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Designer Patrick Kelly may be long gone but he's not forgotten

Designer Patrick Kelly stitched his way from Vicksburg, Miss. to runways in Paris. A new exhibit recalls the journey.

PATRICK KELLY was a black clothing designer from the rural south who made a huge splash on the Paris fashion scene during the 1980s.

Sadly, Kelly died of AIDS in 1990 after a short, brilliant career. But his legacy - colorful button accents, zebra prints, clingy knits and safety-pin trims - lives on, which is why the Philadelphia Museum of Art has created a retrospective show in his honor, "Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love," which opens Sunday.

"His story just resonates with up-and-coming African-American designers and young designers," said Dilys Blum, the show's curator. "What he did would be almost impossible today, to go from selling on the streets of Paris to two years later being backed by [clothing conglomerate] Warnaco."

"I can't think of any designer who has had that kind of trajectory," she said. And his work remains relevant and inspirational to today's designers.

"Wait until you see what's in the exhibit," Blum said. "There's nothing that isn't wearable today."

Glancing through photos of the garments that will be on display through November, I spotted a slinky, black knit dress with a giant heart on the front filled with colorful buttons. I remember being a broke college student and wanting that very same dress so badly I could practically taste it. I was drawn to it partly because of its whimsy but also because it was a Patrick Kelly creation.

He was a black man who'd gone from the Jim Crow South to designing clothing for the biggest celebrities of his day - Cicely Tyson, Vanessa Williams, Bette Davis, Grace Jones and even Princess Diana.

Henri Bendel, Bloomingdale's and Bergdorf Goodman were just a few of the high-end stores that sold his designs. And he did it all dressed in his signature blue denim overalls, of all things, a uniform reminiscent of his humble beginnings.

"He was one of the first African-American designers I remember carrying," recalled Tuesday Gordon-Gaines, who worked for the now-defunct Toby Lerner boutique near Rittenhouse Square. "He came to our store and he gave us gifts, these chocolate baby dolls. His personality was larger than life. He was a happy soul with these overalls on.

"Being a woman of color, I was just excited," said Gordon-Gaines, now a manager/buyer for the exclusive Joan Shepp clothing boutique, on Chestnut Street. "To me, it was a door opening . . . to have him be on that level and be recognized."

'Fierce' church ladies

Kelly, who was cagey about revealing his age, generally is believed to have been born in 1954, in Vicksburg, Miss.

"There weren't any fashion shows there, but there was fashion," he once told People magazine. "At the black Baptist church on Sunday, the ladies are just as fierce as the ladies at Yves Saint Laurent haute couture shows."

After the death of his father, he was raised in a female-dominated household. His mother, a home-economics teacher, taught him to draw. Kelly read fashion magazines that his grandmother got from the white family she worked for as a domestic.

Thumbing through the magazines, he noticed what wasn't there - photos of black women. When he asked about that, his grandmother, according to People, told him, "Nobody has time to design for them."

He never forgot that.

After briefly attending Jackson State University, he moved to Atlanta, where he sold recycled clothes out of a beauty salon, organized fashion shows and reportedly made pageant gowns, something he didn't talk much about in later days, an art museum official said.

At the urging of fashion model Pat Cleveland, he moved to New York, where he struggled to break into the scene. He expressed his frustrations to Cleveland, who urged him to try Paris.

An anonymous benefactor supplied his one-way plane ticket.

In just a few short years, he went from doing costumes for a French nightclub to selling slinky knit dresses on the streets of Paris and at a flea market. Soon, he was discovered by a boutique owner who began selling his designs.

Kelly's sales really took off in 1985 after the French edition of Elle magazine featured him in a six-page spread. His first formal show was also that year. Kelly was big on using models of diverse backgrounds, and he encouraged them to enjoy themselves on the runways.

"There's such a sense of joy in his work," said Sheila Connelly, director of the fashion-design program at Philadelphia University. "He brought fun and irreverence to the runway.

"When you look at his shapes, silhouettes and colors, and his use of trims and treatments, it's very modern and relevant," she said.

Gerlan Marcel, the New York-based founder of Gerlan Jeans, whose Kelly-inspired pieces will be featured at the exhibit, said, "He paved the way for so much of what is here today."

As she spoke with reporters last week, Marcel was wearing an original Patrick Kelly blazer with a dice print that she'd picked up from a vintage shop for $13.

Attendees at Saturday's exhibit opening gala at the art museum are combing through attics looking for pieces to wear. Gordon-Gaines plans to sew buttons on the outfit she'll wear, in homage to Kelly.

"I will be there dripping in Patrick Kelly," said Audrey Smaltz, a former model who worked with Kelly and other '80s designers. "Do I have some of his clothes? I should have a fashion show!"

"Patrick Kelly paid me in clothes, love, champagne and flowers. That's why I have so much," said Smaltz, who has been searching her attic for forgotten pieces.

In addition to wearing Patrick Kelly originals Saturday, Smaltz plans to bring along a photo of her with Kelly wearing white tie, tails and overalls.

"He was as sharp as he could be," she said.