fashion

At the de Young: Fashion Designer Patrick Kelly’s Brief but Influential Career

By Noma Faingold

For fashion designer Patrick Kelly, it was all about the buttons – the mismatched ones adorning his signature body-conscious knit dresses and the metaphorical buttons he pushed addressing race, class and sexuality. 

His messages were direct, but it was all done with whimsy and love, so few were offended. 

An exhibit celebrating the fashion designer Patrick Kelly at the de Young Museum runs through April 24 of next year. Photo by Noma Faingold.

He was born in 1954 in Vicksburg, Mississippi. In 1979, supermodel Pat Cleveland anonymously sent him a one-way plane ticket to Paris. That’s  where he made his mark and built his company, before launching it formally in 1985.

His five years of international success were cut short when he died of AIDS on Jan. 1, 1990 at age 35. At the time, his illness was kept secret. 

His impact and influence are being celebrated with a new exhibition, “Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love,” which opened Oct. 23 at the de Young Museum. It runs through April 24, 2022. 

Kelly’s companion and business partner at the time, Bjorn Amelan, attended the Oct. 20 press preview. He  recalled what was going on in 1987.

“We had just signed this major agreement with Warnaco and then we were both told we were HIV-positive,” Amelan said. “At the time, it was looked upon as a death sentence. We knew word could not spread about our status because Warnaco would not invest millions of dollars. The reason for the secrecy was very practical.”

Amelan is married to choreographer/director Bill T. Jones. 

“I wanted to do everything I could to preserve Patrick’s memory,” Amelon said. “Since his career was so meteoric, I was afraid he would be forgotten.”

The Philadelphia Museum of Art staged the first major Patrick Kelly exhibition in 2014. The de Young show is an expanded, updated version, divided into seven sections, including: “Two Loves” (focusing on a collection illustrating his affection for Paris and the American West); and “Pop Couture,” which examines Kelly’s influences, specifically Yves Saint Laurent, Elsa Schiaparelli, Chanel, Nina Ricci and Madame Grés.

Patrick Kelly poses with some of his lively models from one of his shows. He always wore oversized overalls when he took his bow at the end of his shows. Photo courtesy of the de Young Museum.

“He admired the success of Saint Laurent and how he developed a brand, as well as the beautifully constructed clothes,” said Dilys E. Blum, senior curator of Costume and Textiles at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “That was something to emulate.”

But according to Blum, whose team spent years putting together the de Young exhibition, Kelly’s influences were much more varied than fashion designers who came before him. The mismatched button motif came from his grandmother, who helped raise him. When buttons fell off his clothes, she would often replace them with non-matching buttons. 

Kelly also elevated the styles he saw women wear at church in Vicksburg. He was inspired by the performative Ebony Fashion Fair shows, which were much more animated than most runway shows in New York and Paris. 

“What he saw in the clubs in Paris were an inspiration, as were street walkers,” said Blum. “He really absorbed what was around him. He embraced life.”

Kelly was known for wearing oversized denim overalls at his own shows, a nod to farmers and field laborers he grew up seeing in the segregated south. The outsized look has been ubiquitous in hip-hop culture since the 1990s. 

“He was always looking forward, but he realized he had a history that also needed to be embraced,” Blum said. “He wasn’t rejecting the past.”

He avidly collected what would be considered racist, stereotypical artifacts, and often gave out little black baby doll figurines with red lips to guests at his shows. 

“Patrick reappropriated them,”  Amelan said. “It was in-your-face but he saw them as cute and as a way to remove negative imagery.”

Blum said Kelly’s activism showed more through his designs and the inclusivity of his shows. 

“He didn’t talk about it. He did it visually. He was saying something. His fashion show invitations were very provocative. He couldn’t have done that in the States,” she said. “There’s an undercurrent of seriousness about him.”

Paris was the right place for Kelly to maximize his creativity. He made history by becoming the first American admitted to the Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-a-Porter, France’s prestigious governing body of the country’s ready-to-wear industry. 

According to Blum, it was Paris where he could be anything he wanted.

“He could never have done what he did in America on Seventh Avenue (in New York City’s fashion district). Paris was the kind of place where he didn’t have to compromise his vision,” she said.

His success could also be partially attributed to his loyal supporters, from other designers to celebrities, like Grace Jones, Isabella Rossellini and Bette Davis, who promoted his work on an appearance on NBC’s “Late Night with David Letterman.” When she passed away, Davis was buried in one of Kelly’s dresses.

“He has an amazing network of friends,” Blum said. “He held a major place in their lives because of his warmth. He was happy and joyful. 

“He had incredible perseverance and imagination. He was so determined and had hundreds of ideas, which is why all these people supported him.”

“Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love” runs through April 24, 2022, at the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. For information on special events and tickets, go to deyoung.famsf.org.

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