Connected \\ August 2, 2022
PEMcast Episode 27: Love and Loss, Part 2
In this episode of the PEMcast, we take our listeners deeper into the themes of love and loss. In Part One, we explored the work of Canadian artist Zachari Logan, decoding the meaning behind his botanical drawings, discussing ecology, sexuality and the significance of ditch flowers in Saskatchewan. Listen to that episode HERE.
Now, we look at the brief creative life of Patrick Kelly, the queer, Black fashion designer who pushed boundaries and exuded joy. The PEM exhibition Runway of Love is a celebration of the 1980s and of Kelly’s unprecedented rise to fame from the Jim Crow South to the runways of Paris.
Portrait of Patrick Kelly. Photograph by Oliviero Toscani. Courtesy of the Estate of Patrick Kelly. Scan by Randy Dodson / Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
“We are in a very racially charged America, not so different from the one that Patrick Kelly fled,” said theo tyson, the Penny Vinik Curator of Fashion Arts at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, who served as advising scholar on PEM’s exhibition. “Fashion is the one thing that can actually bring us all together. It's something that we can all relate to. To have this open now and to center it in joy, this is so necessary.”
theo tyson (center) and friends at the opening reception of Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.
Kelly built community all around him, addressing through his designs Blackness, systemic racism and the queer experience. “On a surface level, what characterizes Patrick Kelly's work is that playfulness, that exuberance in color, the very tactile nature,” said Petra Slinkard, PEM’s Director of Curatorial Affairs and the Nancy B. Putnam Curator of Fashion and Textiles. “Then, going into a deeper level, it's also this very subversive method of communicating what he felt were important issues, things that meant something to him. It’s always more than meets the eye with Patrick Kelly.”
Both curators take us through the gallery, sharing their favorite ensembles and why they each feel connected to the life and work of the designer who never made it out of the 80s, dying on January 1, 1990, at the age of 35 from AIDS.
Patrick Kelly’s Fall/Winter 1989–1990 advertising campaign. Photograph by Oliviero Toscani. Courtesy of the Estate of Patrick Kelly. Scan by Randy Dodson / Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
“The last two collections are brilliant, they're colorful, they're exuberant, but they're also a little bit chaotic,” said Slinkard. “My assumption is that he perhaps knew that his days were limited, and I feel like he needed to get out as many ideas that were floating around in his head in the time that remained.”
We also catch up with Kelly’s partner in business and in life, Bjorn Amelan, who shares memories about their days in Paris together, running the atelier, and building a joyful community, when Kelly worked through the night at his sewing machine while friends in the fashion business danced all around.
“I would say he was probably the most charismatic and immediately seductive, lovable person that I have known,” said Amelan.
Listen and learn more about this beloved and prolific artist, with his sharp mind and joyous heart, the talented and generous Patrick Kelly.
Organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love is on view at PEM through November 6, 2022. This episode was produced by me, Dinah Cardin, and edited and mixed by Erika Sutter. Music for this episode by Daniel Birch, Jim Hall, cultureculture, Fanas, Independent Music Licensing Collective, Podington Bear, Uncan, Meydän and Soularflair. Audio segments excerpted from Rifat Ozbek and Patrick Kelly, fashion 1989, Courtesy of Atelier LeonLeon, via YouTube and Patrick Kelly on special with Rosalind Johnson 1988 Courtesy of douglasays, via YouTube. The PEMcast is generously supported by the George S. Parker Fund.
PEMcast Episode 27: Love and Loss
Two years ago, a young American moved from MIssissippi to Paris. He had a dream. He wanted to join the ranks of the great French designers. And Patrick Kelly is the first American designer ever admitted to the inner shrine of French fashion, La Chambre Syndicale.
Woman: You made these dresses in your hotel room?
Patrick Kelly: In my hotel room, where I’d borrow sewing machines from different people.
Woman: And then you just hung them right here? It was illegal what you were doing.
Patrick Kelly: It was a bit illegal.
Patrick Kelly: It wasn’t all easy, it wasn’t all like Patrick Kelly just arrived and the French loved him. No, I was out there kicking, baby.
Theo: People are always, What does fashion have to do with anything? People are dying, people are being murdered and all of these horrible things are happening. It’s like why take the time to talk about fashion.
Dinah: This is Theo Tyson.
Theo: Penny Vinik Curator of Fashion Arts at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. I think for most people, at least for the past couple of years It's been hard to have hope and to offer love and care to one another. We haven't been in a really good place to do that, across the globe. We are in a very racially charged America. Not so different from the one that Patrick Kelly fled. To have this open now and to center it in joy, this is so necessary.
Dinah: Theo is the advising scholar for an exhibition at PEM about Patrick Kelly, the queer, black fashion designer who struggled for racial equality and became the first American and black designer to conquor the runways of Paris.
