Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Fun of '80s Fashion: Patrick Kelly's "Runway of Love"

Tuesday, December 9, 2014
Isabella reporting,

Usually on this blog, the '80s refers to the 1680s, 1780s, or 1880s, but today's post is looking back a little less far, to the 1980s. It's an era that many of us remember with great fondness, even down to the crunchily-moussed big hair.

Last week I visited an exhibition devoted to the work of one of the '80s brightest talents, fashion designer Patrick Kelly (1954-1990). The Philadelphia Museum of Art is the fortunate recipient of a large collection of his clothing and accessories, and the staging of this exhibition - aptly called Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love – was a glorious celebration of both Kelly's designs and his philosophy.

Kelly's design goal was simple: "I want my clothes to make you smile." He succeeded, too. Dozens of mannequins showed examples of his work, featuring simple, flirtatious shapes, bright colors, and a witty use of appliques, buttons, and contrasting threads. His imagination was seemingly boundless, combining the influences of his African-American heritage and childhood in Mississippi with the inspiration he found in Paris, his second home and the place where he truly blossomed.

The mannequins were grouped by some of his most famous collections, and behind them were screens showing videos of each collection's runway shows. Clothes need bodies to come alive, and while it was fascinating to study the construction of the clothes up-close - were those buttons made from nails? - the real spirit of Kelly's clothes showed on the runway. A multicultural parade of models danced and laughed their way through each show, with everyone clearly having a fabulous time. Fashion never looked so fun, or so full of promise.

But the promise was sadly short-lived. At the peak of his career, Kelly died in Paris at the far-too-young age of thirty-five, an early victim of AIDS. In a time when the joyful racial equality of Kelly's runway seems more unattainable than ever, it was good to recall one man's optimism and creativity, and to remember the epitaph on his headstone: "Nothing Is Impossible."

While "Runway of Love" closed on Monday, much of the show is still online to view, along with several videos, here. There's no better antidote to a grey December day.

Many thanks to Mary Doering and Dilys E. Blum for their insights.

All photographs ©2014 Susan Holloway Scott.


Anonymous said...

I'd SO totes wear these, and I wasn't even born in the 80s. Sexy and quirky. New name for me to look for in vintage.

Unknown said...

Thank you for this article. While it's notable that this museum is featuring Mr. Kelly's work, one must not forget that he was forced to go to Paris to achieve recognition and success. None of the American "big business" fashion houses were willing to invest in a Black man's designs until he proved himself abroad. This has not changed to this day. Nearly twenty-five years have passed since Mr. Kelly's tragic death, and yet there is still not a single major Black designer showing at NY Fashion Week.

LaDonna said...

I think I had a Patrick Kelly for Benneton sweater back in the day.

Anonymous said...

I saw this show in Philadelphia in August. Yes, it was fun, but it was also tremendously inspiring about what COULD be. "Nothing is impossible." RIP, Patrick Kelly, you are missed.

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