How Patrick Kelly Emancipated Fashion

“I’ll take American Fashion History for $500, Alex.” “The answer: This man was the first American to be admitted as a member of the Chambre syndicale du prêt-à-porter des couturiers et des créateurs de mode, the prestigious French fashion association, in 1988.” “Who is Patrick Kelly?” The question remains decades later. Who is Patrick Kelly, not only the first American to join the ranks of Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior, and others, but an African-American man? Two new exhibitions at the Philadelphia Museum of ArtPatrick Kelly: Runway of Love and Gerlan Jeans ♥ Patrick Kelly—try to answer that question by recalling a tragically short, but groundbreaking career in fashion in which Kelly created artful fashion while challenging racial boundaries that still persist today. Arguing against those who see fashion as trivial, Patrick Kelly’s story shows how one man emancipated fashion through fun and love.

Kelly might never have made it to Paris if not for the kindness of strangers in the shape of an anonymous one-way plane ticket to “The City of Light” given to him in 1979. (African-American supermodel Pat Cleveland, a friend of Kelly’s and an early believer in his talent, later admitted to providing the ticket to Paris, the city she fled America to after allegedly vowing not to live in the United States until a black model appeared on the cover of Vogue.) Upon arriving in Paris, Kelly made a name for himself through what he called “Fast Fashion,” ready-to-wear designs that quickly demonstrated his flair for body-conscious clothes any woman could wear, regardless of shape or age, and for fun use of colors and patterns. In an ingenious guerrilla marketing move, Kelly gave free “Fast Fashion” samples to his model friends to wear on casting calls. French Elle fashion editor Nicole Crassat noticed Kelly’s clothes on one of those casting calls, which led to a 6-page photo spread in the February 1985 that essentially launched Kelly’s Parisian and international career. Sadly, just 5 years later, Kelly would be gone.

Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love recreates the classic configuration of a runway show, with a central “stage” of outfits from More Love, the theme of Kelly’s Fall/Winter 1988-89 collection (his last), flanked by clothing from earlier shows as an “audience.” Archival footage from the runway shows appears behind the clothing, bringing the clothes to life through the original models, including the aforementioned Pat Cleveland. Add in the sounds of classic late ‘80s pop music such as Michael Jackson’s “Bad,” and you’re partying like it’s 1989. The more than 80 ensembles (recreated right down to the earrings and shoes by curators pouring over the archival footage) in the show were recently presented to the PMA as a promised gift by Kelly’s business and life partner, Bjorn Guil Amelan, and Bill T. Jones, dancer, choreographer, and Amelan’s current partner, which ensures that the museum will be the place to study Kelly for the foreseeable future.

The first thing that hits you about Kelly’s art is the sheer fun of imagination, as if a big kid were designing clothes, but a precocious kid who could riff on Surrealists such as Man Ray with stacks of hats perched on models or even reframe art history itself with “Lisa Loves the Louvre” (image above), Kelly’s Spring/Summer 1989 collection that fantasized Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa inviting him to fantasize in fabric a Kelly Lisa (Patrick himself as La Joconde), a Billie (Holiday) Lisa, and even a Moona Lisa (in honor of the then 20th anniversary of the first moon landing). In addition to those whimsical influences, Kelly knew serious fashion through his study of Madame Grès, Coco Chanel, and Elsa Schiaparelli (who was perhaps his greatest influence, as demonstrated by an offhand remark that Kelly dreamed of one day calling his collections “Schiaparelli by Kelly”).

“Riff,” however, with its jazz connotations, is the wrong word for Kelly, who brought a decidedly hip hop perspective to fashion as art. As much as Kelly sampled from the world of Chanel and Schiaparelli, he also drew upon the lessons of his grandmother back in Mississippi, Ethel Rainey, whose fierce personal style inspired Kelly’s extravagant use of buttons as well as his enduring pride in his ethnic roots even on the streets and runways of Paris. Just as N.W.A owned and repurposed the “n word” through their music, Kelly owned and repurposed racial imagery such as the pickaninny, Aunt Jemima bandana, and golliwog through his fashion. (A display case in the exhibition area contains some of Kelly’s collection of dolls and other artifacts from the racist past.) Kelly even adopted the golliwog as his corporate logo, which led American stores to reject Patrick Kelly Paris shopping bags as “too controversial.” Kelly confounded the power of hate behind such images with an overdose of love, transforming the message of such caricatures from a hate crime into a shared joke everyone could laugh at. Beside a video projection of Kelly spray painting the signature heart symbol he placed on each runway backdrop of his shows stands Kelly’s professional “uniform” of oversized denim overalls, which alluded both to the African-American sharecroppers and laborers of his past as well as the hip hop artists of his present. Kelly often wore a button featuring the face of Martin Luther King, Jr., on those overalls as a reminder of the dream he, too, was striving to make true.

