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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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?

Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.

Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.