISCO – A zebra-striped evening dress, a coat topped with teddy bears, and bodycon black dresses covered with lots of buttons are just a few of the playful, imaginative and undeniably chic creations of American fashion designer Patrick Kelly. “I want my clothes to make you smile,” Kelly once said, and, decades after her untimely death in 1990 at the age of 35, her sense of fun continues to charm and inspire.

But Kelly’s designs were more than eccentric. The epitaph on her gravestone reads “Nothing is impossible,” a message Kelly has proven time and time again. A young black and gay man from the southern United States, he was a determined and self-taught innovator who worked his way to the highest levels of international fashion, becoming the first American and the first black designer to be elected in the prestigious Chambre Syndicale. of the Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode, (the governing body of the French fashion industry founded in 1868). But beyond her industry which rewards business success, Kelly has also infused her work with a clear sense of purpose. His living creations are often complex and critical reflections of his experiences and his view of the world. They incorporate elements of pop culture, race, and history that are rarely seen on a catwalk.

Patrick Kelly: track of love installation view, by Young Museum

Patrick Kelly: the trail of love at the de Young Museum showcases nearly 80 of Kelly’s light yet heartfelt creations, including clothes, hats, gloves and other accessories. Originally shown at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2014, the West Coast exhibit also features images of Kelly’s festive and groundbreaking parades, as well as her event invitations, photos, sketches, and collages. The colorful exhibition is a delight for those of us who have spent a year and a half in pajamas. But it’s also a crucial tribute to this one-of-a-kind designer who brought messages of black love and empowerment to the world stage through fashion.

Patrick Kelly Spring-Summer 1989 Parade By Pierre Vauthey. Model and artist Grace Jones wearing a brightly-colored ready-to-wear costume adorned with a cape, scarves and a large hat by American fashion designer Patrick Kelly. She wears the outfit during her spring-summer 1989 show in Paris. (photo by Pierre Vauthey / Sygma / Sygma via Getty Images, image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

Kelly was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi in 1954. His mother, a home economics teacher, taught him to draw and an aunt introduced him to sewing. But it was Kelly’s grandmother, Ethel B. Rainey, who first inspired him to reach the heights of couture. When she brought the six-year-old fashion magazines from her employer’s white house, Kelly noticed that no black models appeared on the pages. “My grandmother told me no one has time for black women,” Kelly recalled later. “I said, ‘I will’. “

Kelly’s grandmother has remained his greatest muse and “the backbone of my tastes,” he said. His Black Baptist Church in Vicksburg – where worshipers dressed, in Kelly’s words, “as fierce as the ladies in Yves Saint Laurent’s haute couture shows” – was another key source of inspiration. After taking classes at Jackson State University, Kelly moved to Atlanta, where he attended the Ebony Fashion Fair and opened a clothing store with vintage and custom designs. He moved to New York City in 1978, but couldn’t gain much ground until, a year later, model Pat Cleveland bought him a one-way ticket to Paris.

Patrick Kelly: track of love installation view, by Young Museum

In the French capital, Kelly launched a unique brand of exciting designs at affordable prices. It has uplifted everyday materials like stretch knit jersey and durable cotton denim in garments for a variety of body types and lifestyles. Although he was inspired by avant-garde designers like Issey Miyake and Elsa Schiaparelli, he was also inspired by old Hollywood films and by Josephine Baker – another Black American who found success in Paris – in his work. Kelly made a point of employing black models in her popular runway shows, boosting their careers and helping to normalize their presence in the international fashion world. It also caused considerable controversy by incorporating elements of racist memories in his designs, and adopted the cartoon golliwog character as her brand logo in 1985. Her own signature look, oversized, bib denim overalls, was a tribute to laborers, farmers and civil rights activists in the southern United States.

Kelly defended her choices by insisting, “If you don’t know where you were in your story, then you don’t know where to go. Today, his joyful and critical work recalls the past, but also opens the way to the future.

Paris, France – October: A model walks the runway for the Patrick Kelly Spring / Summer 1989 Ready-to-Wear fashion show during Paris Fashion Week October 1988 in Paris, France. (photo by Victor VIRGILE / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images, image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)
Patrick Kelly: track of love installation view, by Young Museum
Women’s set: coat and dress, fall / winter 1986; woman’s dress, fall / winter 1986; woman’s dress, fall / winter 1988; by Patrick Kelly (Philadelphia Museum of Art: Gift of Bjorn Guil Amelan and Bill T. Jones in honor of Monica Brown, 2015, image courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art)
Patrick Kelly: track of love installation view, by Young Museum
Patrick Kelly at the Patrick Kelly Spring 1989 exhibition circa 1988 in Paris, France (photo by PL Gould / IMAGES / Getty Images, image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

Patrick Kelly: the trail of love continues at the de Young Museum (50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, San Francisco, California) until April 24, 2022. Patrick Kelly: the trail of love was organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art in collaboration with the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. The main curator of the exhibition is Laura L. Camerlengo, Associate Curator of Costume and Textile Arts, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

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