Designer Patrick Kelly was just 35 when he died, but he managed to fit significant achievements into his short life. The Atlanta-born Kelly made his way to Paris in 1979 courtesy of Pierre Bergé, Yves Saint Laurent’s partner, who became something of a mentor after they met while Kelly was working as an unpaid window-dresser at the Saint Laurent boutique in Atlanta.
Once in Paris, Kelly grabbed the opportunity with both hands. Creating five collections a year, his clothes were worn by celebrities including Isabella Rossellini and Grace Jones and by 1987, his business had a turnover of $7m (£4.3m) a year. Kelly also made history: he became the first black designer (and the first American) to be be admitted to the Chambre Syndicale, France’s prestigious body for designers.
Further achievements have come posthumously, and he is now gaining the global recognition that he, and his work, deserves. Kelly’s work is the subject of a retrospective, Runway of Love, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art later this month. Following on from the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibition 10 years ago, more than 80 outfits have been donated to the museum by Kelly’s partner, Bjorn Guil Amelan. It is another chance to check out this neglected talent.
Raised by his mother and grandmother in Mississippi, fashion didn’t run in the family, but Kelly’s determination to shine in the arena was clear early on. Self-taught, he began designing party dresses for classmates while still at high school. He moved to Atlanta and began selling customised vintage while working on the Saint Laurent windows.
Kelly’s strength lay in an ability to adapt to his surroundings, which was in evidence during his move to Paris. His designs became a collage of what he saw around him, fused with a slick, glamorous aesthetic. A short bodycon dress came with an Eiffel Tower rendered in diamante. Another, longer one, spelled out his name in buttons – a signature trope that Kelly credited to his grandmother. She used to sew mismatched buttons on his shirts when he was a child. A tied bandana top and skirt, meanwhile, showed the influence of the club culture that Kelly adored.
As a black fashion designer, Kelly was in a tiny minority – one that has only grown slightly, nearly 25 years later. He challenged this status quo from the inside – using golliwogs as logos and handing out brooches of black dolls as gifts to clients. His recreation of Josephine Baker’s famous banana skirt in 1986 – a cheeky nod to another African-American causing a sensation in the city of light – will be displayed as part of the exhibition, and can be seen in this gallery. It is just one of the exhibits that makes you wonder what this firebrand, who died at 35 due to complications from Aids, would be doing if he were around now.