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By Peabody Essex Museum
Fashion designer Patrick Kelly used to say, “At the Black Baptist church on Sunday, the ladies are just as fierce as the ladies at Yves Saint Laurent couture shows.”
Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love celebrates the life and legacy of the late fashion designer Patrick Kelly, whose meteoric rise in fashion design remains unprecedented and unmatched today. Rooted in expressions of love and joy and inspired by his experiences growing up in the American South, Kelly’s fearless yet lighthearted designs pushed racial and cultural boundaries.
The exhibition, which makes its New England debut at PEM, explores themes of identity, culture, race, gender, and sexuality through fashion. Kelly was the first American and first Black person to be inducted into the Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode in Paris in 1988, paving a path for other Black designers as well as models of color.
“There is a jovial, in-your-face quality about his clothing that I think really speaks to 1980’s pop culture,” said Petra Slinkard, Director of Curatorial Affairs and The Nancy B. Putnam Curator of Fashion and Textiles and the organizing curator of the exhibition at PEM. “I also deeply respect and appreciate Kelly’s desire to directly insert a complex conversation regarding race and racism in our society through his creation of clothing.”
With strong, Black women in his family as his supportive foundation, Kelly took exceptional pride in his Southern origins. His grandmother was one of his greatest muses. As a child, she would replace his missing buttons with those of many different colors, a look that Kelly later adapted and exploded for his fashion designs. He also credited his grandmother for introducing him to high fashion through second-hand copies of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar which she presented to him as a child. Transfixed, the designer quickly observed that no Black women were featured, which sparked the young Kelly to proclaim that he would design fashionable clothing for all.
Kelly’s aesthetic embodied his experiences and beliefs. As part of his daily uniform, Kelly wore overalls to symbolize the laborers of his rural south as well as civil rights activists. He paired them in a mash-up with a French cycling cap and converse sneakers. Kelly also elevated his fashion presentations to performance art. The designer’s exuberant personality and infectious smile were at the center of each presentation, while his designs rooted in expressions of love lit up each runway.
“This exhibition is about joy,” said the Penny Vinik Curator of Fashion Arts at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and advising scholar to the exhibition, theo tyson. “It’s about Black joy and about Black Queer joy, but Black Queer joy does exist with a side of pain. The pain that comes from being ostracized as a Black person, as a queer person, and how you channel that into something that isn’t so ugly and hateful. Patrick Kelly found his own very unique way to impart joy.”
Kelly collected racist objects and objects of Black representation – primarily ceramic figurines and dolls, including the character of a golliwog, a fictional Black children’s character from the late 1800s with exaggerated facial features. He sought to subvert this harmful imagery by dismantling and repurposing its power. In the 1980s Kelly made the golliwog central to his brand by using it as his company’s logo and the motif across many of his runway designs. PEM has included a selection of Kelly’s collection of racist objects, as well as Black dolls made by his mother and grandmother, to express the complex and powerful influences of race, power, and violence that directly informed the artist’s life and work.
Visitors will also see footage from Kelly’s lively and groundbreaking 1980s fashion shows and some of his finest ensembles which were created shortly before he died on January 1, 1990, from complications associated with AIDS. The exhibition situates Kelly and his work in the broader context of art and fashion history by exploring the impulses behind his work. “Kelly’s short but inspiring career produced 14 collections in just six years,” said Slinkard. “He promoted powerful messages of positivity while addressing important issues head-on. Kelly and his work have, subsequently, become touchstones for a number of established and emerging designers.”
The most recent episode of PEM’s award-winning podcast, the PEMcast, takes a deep dive into Patrick Kelly’s storied life. It features curators and loved ones who remember the artist, including Kelly’s business and life partner, Bjorn Amelan, who recalls him as “the most charismatic and immediately seductive, lovable person.”
Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love is on view at PEM through November 6, 2022. The exhibition was organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art in collaboration with the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Find the PEMcast episode on PEM’s blog, Connected, HERE. The PEMcast is generously supported by the George S. Parker Fund and is available on Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts.
Sponsored by Peabody Essex Museum
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