Theo: Fashion is political because the person is political. It’s the one thing we all have in common. Everyone has had a shirt or a pair of pants or a shoe. It's something that we can all relate to. No one in this museum right now is nude. [laughs]
Dinah: Welcome to the PEMcast, conversations and stories for the culturally curious. From the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, I’m your host Dinah Cardin. In Part 2 of this episode – that we’re calling Love and Loss – we explore the brief, creative life of Patrick Kelly. From the Jim Crow South to the runways of Paris, Patrick Kelly experienced unprecedented success in the fashion industry before his untimely death. Today, he is being absolutely feted at our museum. Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love presents more than 75 fully accessorized ensembles, dating from 1984, right up until his death in 1990 at the age of 35. Join us on this journey through the 80s and through the storied life of this prolific artist and fashion visionary.
Dinah: (tape) Let me take you back. Why did you want this show here?
Petra: As a fashion historian and as a curator, I have been aware of Patrick Kelly's work for a number of years. I've had the opportunity to work at collections that house his work.
Dinah: This is Petra Slinkard.
Petra: I am the Director of Curatorial Affairs and The Nancy B. Putnam Curator of Fashion and Textiles. I am one of many people who worked on this current project Patrick Kelly, Runway of Love. There's this fun campy, in your face quality about his clothing that I think really speaks to 1980s popular culture. Any opportunity that you have to see a Patrick Kelly up close is a really interesting experience.
Dinah: Kelly produced playful yet sophisticated designs that expressed joy while addressing Blackness, systemic racism and the queer experience. His passion for design took him from Vicksburg, Mississippi, to Paris and in less than a decade catapulted him to stardom.
Woman: Now we should welcome the hottest name in Paris fashion today, Mr. Patrick Kelly.
Petra: What's interesting about Kelly is that if you know, you know, and people then become very deeply inspired by his work but his career was short. And unfortunately as a result of that, the house did not carry on after his passing. And so for a lot of people in the 21st century, many don't know Patrick Kelly.
Dinah: Primarily self-taught, his first days in Paris were spent selling comfortable, flattering knit dresses right on the street. But the world wanted more.
Petra: His induction into the Chambre Syndicale in 1988, the contract that he signed with Warnaco, the number of US outlets that he was engaging in. For any designer, let alone a designer of color was pretty extraordinary. That just speaks to his work ethic to his personal philosophy and his ethos about design. People close to him have described him as having the fastest brain on the planet.
Dinah: Kelly constructed the Patrick Kelly Paris brand around his Black and queer cultural identity.
Petra: I think on a surface level, what characterizes Patrick Kelly's work is that playfulness, that exuberance in color, the very tactile nature. But then, going into a deeper level, it's also this very subversive method of communicating what he felt were important issues, things that meant something to him. And so, I think, more than meets the eye always with Patrick Kelly.
Dinah: In addition to creating beautiful clothing, Petra says Patrick Kelly pursued a conversation on social issues. And in order to do that, in order to inform the future, he believed in keeping his history close.
Petra: Patrick was extremely close to his mother, his aunt, and in particular, his grandmother. He really considered the strong Black women in his life as a part of his supportive foundation.
Dinah: Black women were missing from the fashion magazines his grandmother brought home from the houses she cleaned. This caused a young Patrick Kelly to commit to designing clothes for all women.
Petra: He was quoted as saying that at the Black Baptist church on Sunday, the ladies were just as fierce as ladies that you might see at the Yves Saint Laurent couture show. For him, that instilled an idea of what it meant to get dressed, what it meant to present yourself in a proper way, and how powerful and empowering fashion can be.
SOUND OF SPRAY PAINTING
Dinah: Kelly’s energetic runway shows opened with the designer spray-painting a heart on the back wall of the stage in the spirit of urban street art. Wherever Kelly went, he brought people together, creating a party atmosphere, reminiscent of his club days in New York. Unlike the cliche of the pouty fashion model, walking the runway in these shows was an altogether different experience.
Petra: The models were dancing and twirling and coming down the runway in pairs or in threes.
Petra: It was not your traditional stayed fashion where people were sitting politely in their seats. There was this great sense of vitality to his presentations.
CELL PHONE RINGS
Bjorn Amelan: Yes, this is Bjorn speaking. Hello?
Dinah: Bjorn Amelan was Patrick’s partner in business and in life.
Dinah: All right. So, am I reaching you…Where am I reaching you?
Bjorn: You are reaching me in the car, north of the city of New York.
Dinah: From his car, Bjorn whisks us back in time.
80s SOUNDING MUSIC
Bjorn: Patrick and I met in '83.
Dinah: (tape) What's the first thing you tell people about Patrick Kelly if you think they don't know much about him?
