There are some fashionistas guided by the rule that less is more, and then there is Patrick Kelly, the master of tasteful overstatement. “Patrick Kelly, Runway of Love,” the designer’s not-to-be-missed retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (running until November 30 at the Perelman Building) is an exuberant tribute to his belief that there’s no reason great fashion can’t be great fun. Kelly was a rarity in the couture world: a Mississippi-born African-American who moved to Paris in 1979, and in just three years sashayed from street fashion to runway shows featured in the pages of Elle and Vogue. His brief moment in the klieg lights was tragically cut short by his death from AIDS in 1990.
Kelly had the ability to mix elements that nobody else would have imagined, and the audacity to decorate his designer duds with what became his signature appliqués of buttons and bows on everything from dresses to boots to gloves to handbags. His inspirations were as varied as his colors and fabrics. His mother, a home economics teacher, taught him how to sew; his grand-mother encouraged him with fashion magazines she brought from the stylish homes where she worked as a cook. He absorbed the glamour of Josephine Baker, the fluid lines of Madame Gres, the deceptive simplicity of Chanel and Schiaparelli along with references to racial exploitation as depicted by figures like Aunt Jemima. Kelly proudly paraded his heritage and a small fraction of his large extensive personal collection of black memorabilia is included in the show.
The exhibit of 80 ensembles grew from a donation of Kelly’s work to the museum by his long-time partner and lover. It is a joyful romp, complete with energetic videos of Kelly’s Paris shows, that even my husband — who doesn’t know a shift from a shirtwaist — thoroughly enjoyed. Be sure to drop by the accompanying Gerlan Jeans collection to see how a contemporary young designer, Gerlan Marcel, has re-interpreted Kelly into whimsical streetwear, and don’t miss the Perelman shop where you’ll be wowed by the many ways buttons can be made into jewelry. There’s a party to celebrated Kelly with models, fashion and music at the Museum on Friday May 30. Call 215-235-SHOW for information.