This spring the Philadelphia Museum of Art will present an extraordinary fashion retrospective, Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love. The retrospective explores the meteoric rise and remarkable achievements of a 1980s legend whose designs were revered by the likes of actress Bette Davis to singer Vanessa Williams. I personally recall crossing an intersection one day and sitting at the light was Bette Davis wearing a signature Patrick Kelly button dress and hat. It was a fabulous fashion moment that I’ll never forget.
This remarkable exhibition will feature over eighty ensembles and is the first to showcase the full scope of Kelly’s head-to-toe runway ensembles as well as selections from Kelly’s significant holdings of black memorabilia, videos of his exuberant fashion shows, and works by renowned photographers Horst P. Horst, Pierre et Gilles, and Oliviero Toscani.
Kelly’s work, known for its broad appeal was also called intellectually edgy, as he often challenged racial and cultural boundaries. His muses ranged from his Mississippi grandmother, to the American expatriate entertainer Josephine Baker and couturiers Madame Grès and Elsa Schiaparelli.
Dilys Blum, The Museum’s Jack M. and Annette Y. Friedland Senior Curator of Costume and Textiles and organizer of this exhibition, said, “Patrick Kelly’s bold colors, playful aesthetic, and voguing runway shows have inspired today’s designers such as Gerlan Marcel and Michael Bastian, who has drawn inspiration from Kelly’s incredible spirit and love of France in his Spring/Summer 2014 menswear collection. What Kelly achieved during the 1980s has continuing resonance today. While the many barriers he faced remain, Kelly was always positive. His branding and self-marketing were unique at the time, but now, in an age of fast fashion and brand-driven sales, it is a perfect time to reexamine Kelly’s contribution to fashion history.”
The exhibition is organized into six sections, beginning with Kelly’s 1983–84 collection for the Italian experimental design group Studio Invenzione and continuing through his final Fall/Winter 1989–90 collection.
It opens with “Runway of Love,” highlighting the designer’s heart-shaped embellishments to his clothing, often composed from his signature buttons. As a child growing up in Mississippi, Kelly would often lose his buttons, which his grandmother replaced with those of many different colors, a look that Kelly later adapted for his fashion designs.
The retrospective also includes, ”Fast Fashion” designs that Kelly assembled quickly to sell on the streets of Paris after he moved there in 1979.
“Hot Couture” a playful tribute to Kelly’s muses and to fashion history, paying homage to the designer’s Kelly most admired, Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli, and Madame Grès.
In 1988, shortly after receiving financial backing from the fashion powerhouse Warnaco, Kelly became the first American and the first black designer to be elected into the elite Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode. Membership in this exclusive group allowed Kelly to present his ready-to-wear collections in the tents at the Musée du Louvre.
The section titled “Lisa Loves the Louvre” features designs from his Spring/Summer 1989 collection, for which Kelly fantasized that the museum’s most famous resident, The Mona Lisa, invited him to show.
The exhibition’s final section, “Two Loves” is a tribute to Kelly’s love for America and France. The pieces featured in this section are from Kelly’s final Fall/Winter 1989–90 collection and pay homage to cultural icons from both countries, including the Eiffel Tower and the cartoon character Jessica Rabbit.
The exhibition’s rousing finale is an allusion to the Casino de Paris music hall, where Baker performed during the 1920 and which Kelly transforms into the Casino de Patrick.
Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love is complemented by an exhibition of whimsical street wear by Gerlan Jeans. Founded in 2009 by New York–based graphic artist and designer Gerlan Marcel (born 1976), Gerlan Jeans reinterprets Kelly’s signature bows, buttons, and other bold embellishments to create clothes that embody the dynamic spirit of a new generation. Gerlan Jeans ♥ Patrick Kelly explores Kelly’s enduring relevance as he inspires a contemporary label whose vibrant sensibility is embraced by style and pop icons such as Beyoncé and Katy Perry.
Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love will be on view from April 27 –November 30, 2014 at The Philadelphia Museum of Art, located at the Benjamin Franklin Parkway at 26th Street. For general information, call (215) 763-8100, or visit the Museum’s website at www.philamuseum.org