“Nothing Is Impossible,” reads the epitaph on Kelly’s headstone in Paris’ Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris. When Kelly died on New Year’s Day 1990, friends and family cited bone marrow disease and cancer as the cause of death, rather than the stigmatizing real cause of AIDS. Even in death, Kelly (who only listed 1954 as his “approximate” year of birth to avoid ageism) resisted easy labels designed to limit him by race or sexual orientation. Breaking into the predominantly white, predominantly European world of high fashion once seemed impossible, but Kelly proved it wasn’t. Alas, Kelly’s emancipation proclamation for fashion failed to leave a larger lasting legacy. Although contemporary designers such Gerlan Marcel evoke Kelly’s spirit (as beautifully demonstrated by the accompanying exhibition Gerlan Jeans ♥ Patrick Kelly), racial boundaries in fashion stubbornly persist, as Kanye West recently pointed out in regards to his own inability to break the fashion barrier. As Alex Rees points out in that article on West, “The spring 2014 Paris Fashion Week show schedule featured 99 shows. Of those 99, not one collection came courtesy of a black designer—male or female.” Somehow, Kelly beat those long odds. Now, someone else needs to beat those odds today. To close out what was his final show, Kelly presented the obligatory “bride” look, but replaced the gown with a heart-shaped, black body suit, replaced the tiara with a candy box, and replaced the white veil with a floor-length red version—all “wrong” choices that add up to something amazingly, strikingly right. For everyone who sees fashion as trivial, Patrick Kelly in Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love shows that you can marry what many see as “wrong” (the racist imagery and attitudes still embedded in society) with a deep sense of love and pride and come up with an answer that’s not just right, but important for us all to see is right.

[Image: Patrick Kelly. Spring/Summer 1989 Collection. Photograph by Oliviero Toscani.]

[Many thanks to the Philadelphia Museum of Art for providing me with a press pass to, the image above from, and other press materials related to the exhibitions Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love and Gerlan Jeans ♥ Patrick Kelly, which both run through April 27, 2014.]

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Hold your breath at Marble Arch!

Air pollution up to five times over the EU limit in Central London hotspots

  • Dirty air is an invisible killer, but an effective one.
  • A recent study estimates that more than 9,000 people die prematurely in London each year due to air pollution.
  • This map visualises the worst places to breathe in Central London.

The Great Smog of 1952

London used to be famous for its 'pea-soupers': combinations of smoke and fog caused by burning coal for power and heating.

All that changed after the Great Smog of 1952, when weather conditions created a particularly dense and persistent layer of pollution. For a number of days, visibility was reduced to as little as one foot, making traffic impossible. The fog even crept indoors, leading to cancellations of theatre and film showings. The episode wasn't just disruptive and disturbing, but also deadly: according to one estimate, it directly and indirectly killed up to 12,000 Londoners.

Invisible, but still deadly

Image: MONEY SHARMA/AFP/Getty Images

London Mayor Sadiq Khan

After the shock of the Great Smog, the UK cleaned up its act, legislating to replace open coal fires with less polluting alternatives. London Mayor Sadiq Khan is hoping for a repeat of the movement that eradicated London's smog epidemic, but now for its invisible variety.

The air in London is "filthy, toxic", says Khan. In fact, poor air quality in the British capital is a "public health crisis". The city's poor air quality is linked not just to thousands of premature deaths each year, but also to a range of illnesses including asthma, heart disease and dementia. Children growing up in areas with high levels of air pollution may develop stunted lungs, with up to 10% less capacity than normal.

Image: Transport for London

ULEZ phases 1 and 2, and LEZ

Khan has led a very active campaign for better air quality since his election as London Mayor in 2016. Some of the measures recently decided:

  • Transport for London has introduced 2,600 diesel-electric hybrid buses, which is said to reduce emissions by up to 40%.
  • Mr Khan has pledged to spend £800 million on air quality over a five-year period.
  • Uber fares will rise by 15p (20¢) to help drivers buy electric cars.
  • Since the start of 2018, all new single-decker buses are zero-emission and all new taxis must be hybrid or electric.
  • Mr Khan has added a T-charge on the most toxic vehicles entering the city. On 8 April, the T-charge will be replaced by an Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), contiguous with the Congestion Charge Zone.
  • The ULEZ is designed to reduce emissions of nitrogen oxide and particulate matter by charging vehicles who don't meet stringent exhaust emission standards.
  • By October 2020, a Low-Emission Zone (LEZ), applicable to heavy commercial vehicles, will cover most of Greater London.
  • By October 2021, the ULEZ will expand to cover a greater part of Central London.

