FASHION ARTS. Patrick Kelly

ETHNOGRAPHIC ARTS. Visions from the Forests


CONFERENCE. Corning Glass Symposium

JEWELRY ARTS. The Donna Schneier Collection


PATRICK KELLY with models from the Spring/Summer 1989 Collection. Photograph by Oliviero Toscani.

Fashion Arts


Patrick Kelly



Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love,” showing through November 30, 2014, celebrates the brilliant but all-too-brief career of the American fashion designer, whose improbable trajectory propelled him from his hometown of Vicksburg, Mississippi, in the 1950s to the Paris runways of the 1980s, where he reigned supreme until his life was tragically cut short by AIDS in 1990.

The first retrospective in a decade dedicated to Kelly’s work, the Philadelphia Museum of Art features more than eighty ensembles, beginning with clothing he designed for the Italian group Studio Invenzione in 1983–84, to his last collection presented in Paris in the fall of 1989. The thread that connects all of them is a pervasive joie de vivre that expresses itself in a profusion of colors, textures, patterns, and embellishments, from buttons and bows to plastic bananas.

Kelly is remembered as having charmed just about every human being he ever met, and his fashions have the same effect. “I want my clothes to make you smile,” he said, and in this he succeeded—they just make you feel good. The dance-club party atmosphere of Kelly’s runway shows is brought to life by videos that loop on multiple monitors mounted on the walls above the exhibition, accompanied by a pulsing 1980s soundtrack.

Kelly’s signature element, large plastic buttons, shows up in a variety of motifs in his designs. They appear, for example, as brightly colored heart-shaped mosaics against a ground of black wool on both short cocktail dresses and long evening gowns; or as a silvery Eiffel Tower on a black wool knit dress paired with a towering black hat of the same design. Kelly credited this element, along with his ambition to become a fashion designer, to his creative and thrifty grandmother in Mississippi, Ethel Rainey, who mended the young Patrick’s clothes by sewing large, mismatched buttons on them. Later, he would find inspiration in fashion luminaries like Elsa Schiaparelli and Coco Chanel, but Ms. Rainey always remained at the top of the list.

The designer’s personal signature look—baggy denim overalls, t-shirt, sneakers, and bicycle cap—also showed up on the male models in his runway shows, offering a casual counterpoint to the angular elegance of the women—and a reminder that high fashion sometimes has its origins in streetwear. Kelly’s own career had been launched by selling his ready-to-wear clothing on the streets of New York and Paris, and he seems to have been eager to maintain a connection with his roots even as he found himself propelled to the epicenter of haute couture.

WOMAN’S TOP AND SKIRT of cotton and acrylic knit, Spring/Summer 1985. WOMAN’S BRA TOP AND BANANA SKIRT, Fall/Winter 1986; top and skirt of plastic, metal and rubber. Photographs courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Kelly was an up-and-coming designer in New York in 1979 when he received an envelope from an anonymous benefactor that contained a one-way ticket to Paris, something he could not have afforded at the time. Once in Paris, he designed costumes for the nightclub Le Palace and sold his “fast fashions” on the street. Kelly’s big break came in 1985, when his line of “tube dresses,” in bright colors and festooned with bows and buttons, were featured in the French fashion magazine Elle. From that point on, he was in constant demand, and his body-conscious creations found their way onto everyone from Bette Davis to Vanessa Williams and Grace Jones.

His Josephine Baker Banana Dance Costume of the following year paid homage to the American expatriate singer and dancer who electrified Paris audiences in the 1920s, and in whose footsteps Kelly would follow six decades later. The ensemble includes a coiled wire bra, designed by the American jewelry artist David Spada, that references Alexander Calder’s famous wire sculptures of Baker.

Kelly managed to be both iconoclastic and endearing, a rare combination that allowed him to go places others might not have dared. A case in point is his appropriation of the African American stereotypes represented by the “mammy” and “golliwog” icons of the Deep South. A display case near the entrance of the exhibition houses an array of such dolls from the designer’s personal collection, and the golliwog found its way onto both his clothing designs and his product branding. Such subjects would be problematic in other hands, but in the context of Kelly’s joyous output, they come across as a provocative invitation to embrace even the ugliness in one’s environment and transform it into something positive.  

At the far end of the exhibition, against a wall that also includes a handpainted photographic portrait of Patrick Kelly by the French duo of Pierre et Gilles and a large framed photograph of Grace Jones in sleek black leather jacket and Eiffel Tower hat and earrings, stand a pair of baggy overalls, white pullover, and sneakers—a poignant reminder that Patrick Kelly is gone, but not forgotten.  

Thanks to the generosity of Kelly’s business and life partner, Bjorn Guil Amelan, and the choreographer and dancer Bill T. Jones, the pieces in the exhibition, along with many others by Kelly, will become part of the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s permanent collection, preserving this dynamic American artist’s work for generations to come.  







David Updike
David Updike is a writer and editor based in Philadelphia. He is Coeditor, with Jane Golden, of the book Philadelphia Mural Arts @30 (Temple University Press, 2014). For the past twelve years he has worked in the Publishing Department at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where he has edited exhibition catalogs on subjects ranging from Rembrandt to Zaha Hadid. He last wrote for Ornament about Bethesda-based jewelry artist Namu Cho. For this feature, he enjoyed a beautiful April afternoon in the company of jeweler Holly Lee and her husband, the potter Cliff Lee, at their home and studio in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.



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