Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Honoring a talent cut short

Designer Patrick Kelly wowed Paris in '80s, but died too young in 1990.

"Runway of Love," the Philadelphia Museum of Art's new exhibition on designer Patrick Kelly, runs through Nov. 30. (Tom Gralish/Staff Photographer)
"Runway of Love," the Philadelphia Museum of Art's new exhibition on designer Patrick Kelly, runs through Nov. 30. (Tom Gralish/Staff Photographer)Read more

Back in the day, there was so much shouting, dancing, and testifying on Patrick Kelly's Paris runways, it seemed as if the audience, the models, and sometimes even Kelly were about two seconds from catching the Holy Ghost.

That's because the ebullient Kelly put his soul into his collections - an array of buttoned knits in screaming reds, blues, and greens. His womens-wear pieces were odes to the loves of his life, from Josephine Baker, to the Eiffel Tower, to a piece of half-eaten watermelon.

With fans that included Princess Diana, Annie Lennox, Bette Davis, and Vanessa L. Williams, Kelly, originally from Vicksburg, Miss., was the first American and the first black designer to present a ready-to-wear collection, in 1988 at the official Paris Week fashion shows at the Louvre.

Two years later, when Kelly's company was projected to earn more than $10 million in sales, Kelly died from complications of AIDS. He was believed to be 35.

It was an abrupt end to a sequined sliver in time that was of-the-moment bold, yet so small it could easily be forgotten.

That is, until the Philadelphia Museum of Art's retrospective: "Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love." The show, which opens Sunday, marks the first time the museum has dedicated one of its main galleries to an African American clothing designer.

The current conversation in fashion revolves around "color, silhouette and diversity, making this the right time for this exhibit," said Dilys Blum, the museum's curator of costume and textiles, and the show's organizer.

"In the context of what was going on in fashion then - with the darker colors, the seriousness of the clothing - Kelly's work had a different edge. It was so different for Paris fashion."

It took Blum five years to identify, research, and sift through more than 800 pieces given to the museum in 2009 by Kelly's life and business partner, Bjorn Guil Amelan. In the end, Blum settled on about 300 pieces - or 82 outfits, including shoes and accessories - for the multicultural mannequins made especially for the show.

"Finding a museum that would agree to house the bulk of Patrick's creations was not an easy task," said Amelan, 58, who made the donation with now life-partner and Broadway choreographer Bill T. Jones. The Brooklyn Museum did a Patrick Kelly retrospective in 2004, but it wouldn't take the permanent collection.

"So when the offer came they would be interested, and that all of Patrick's work could be in one place for future researchers . . . we were very excited."

Runway of Love is housed in the 4,000-square foot Special Exhibitions Gallery in the Perelman Building. The sounds of classic Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson put museum-goers into throwback mode. Video excerpts from Kelly's shows, with catwalk cameos from models Grace Jones, Beverly Johnson, and the late L'Wren Scott, are on a continuous loop on flat screens throughout the exhibition.

As for the clothing - it's so much fun. Displayed as a chronological story of Kelly's life in Paris, the exhibition starts with one-seam tube dresses (the same kind of colorful, multiuse pieces designers are using to launch their lines today) and drapey coats he fashioned quickly to sell on the streets of Paris (and lend to his growing gaggle of model friends).

It then shows his collections influenced by his time in the South. This portion of Kelly's life feels the most authentic, from his collection of golliwogs - the blackface dolls that served as an unflattering caricature of African Americans - to a quilted, bathrobelike gown printed with images of Josephine Baker. Kelly experimented with dungarees, fashioning them into a dress that could easily be worn today, and layering them over a bodysuit with a brick print - a shout-out to women built, well, like brick houses. (See the Commodores' 1977 hit.)

"His capacity to focus on stereotypes in his work was his way of celebrating it, not hiding it," Amelan said. "He wanted to 'make it ours and remove the poison.' He made clothes that made people smile."

At the center of the retrospective is a red runway. On it are six tubular black dresses with multicolored buttons fashioned into hearts or boleros. These dresses would become his signature.

"Anyone understands black, straight, and form-fitting," said Toby Lerner, a former Philadelphia boutique owner who visited Kelly's Paris atelier and hosted the designer for public appearances here in the late 1980s. "They were simple but had enough personal flourishes that would make you want to buy something, and [they were] somewhat inexpensive, so you could pick one up."

A pair of Kelly's denim overalls - he wore workingman's dungarees to public appearances, adding an Yves Saint Laurent tuxedo jacket for special occasions - are at the head of the runway, right where a designer might appear for the model finale.

The overalls were Kelly's way of acknowledging his Mississippi beginnings, growing up with his mother, a home economics teacher, and a grandmother who introduced him to fashion magazines. When Kelly lost buttons as a child, she replaced them with different colored ones - one of the reasons buttons define his designs.

In the 1970s, Kelly moved to New York where he worked in the Garment District. He met Pat Cleveland, a trailblazing black model, and the two became fast friends after Kelly dressed Cleveland in his version of a Josephine Baker costume, complete with a banana skirt and Dixie-cup breasts. Later, Cleveland would appear on Kelly's runways.

Cleveland said Kelly told him: I need to go to Paris.

"He was just so lonely here. He was just in the wrong place," said Cleveland, 63, who now lives in Moorestown. "So I bought Patrick a ticket to Paris. He went right away."

That was in 1979. By 1983, Kelly had made friends with Amelan, and the two managed to cozy up to the owners of the renowned French boutique Victoire, which hosted his first show. (At the time, Amelan said, Kelly made all of his samples on a Singer sewing machine.)

Kelly's work caught the eye of Nicole Crassat, then editor of Elle, who gave Kelly a six-page color spread in the February 1985 issue, sending his career into overdrive. Bergdorf Goodman purchased his subsequent collection.

In the next five years, Kelly designed his own collection, worked on patterns for Vogue, and designed collections for Benetton. In 1987, Kelly made a deal with Warnaco, then the parent company of Calvin Klein. He produced one runway show for them, and fell ill in the summer of 1989.

"Patrick is still with us," Cleveland said. "He was so good. He was honest, he was vulnerable, and he united us with buttons and love."


"Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love"

Sunday through Nov. 30 in the Museum of Art Perelman Building, 2525 Pennsylvania Ave., with the companion show "Gerlan Jeans (heart) Patrick Kelly"

Admission: $20, less for children and seniors. Information: 215-763-8100 or