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Patrick Kelly's Career Feted in Exhibition

Museum curator Dilys Blum interviewed more than 50 friends and business associates of the late designer for the exhibit opening at Philadelphia Museum of Art.

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When museum curator Dilys Blum interviewed more than 50 friends and business associates of the late fashion designer Patrick Kelly, she was taken aback by the admiration all had for the designer.

Kelly’s career was cut short when he died from AIDS in January 1990 at the age of 35. “Everyone adored him. Everyone he met in his career tried to help him get ahead,” Blum said. His work is being celebrated with an exhibition of 80 ensembles opening Saturday at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love,” is the first exhibition to showcase the full scope of Kelly’s head-to-toe runway collections, and will include selections from the artist’s significant holdings of black memorabilia, videos of his playful fashion shows and Horst photos and Oliviero Toscani ads featuring his work for Benetton.

Kelly’s story is the stuff of movies. Born in Vicksburg, Miss., he left for Paris in 1979 where he designed costumes for performers at the Palace nightclub for two years. He dressed his model friends in his signature tube-knit dresses shaped with raw, deconstructed cuts. Models wore the dresses to go-sees and Kelly’s star was quickly on the rise. In 1985, Kelly went from selling clothes on the streets to a six-page spread in French Elle.

After that exposure, the Paris retailer Victoire gave him workroom space and, as payment, he designed exclusive collections for them. Yves Saint Laurent chairman Pierre Bergé personally sponsored Kelly in 1988 to form the Paris-based women’s wear house Patrick Kelly Paris. He was the first black designer to be voted into the prestigious Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode. While he only designed collections for five years, his impression on fashion was a big one; he was known for playful clothes that stood out on urban streets, runways and nightclubs. “His idea was to make high fashion affordable,” said Blum.

While Kelly had many fans (a young Vanessa Williams among them) and treated his employees and models like family, it was elderly actress Bette Davis who wore his clothes hoping to find him financial backing. She sported his wares on the David Letterman show twice, causing then-Warnaco honcho Linda Wachner to take notice. Wachner backed him under the Warnaco umbrella, where he remained until his death. While he never showed in New York, retailers like Martha, Bergdorf Goodman and Macy’s carried the collection.

The exhibition is broken into six sections featuring looks from his five years of runway shows. While many know him for his bow appliqués on knits or button-encrusted slinky knit evening dresses, his career represented much more than that, according to Blum. He was the first designer to draw on his upbringing in the south and push racial boundaries in his work. While his own signature look was denim overalls, sneakers and a cap, his collections featured glamorized denim in baby-doll dresses, tiered bandana-print skirts and dresses and black baby-doll brooches on suits that he handed out to editors and buyers at his shows. “He was into head-to-toe dressing, taking the church lady look from his southern upbringing and glamorizing her,” said Blum. Some of his playful looks were inspired by his muse Josephine Baker. One section of the exhibit is a nod to designers he admired: Coco Chanel-inspired wool bouclé dresses and suits, Elsa Schiaparelli-style dresses, Yves Saint Laurent animal-print trenchcoats and beautifully draped Madame Grès jersey dresses. He once said Grès was his muse and he would do anything for the designer including pick up her pins in her atelier.

His work included a line of swimsuits for Eres that converted into dresses, and he also worked with textile company Bianchini Ferier on printed textiles for dresses featuring golliwog logos. His power suits with strong shoulders always had a bit of whimsy — whether sprinkled with buttons, nails, pearls or balls. Blum used the exact accessories that were shown on the runway (Maud Frizon shoes and David Spada jewelry) or had pieces made to look like the ones Kelly used.

Kelly’s runway shows were like a party, with models crowding the catwalk and dancing rather than marching. He once said his clientele was “the woman who wasn’t dead yet.” While the French press adored him, the Americans were more skeptical. “He was touted as being an African-American rather than for his work,” said Blum, who feels his story resonates with young designers today. This past season, designer Michael Bastian paid homage to Kelly in his collection. And when researching the exhibition they found another designer, Gerlan Marcel, who used Kelly as an influence throughout her work from 2009 through 2014. The museum has a concurrent exhibit, “Gerlan Jeans Patrick Kelly,” in the Perelman Building, which shows Kelly’s legacy in the work of this young designer.

“He was a master at maximizing his brand,” said Blum, the museum’s senior curator of costume and textiles and organizer of the exhibit. “What Kelly achieved in the Eighties has continuing resonance today. His branding and self-marketing were unique at the time, but now in the age of fast fashion and brand-driven sales, it is a perfect time to reexamine Kelly’s contribution to fashion history.”

The exhibit runs from April 27 through Nov. 3.

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