Clothes Make the Man 

"Patrick Kelly: A Retrospective" at the Brooks.

Patrick Kelly: It's an unlikely name for a gay, black fashion designer born and raised in the Mississippi Delta. Yet the Vicksburg native seized on improbabilities, proving that poverty and racial stereotypes can be construed as a blessing instead of a burden. His iconic designs combined homespun techniques with African-American imagery to create a witty, entirely modern fashion vernacular in Paris in the 1980s.

Walk into the Kelly retrospective currently at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, and the first thing you'll notice is his uniform: denim overalls, a white turtleneck printed with tiny red hearts, a brightly colored bicycle cap that boldly states "Paris," and a pair of turquoise Converse high-tops. The outfit is consistent with Kelly's personality -- flamboyant, down-to-earth, and, above all, lovable. It exudes confidence and freedom. The man who wore this costume was clearly comfortable with himself. He was willing to take chances in life, and he was able to laugh.

Kelly found humor in unlikely places. He incorporated pool-hall symbolism into a ladylike aesthetic by printing billiard-ball and domino designs on fine fabrics, then cutting chic suits from the material. He sewed thousands of buttons onto a bolero jacket and applied hundreds of teddy bears to a wool coat, mimicking the haute-couture attitude with a poor person's panache. He cut working-class material into frilly gowns and created a glamorous hat out of an Easter basket.

"At the black Baptist church on Sunday, the ladies are just as fierce as the ladies at Yves Saint Laurent couture shows," he once famously declared.

"When Patrick was 6 years old, his grandmother, who cleaned houses for a living, came home with an old issue of Vogue," explains Marina Pacini, chief curator of the Brooks Museum.

"That same grandmother also mended Patrick's clothes whenever he'd lose a button," Pacini continues. "She'd use one that didn't quite match, so she would decorate his clothes with even more buttons," she says, gesturing to a row of simple jersey dresses that are embellished with brightly colored buttons detailing sun rays, serpentine curves, and giant hearts.

"The hearts not only reflect an emotional aspect. They also beautifully highlight the female body," she notes, pointing to a bodice outlined by plastic pearl buttons. "Bette Davis wore one of these dresses on Late Night with David Letterman, and the next morning, Patrick had a $5 million contract."

Kelly's journey from Vicksburg to Paris was remarkably swift. There were brief stopovers in Atlanta -- where he made his reputation designing clothes from thrift-store purchases -- and New York, where he attended the prestigious Parsons School of Design. But in Europe, Kelly's career took on meteoric dimensions, as he went from selling his wares on the sidewalk to becoming the first American member of the Chambre Syndicale du Pret-a-Porter, France's ready-to-wear industry, in eight short years. A favorite designer of such A-listers as Madonna, Bette Midler, and Princess Diana, he received backing from Warnaco, one of the industry's biggest conglomerates, and staged fashion shows at the Louvre museum.

In Paris, Kelly found inspiration in another expatriate: the legendary performer Josephine Baker. He fashioned a banana skirt similar to the one she wore at the Folies Bergére in 1926, and made blouses and dresses out of fabric stamped with Baker's unforgettable face. "He had a real rapport with her story," Pacini says, "because she was another African American who needed to go to France to be appreciated."

Throughout his successes, however, Kelly never forgot his Southern roots. Images of Mississippi emerged again and again, in the dresses made from bandana prints, eyelet cotton, and denim overalls. Models strode down the runway wearing his straw boaters and evening gowns trimmed in gardenia blossoms. He also played with racist American imagery, crafting Sambo dresses, handbags, and shoes that were inspired by stereotypical caricatures of the mid-20th century.

At his own Parisian showroom, Kelly gave away thousands of tiny black dolls -- inexpensive plastic talismans -- every month. At his shows, some models wore minstrel-like blackface, while others had their hair styled into pickaninny pigtails and braids. "If you don't know where you've been, you can't go too far," Kelly often remarked, happy to make the best out of a bad situation.

"People responded so well," says Pacini, "although the Sambo bags were too hot for [Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue, Kelly's American retail outlets]."

Then, in the summer of 1989, it was all over. The always-ebullient designer became extremely ill and was diagnosed with AIDS. Warnaco dropped their sponsorship, and Kelly was forced to cancel his October show. Less than six months later, he was dead.

Photographs, personal items, and, of course, the clothes themselves tell the story of Kelly's brilliant -- but all too brief -- career. They illustrate the man who turned his life inside out and presented it to the world. 

"Patrick Kelly: A Retrospective"

At the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art • Through August 28, 2005

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