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“The Way We Wore” celebrates the work of Gayle Kirkpatrick.

by Susan Ellis

t fashion designer Gayle Kirkpatrick’s memorial service last year in New York, his friends gathered to pay their last respects.

But sometime during the course of the service, they decided to extend those respects into something lasting. On that day, they gathered money to establish a Gayle Kirkpatrick Memorial Scholarship at Kirkpatrick’s alma mater, Memphis College of Art.

A retrospective of designer Gayle Kirkpatrick’s ’60s and ’70s fashions is showing at the Memphis College of Art.
The scholarship wasn’t enough, however. One friend in particular, Jim Boatman, wanted to celebrate Kirkpatrick’s life and career. So, along with local fashion maven Babbie Lovett, he has put together “The Way We Wore,” a retrospective of Kirkpatrick’s designs that will kick off with a combination cocktail preview party and fashion show at MCA on Thursday, September 24th at 7 p.m.

Lovett, who worked as a model and sold the designer’s line at her store, Collectibles, is using her own Kirkpatrick clothes that she bought during his heyday from the mid-’60s to the late ’70s to outfit the models in the MCA show. Boatman has spent months combing through Kirkpatrick’s many, many scrapbooks for material, while others in New York are supplying more memorabilia.

Boatman knew Kirkpatrick from way back, having roomed with him while Kirkpatrick worked at Levy’s and Boatman at Lowenstein’s in the mid-’50s. Boatman remembers him as a man who valued style over sustenance. Specifically, he recalls that he and Kirkpatrick used to go to a farmer’s market at the corner of Poplar and Cleveland and return with more flowers than produce. “For Gayle, those luxuries were the necessities,” says Boatman.

As a kid in New Albany, Mississippi, Kirkpatrick liked clothes and he liked movies. When he worked at Levy’s, he would take the illustrations of dresses and such used for the store’s advertising and rework them to his own tastes. On the urging of friends and coworkers, Kirkpatrick took off for New York in 1956, first landing at Saks Fifth Avenue and then at a knit-wear company, where his innovative designs won him the attention of the press.

Kirkpatrick then created his own label called Atelier by Gayle Kirkpatrick. Boatman, who by then was also in New York, remembers the thrill of seeing Kirkpatrick’s togs on the likes of Lauren Hutton, Elizabeth Taylor, Julie Christie, and Ali McGraw.

In 1965, Kirkpatrick won the prestigious Coty Award, along with five other designers, marking the youth movement in fashion. Boatman says one writer described Kirkpatrick’s work, which could range from designs inspired by movies from the ’40s or a trip to Japan, as “somewhere between kook and couture.” But Boatman says it wasn’t eccentricity that won the right people over – it was Kirkpatrick’s down-home upbringing. “I think his Southern genteel charm endeared him to the young fashion editors who were charmed by his clothing but also by him,” he says.

Kirkpatrick is credited with taking leather off the biker and onto the runways. He created printed satins for daywear for his collection as well as safari garb. He put Faye Dunaway in a short little skirt and a beret, just like her character in Bonnie and Clyde. He designed children’s wear and lounge wear and made patterns for Butterick. He made miniskirts and slinky dresses, sparkly jackets and wide-legged pants. His fashions, says Boatman, are even relevant today, offering up proof in the form of a taped fashion show from the ’70s that will be shown at the opening.

During the last years of Kirkpatrick’s life, he worked for a company designing in-house-label clothes for such stores as Bloomingdale’s. It stung when some up-and-comer didn’t recognize his name, but after a while, he got over it.

“The Way We Wore,” says Boatman, is a way of introducing Gayle Kirkpatrick to those too young to remember – to give them a look at a person Boatman feels honored to have known.

“It was a wonderful life to witness,” says Boatman. “A young man from a meager background to make it big and become famous in the world and to live a life he wanted to – it’s pretty inspirational.”

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