Sunday, June 22, 2014

Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love

Road trip! On Saturday, we headed south to the City of Brotherly Love to the Philadelphia Museum of Art to see Runway of Love, a couture exhibition featuring the work of the late Patrick Kelly.

Kelly, an African-American fashion designer whose career followed a comet-like trajectory, was born and raised in Mississippi and moved to Paris in late 1979. Although he said: "I want my clothes to make you smile", his work, which pushed racial and cultural boundaries with golliwog logos, Aunt Jemima bandana dresses and black baby doll brooches, often elicited quite different reactions. Kelly's aesthetic developed out of his African-American and Southern roots, his knowledge of fashion and art history, and from the club and gay cultural scenes in New York and Paris.

Selections from his personal collection of black memorabilia which open the show include various representations of the Golliwog, described by the Museum as an "ugly yet friendly" black character first described in an 1895 English children's book, which became an extremely popular children's doll. Rooted in the American blackface minstrel tradition, by the mid-1990s, it had become a symbol of racial stereotyping. Kelly turned that concept on its head by adopting the image as the logo for his brand Patrick Kelly Paris. U.S. stores did not use it, considering it too controversial. His Spring/Summer 1986 collection included fabrics printed with the Golliwog character. Kelly re-appropriated such images for his designs and brand. Although criticized at the time for using such charged imagery, Kelly was unapologetic, believing it was necessary to know one's history to move forward.

Kelly's outfits present a complete, coordinated vision. Case in point: the Golliwog dress has matching gloves, shoes and fan.  The longer sweater dresses in the background mirror the face in buttons on their fronts and backs.

No less a designer than French shoemaker Maud Frizon was responsible for creating matching Golliwog slip-on wedges.

Kelly's early signature collections featured skinny, body-conscious dresses with colorful buttons, featured in Elle Magazine in 1986 and 1988. He became the first American and the first black designer to be voted into the prestigious Chambre Syndicale du Pret-a-Porter des Couturiers et des Creatures de Mode, the French fashion industry and standards association.

Because his work incorporated such cartoonish images, it was no surprise that his 1989-1990 Fall/Winter collection had a "Lips of Jessica Rabbit" evening gown fashioned after the costume of the cartoon movie character. The exhibition includes large screens showing videos of Kelly's runway shows, so you can see the clothes on the mannequins and as they appeared on models in the flesh.

It was particularly poignant to see the late L'Wren Scott in the runway video looking amazingly tall and sexy, wearing the Jessica Rabbit dress and long, flowing red wig.

We were bowled over by the Eiffel Tower suits and accessories from the Fall/Winter 1989-1990 collection.

The Eiffel tower hats by Maison Michel and the mini-Eiffel Towers used as earrings and zipper-pulls attest to his attention to detail. For buttery soft leather, he used the same distributor as Azzedine Alaia, another designer who came to international attention in the 1980s, and was also known for his body-conscious designs. Another similarity between the two men? Singer/model/performer Grace Jones wore both designers' clothes and appeared on their runways and in their ad campaigns.

Aren't Maud Frizon's Eiffel Tower shoes the cat's meow?

His larger than life hats were the perfect foil for his body hugging designs. Love this yellow and black flowered number. Wish we could show you everything we saw. Please click the link to PMA's website to check out more of his clothes and accoutrements.

Although the exhibition focuses on his wilder, more colorful pieces, these two wonderful coats near the entrance show that he was more than capable of getting maximum effects out of minimalist designs.  The Museum's signage says that the coat on the left is made with a single seam, and mentions the influence of both Balenciaga and Issey Miyake.  The grey outfit on the right evokes the style of Norma Kamali.

There was a period when it seemed like everything was made of knit, and designers had great fun treating it in novel ways.  (We remember - we were there, and we were buying.)  The body of the knit on the left is straight up and down, but the skirt is on the bias, which allows it to drape the way it does, and the assymetrical placement of the tie adds a bit of extra tension.