Central London's worst places for breathing

Image: Steven Bernard / Financial Times

Heathrow (bottom left on the overview map) is another pollution hotspot

What worries experts is that despite considerable efforts already made, levels of air pollution stubbornly refuse to recede – and remain alarmingly high in locations where traffic flows converge.

It's not something you'd think of, given our atmosphere's fluctuating nature, but air pollution hotspots can be extremely local – as this map demonstrates.

One important lesson for all Londoners: don't inhale at Marble Arch! Levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) are five times the EU norm – the highest in the city. Traffic permitting, quickly cross Cumberland Gate to Speakers' Corner and further into Hyde Park, where levels sink back to a 'permissible' 40 milligrams per cubic meter. Now you can inhale!

Almost as bad: Tower Hill (4.6 times the EU norm) and Marylebone Road (4 times; go to nearby Regent's Park for relief).

Also quite bad: the Strand (3.9), Piccadilly Circus (3.8), and Hyde Park Corner (also 3.8), Victoria (3.7) and Knightsbridge (3.5), the dirty trio just south of Hyde Park.

Elephant & Castle is the only pollution hotspot below the Thames and, perhaps because it's relatively isolated from other black spots, also the one with the lowest multiplication factor (2.8 times the maximum level).

On the larger map, the whole of Central London, including its relatively NO2-free parks, still shows up as more polluted than the outlying areas. Two exceptions flare up red: busy traffic arteries; and Heathrow Airport (in the bottom left corner).

Image: Mike Malone, CC BY SA 4.0

Traffic congestion on London's Great Portland Street

So why is Central London's air pollution problem so persistent? In part, this is because the need for individual transport in cars seems to be inelastic. For example, the Congestion Charge has slashed the number of vehicles entering Central London by 30%, but the number of (CC-exempt) private-hire vehicles entering that zone has quadrupled over the same period.

Cycling has really taken off in London. But despite all pro-cycling measures, a wide range of other transport options and car-dissuading measures, central London is still a very congested place. Average traffic speeds on weekdays has declined to 8 miles (13 km) per hour – fittingly medieval speeds, as the road network was largely designed in medieval times.

Narrow streets between high buildings, filled to capacity with slow-moving traffic are a textbook recipe for semi-permanent high levels air pollution.

The large share of diesel vehicles on London's streets only increases the problem. Diesel vehicles emit lower levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) than petrol cars, which is why their introduction was promoted by European governments.

However, diesels emit higher levels of the highly toxic nitrogen dioxide (NO2) than initial lab tests indicated. Which is why they're being phased out now.

As bad as Delhi, worse than New York

Image: Sanchit Khanna/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

By some measures, London's air quality is almost as bad as New Delhi's.

By some measures, especially NO2, London's air pollution is nearly as bad as big Asian cities such as Beijing or New Delhi, and much worse than other developed cities such as New York and Madrid.

The UK is bound to meet pollution limits as set down in the National Air Quality objectives and by EU directives, for example for particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide.

  • Particulate matter (PM2.5) consists of tiny particles less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter emitted by combustion engines. Exposure to PM2.5 raises the mortality risk of cardiovascular diseases. The target for PM2.5 by 2020 is 25 µg/m3. All of London currently scores higher, with most areas at double that level.
  • Mainly emitted by diesel engines, NO2 irritates the respiratory system and aggravates asthma and other pre-existing conditions. NO2 also reacts with other gases to form acid rain. The limit for NO2 is 40 µg/m3, and NO2 levels must not exceed 200 µg/m3 more than 18 times a year. Last year, London hit that figure before January was over.

Google joins fight against air pollution

Image: laszlo-photo, CC BY SA 2.0

Elephant & Castle, London.

Studies predict London's air pollution will remain above legal limits until 2025. Sadiq Khan – himself an asthma sufferer – is working to make London's air cleaner by measures great and small. Earlier this week, he announced that two of Google's Street View cars will be carrying air quality sensors when mapping the streets of London

Over the course of a year, the two cars will take air quality readings every 30 metres in order to identify areas of London with dangerous levels of air pollution that might be missed by the network of fixed sensors. An additional 100 of those fixed sensors will be installed near sensitive locations and known pollution hotspots, doubling the network's density.

It's all part of Breathe London, a scheme to map the British capital's air pollution in real time. Breathe London will be the world's largest air quality monitoring network, said Mr Khan, launching the scheme at Charlotte Sharman Primary School in the London borough of Southwark.

Up to 30% of the school's pupils are said to be asthma sufferers. Charlotte Sharman is close to Elephant & Castle, as the above map shows, one of Central London's air pollution hotspots.

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