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ART REVIEW

Patrick Kelly’s radical ‘Runway of Love’ at Peabody Essex Museum

The exhibition is a joyful walk through the life and career of the Mississippi-born, Paris-based late designer whose fashion fused ideas about race, culture, and identity

Patrick Kelly's Fall/Winter 1988-1989 advertising campaign.Oliviero Toscani/Courtesy of the Estate of Patrick Kelly. Scan by Randy Dodson/Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

SALEM — There’s a red heart on fashion designer Patrick Kelly’s gravestone at Père-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. There’s also a grinning golliwog — a racist character from an 1895 children’s book by Florence Kate Upton.

Kelly, the effervescent Black American designer, died at 35 on New Year’s Day 1990, of AIDS-related complications. He was a shooting star, his career a blend of audacious talent, buoyant personality, and strokes of wild luck. Grace Jones wore Patrick Kelly; so did Bette Davis. “Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love” at Peabody Essex Museum brims with wit and warmth and doesn’t shrink from shadows. Nor, it seems, did he.

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Kelly’s ebullience shines in 75 accessorized ensembles in brash tones and playful patterns. His models, in videos from runway shows and in ads, have none of the severe look of many fashion models. They grin and goof around with the designer, who almost always appeared in oversize bibbed overalls, a nod to Black tenant farmers and civil rights activists in the American South.

Patrick Kelly's Spring/Summer 1989 advertising campaign.Oliviero Toscani/Courtesy of the Estate of Patrick Kelly. Scan by Randy Dodson/Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

The overalls were an easy way to acknowledge Black American history, but Kelly also could be more challenging. He had a collection of racist memorabilia with thousands of pieces, some of which are on view here. He made the golliwog his logo, and he handed out little Black baby dolls as broaches to his audience members.

“Each lady walked out with a little black baby doll pinned to their lapel,” his life and business partner Bjorn Amelan told The Washington Post’s Robin Givhan in 2004. “He was operating on multiple levels. It was all very knowing.”

And it made some people uneasy.

“You can wear a machine gun or camouflage war outfit and people think it’s so chic, but put a little Black-baby pin and people attack you,” Kelly told Essence magazine in 1989, as quoted in an exhibition label. “I do these things so we don’t forget each other.”

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In the fashion world, he was especially gutsy. Black visual artists had appropriated racist imagery before. In Betye Saar’s 1972 assemblage “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima,” the bandanna’d figure carries a broom and a gun. Since then, using such characters to shine a klieg light on racism has become more common, but it is always loaded: In 1994, Saar herself criticized the work of Kara Walker, known for scathing cut-paper silhouettes depicting narratives of slavery and its legacy in an open letter, writing “Are African-Americans being betrayed under the guise of art?”

Imagine the impact, then, of the grinning golliwog in 1980s-era ready-to-wear women’s fashion. Picture a white American woman who might blithely opt to go out in Kelly’s sheath dress patterned with golliwog faces the size of a hand. Or don’t: Warnaco, an American apparel conglomerate that had signed the designer to a multimillion-dollar contract in 1987, refused to distribute items with that imagery in the US.

Students at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology asked Kelly about the logo in 1989. Queer studies scholar madison moore quoted his answer, written verbatim in the exhibition’s catalog. Though he got criticism “from everybody,” Kelly said, he told his Black critics in particular, “if we can’t deal with where we’ve been, it’s gon’ be hard to go somewhere.”

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Kelly owned his history and his identity, and he celebrated it. He grew up a queer kid in Vicksburg, Miss., paging through his grandmother’s fashion magazines and wondering where the Black women were. At church, he witnessed millinery extravaganzas, proper white gloves, and rainbows of dresses and suits. His mother taught him to draw, his aunt taught him to sew, and his grandmother, who replaced missing buttons with a dazzling array of mismatches, encouraged him to be himself. His designs can be elegant or campy; his aesthetic is jubilant.

Portrait of Patrick Kelly by Oliviero Toscani.Oliviero Toscani/Courtesy of the Estate of Patrick Kelly. Scan by Randy Dodson/Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

He landed in Paris in 1979 after model Pat Cleveland bought him a one-way ticket. There, he borrowed a sewing machine, stitched up jersey dresses, and had friends wear them out in public.

“I’m wearing Patrick Kelly,” they’d say when people asked. That led to a six-page photo spread in French Elle in 1985, and the designer’s career was launched. In 1988, he was the first American and the first Black designer inducted into the Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode, an elite association of French designers.

Woman's Ensemble: Coat and Dress, Fall/Winter 1986-87; Woman's Dresses, Fall/Winter 1986-87 and Fall/Winter 1988-89 designed by Patrick Kelly.Philadelphia Museum of Art

“Runway of Love,” originally presented by the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2014 and reconstituted by the de Young Museum of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco last year, is organized here by a team: Petra Slinkard, PEM’s director of curatorial affairs and curator of fashion and textiles; Lydia Gordon, PEM associate curator; and theo tyson, curator of fashion arts at the Museum of Fine Arts.

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The exhibition shows off Kelly’s humor, versatility, and daring. His designs are paragons of 1980s fast fashion — narrow silhouettes with interchangeable pieces. He made his sheath dresses into backdrops for adornments inspired by his grandmother’s buttons. On one black dress, he built a heart-shaped bodice out of colorful buttons. On another, he used buttons to depict red lips and white eyes, creating a blackface image.

Woman's Dress (detail), Fall/Winter 1986-87 designed by Patrick Kelly.Philadelphia Museum of Art

He also riffed on beloved influences: a boxy wool suit adds cheek to Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel’s finesse, in broad plaids with tones of vibrant, plummy red and aqua. He built on Elsa Schiaparelli’s zany surrealism in a silk-denim suit ensemble with hearts and roses. Big, red lips on the hat echoed Schiaparelli’s shoe hat. One Kelly runway sequence parodied the multiple shades of Rouge Dior lipsticks.

Josephine Baker, another Black American expat in Paris, was his hero. Not surprisingly, Kelly reprised her wildly subversive banana skirt, which she wore for the Paris performance that made her a star in 1926.

At the beginning of his fashion shows, Kelly bounced up on stage and spray painted a red heart on the backdrop. He made Love Lists, enumerating his passions: “Pretty Girls and Valentine Candy Boxes and Fried Catfish” reads one on view here. “All Women (Fat, Skinny and Between . . . ).”

Kelly looked systemic oppression in the eye, and he defied it with love, exuberance, and genius. “Runway of Love” conveys his complexity and his spirit. It’s a joy.

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PATRICK KELLY: RUNWAY OF LOVE

At Peabody Essex Museum, East India Square, 161 Essex St., Salem, through Nov. 6. 866-745-1876, www.pem.org


Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.