Who was Patrick Kelly? A story of the little-known black fashion designer

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As a child, my Saturday morning rituals consisted of cartoons, heated combs, laundry and Soul Train; somewhere in the midst of the chaos of drudgery and entertainment required to support the work, I saw Style with Elsa Klensch. Hoping to emulate my own chic mother’s fashion sense, I studied the designers and models featured on the weekly CNN show. It was there that I first saw American fashion designer Patrick Kelly. I was first struck by its parades, which actually seemed amusing– the models sprang up, jumped and twirled around in her clothes, turning the catwalk into a party. More importantly, the majority of her models were black, and as a human-sized teenager dreaming of being a model, seeing black women ordering the runway and magazines in her designs created a seismic shift in me. I wanted to be part of Patrick Kelly’s universe.

From now on, visitors to the De Young Museum in San Francisco will have the opportunity to explore this universe, through the new exhibition Patrick Kelly: the trail of love. Running from October 23 through April 2022, the traveling show features original designs, personal artifacts and other ephemera from Kelly’s life, in addition to seventy-nine fully accessorized sets. The West Coast presentation of this exhibit, which originated at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2014, is a comprehensive collection illustrating Kelly’s childhood growing up in the South, his experiences as a black man, his involvement in the club and gay cultural scenes in New York and Paris, and its muses of fashion, art and black history.

In her heyday, Kelly’s designs pushed across racial and cultural boundaries, but these days her name is rarely recognized. In the ’80s and’ 90s, he approached design with the consummate assurance of a salesman who believed black women needed a welcoming and egalitarian space within fashion that also celebrated joy. While its impact on inclusion in fashion is often overlooked, Track of love is a major effort to expand and correct its place in the fashion canon.

Grace Jones wears a whimsical ready-to-wear look at Patrick Kelly’s Spring 1989 fashion show in Paris.

Photo by Pierre Vauthey / Sygma / Sygma via Getty Images

A look from Patrick Kelly’s Spring 1989 ready-to-wear show at Paris Fashion Week in 1988.

Photo by Victor VIRGILE / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

A look from Patrick Kelly’s Spring 1989 ready-to-wear show during Paris Fashion Week in 1988.

Photo by Victor VIRGILE / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Kelly, born in 1954, was known for his exuberant designs featuring bodycon knit jersey dresses that he accessorized with chunky bows, hearts and other embellishments, but none had as much visual appeal to me. than its iconic oversized buttons, which adorned the designs worn by Grace Jones, Pat Cleveland and an 80-plus-year-old Bette Davis.

The button was a tribute to her southern roots, particularly her grandmother Ethel B. Rainey, a maid and seamstress who inspired young designer Jim Crow Mississippi, keen to see black models depicted in the fashion magazines. Kelly began design in her early teens, surrounded by a constellation of women who taught her both style and construction. Her mother was a home economics teacher and her aunt taught her to sew, but it was her grandmother who gave her her first lesson in ingenuity. As a child, Kelly repeatedly lost the buttons on her shirts; unable to replace them with identical ones, her grandmother redesigned her shirts using an assortment of mismatched buttons purchased from her sewing basket. It was this spark of innovation that showed Kelly the power of recycled materials.

Left to right: women’s ensemble — coat and dress, Fall 1986; woman’s dress, fall 1986; woman’s dress, fall 1988. All the looks will be exhibited at the Patrick Kelly: the trail of love exhibition at the DeYoung Museum.

Image courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

A bra and banana skirt, modeled by Pat Cleveland in 1986, from the Patrick Kelly: the trail of love exhibition at the DeYoung Museum.

Image courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

The designer moved from Mississippi to Atlanta in 1974, where he created window displays for the YSL Rive Gauche retail store and refined his side business by designing reused vintage clothing. During this time, he perfected his theatrical runway style, inspired by the legendary traveling road shows of Ebony Fashion Fair. After a few years in Atlanta, Kelly emigrated to New York to attend Parsons School of Design, but her dance parties at Paradise Garage with DJ Larry Levan and Grace Jones proved much more successful for her career. During his time at The Garage, he honed his personal branding skills and honed his reputation as a designer for the booming mannequins and cultural glitter.

Photograph by Oliviero Toscani. Courtesy of the Patrick Kelly Estate. Image courtesy of San Francisco Art Museums

Photograph by Oliviero Toscani. Courtesy of the Patrick Kelly Estate. Image courtesy of San Francisco Art Museums

At the insistence of model and muse Pat Cleveland, Kelly moved to Paris, where his irreverent theatrical creations catapulted him to international stardom. His eye for inclusion, accessibility and gracious Southern charm was manifested in every detail of his parades, from his graffiti hearts that opened up every show to the “Love Lists” he left behind for guests. . These lists included the names of people and works of art that inspired her and “Buttons” appeared repeatedly on these love lagniappes. Sadly, her life and career were cut short in 1990 due to complications from AIDS.

Kelly does performance art at the Patrick Kelly spring 1989 fashion show in Paris, 1988.

Photo by PL Gould / IMAGES / Getty Images. Image courtesy of San Francisco Art Museums

Kelly walked a fine line between embracing the past and defining the future, and then he rolled over it, shamelessly living in the present while leaving a trail of hearts, flowers and buttons in its wake. As a teenager, I wore a single oversized red button on my Levi’s denim jacket as a symbol that I was indeed part of Patrick Kelly’s universe, a button that showed I understood where I was coming from and that I was determined to create a world that could look different. It’s a world where just being me is enough. In my youth, that meant a world where my love for new wave and hip hop could coexist, without judgment. Now that means a world where I can feel just as comfortable at a domino table as I do in a boardroom or a museum. Patrick Kelly’s career has taught me that where you came from and where you are now can exist at the same time, and both are equally valued.


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