Here's another knit dress.  The bright colors and patterns are also characteristic of the period, but the matching gloves seem to have been a Kelly specialty.  Note the ruching on the sides of the dress for extra interest and controlled volume.

This assortment of dresses has a broad variety of styles.  At the extreme left, a very conservative two piece suit; at the right, a combination of stark black and yellow, with a hood attached to a square cut top; in the back left, a tulle miniskirt flowing into a long train at the back; in front of that, two dresses with Kelly add-ons: pearls on the left and huge buttons on the right, and finally two demure dresses - pink with ruching and tieds and black and white with a crisscross front.

But wait! There's more here than meets the eye.

If the dresses don't knock 'em dead, then the matching gauntlets will.

The text for the dress below says that the materials are polyester and spandex, and that Kelly made a point of demonstrating that fashion need not be expensive.  Still, the dress looks like the proverbial million bucks.  The gathered shoulders, tulle skirt, rose pattern and lengthy deep pink bow move away from his characteristic active/sporty style and emphasize femininity.  The print, material and peplum reminded both of us of Betsey Johnson. Don't forget to look at the Jetson-style futuristic bubble headdresses in the back, which also appear in one of the runway videos.

Las Vegas inspired this dress with dice sewn onto the bodice in the shape of a heart.  A matching fascinator adds extra effect.  The white dots on the dice are made with trademark Kelly buttons, sewn down with large black cord.

Among the several videos throughout the room, there was one that showed a fabulous variation on the theme, with a dice print on the suit.  If someone sent us that fascinator in the mail, the two of us would definitely have to fight over it, or agree to joint custody.

In another video, the ever-fabulous Grace Jones (far right) sashays down the runway in a saucy scarf dress while the designer himself seems overwhelmed simultaneously with glee and shyness.  Wearing short overalls in this video, the designer often clad male models in long overalls.

Here are Jones's actual dress and hat, minus the pastel-colored bangs she wore in the video.

Many Kelly dresses feature hearts, or red lips.  This dress is decorated with brooches of detachable lips, but the piece de resistance is the hat, made by Maison Michel, as were many other hats in the exhibition.  There are echoes here of both Salvador Dali, Elsa Schiaparelli, Man Ray and the surrealist movement.

And pleeeeeeeeze can we show you another Maison Michel hat made in the shape of a G clef?  It comes with a black dress with a print of white musical notes.

(And you did check out the little piano earrings, right?  The Museum made them for the show from Patrick Kelly buttons.)

And speaking of hats and buttons, here's another Patrick Kelly dress, with buttons all over, but concentrated at the - ahem - derriere (we're saying derriere because he worked in Paris) in the shape of a heart.

Showing you the dress is a great excuse for giving you a close up of the hat and the earring.  Did you notice the great big red buttons we're both wearing in the opening photo as our personal homage to the designer?

Our final image is of his long black wool and spandex dress that opened the 1988-1989 Heart Strings touring fundraiser for Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS (DIFFA).  During the 1980s, AIDS decimated the design and fashion community and Kelly himself was diagnosed with the illness in July 1987, just shortly after signing with Warnaco to produce his ready-to-wear collections.  He died in 1990, but left behind a marvelous legacy that still inspires and dazzles today.


  1. I love Kelly's dresses - I couldn't wear them now, but when I was thinner, and flat-chested in my 20's I would have loved to have one of the button covered ones, the pink with the gathers or the yellow and black with the hood. Thanks for the virtual tour of the exhibit.

  2. What a breathtaking collection. You took me back in time; I was there too, in Philadelphia actually, when he was soaring. It was about Gia Carrangi, Willie and Touki Smith, and all the brilliant people who are sadly gone now. Thank you for my tour!! I want to get to Philly to see my friends and the exhibit, but other obligations take precedence.

    You guys are the best for sharing. XXOO

  3. Every photo in this post thrills. Brilliant!