Bjorn: I would say he was probably the most charismatic and immediately seductive, lovable person that I have known. You immediately felt like you knew him and you were liking him. But then, after years of knowing him and liking him, you realize that you actually knew almost nothing about him.
Dinah: When the two met, Patrick Kelly was working for private clients. Bjorn was a photographer’s agent with useful connections in the fashion world. Arriving in Paris in 1979, Kelly had spent several years working various jobs and, in 1985, opened his Parisian atelier with Bjorn. The business took off.
Bjorn: Patrick worked very hard. We worked very hard.
Dinah: You can see the result of this hard work at PEM through not only a selection of his clothing but original artwork and objects from Kelly's personal collection which showcase his life, his insatiable drive for creative expression and his lasting legacy.
Bjorn: The first years his sales went from zero to nine million dollars, whatever wholesale, within four years. It's a big job.
Dinah: I asked Bjorn about their life together in Paris at the time. When people in the business, especially the black models he helped get to the runway, were welcomed to stay in their apartment.
Bjorn: Patrick loved to go out dancing. He loved a party.
Bjorn: He loved to have people around him when he was working. People could be partying around him, he would be at his sewing machine.
Bjorn: There was an enormous sense of real privacy. It took me a long time to find out Patrick's real age. He didn't talk about age because he didn't know his own age. He didn't want to know his age. His attitude was to say, "If I know my age, if I know that I'm 50, I won't be comfortable with people who are 16. If I know that I'm 20, I won't be comfortable with people who are 70. I'd rather not know my age." The same way, details about his childhood, what's his background, he never talked much about at all. I hardly knew.
Dinah: The exhibition begins with a lifesize photograph of Patrick Kelly. All the rage in Paris, his standard uniform would not let go of Black American history – oversized bibbed overalls symbolizing the laborers and tenant farmers of the rural South. He often juxtaposed it with a French cycling cap and high top sneakers. To dress it up, he sometimes wore a designer tuxedo jacket over top.
Petra: So, these two, I think, are quite interesting. What we're looking at is a pairing of two ensembles from Kelly's Fall/Winter '87, '88 Collections.
Dinah: Petra again.
Petra: They showcase his use of denim as a textile that is most commonly associated with labor. He is elevating that textile to be one that is both fashionable and kind of an interesting use as far as high fashion is concerned. He himself wore bib overalls as part of his personal style, but you see that he is also here reinterpreting that durable fabric into fashionable and feminine silhouettes. Kelly's own signature use of denim brought him to the attention of Benetton, where he then went on to design two collections anonymously in '87 and '88 for that Italian fashion brand.
Dinah: (tape) You got to love the red brick looking sweater material.
Petra: Yes, the red brick knit jumpsuit worn underneath denim overall apron. Accessories are very important in the total looks and the presentation of the mannequins in this exhibition. In this case, accessorized with earrings that depict a wrench, a hammer, and other tools. Then, the denim baby doll dress is accessorized with a lunchbox purse and a dump truck earring pair.
Woman: Do you feel like a Parisian? Do you feel like you’re part of that whole scene?
Patrick Kelly: I’m still from the South, more than just USA, I’m still a southerner. I like to have fun. I’m more funny than I am Parisian.
Dinah: Visitors the gallery see, first thing, Patrick Kelly, beaming a huge smile.
Theo: And it's an infectious smile.
Dinah: Theo again.
Theo: Even though he's smiling and laughing and this is very, very playful and campy, and everything else, but he's still talking about things that are very, very serious and important to him in regards to race, and gender and identity.
Dinah: American entertainer Josephine Baker, another queer, black expat in Paris, was an iconic figure for Patrick Kelly. The exhibition includes an ensemble from the MFA, Boston with a Josephine Baker motif.
Theo: They both understood the way that race worked in America. Both Josephine and he understood that everyone likes the joyful, exuberant Black person. Josephine Baker said, "No one's going to be upset with a cute, funny girl." Patrick Kelly, the same things like, "I want to make you smile." Understanding that that joy was armor to protect you because no one's going to hurt you if you're making them laugh if you're making them feel good. This exhibition is about joy. It's about Black joy and about Black Queer joy, but Black Queer joy does exist with a side of pain. There's this juxtaposition of pain. The pain that comes from being ostracized as a Black person, as a queer person and how do you channel that into something that isn't so ugly and so hateful.
Dinah: (tape) There are people milling around here, around the gallery and being so quiet. What do you hope they take from this?
Theo: I want them to take away the fact that he was a serious designer. Regardless of how campy or playful the joy even, he was a serious designer and well skilled. I'm hoping that that's what people can take away. It's like, "Yeah, there's some things in here. They are all challenging and we struggled with them, but what happened after we finish struggling with them?" That's the point. It was we. It wasn't just one person's burden. I think that's very important because all of us pay the price of racism. So, it's not just one person's job to fix it.
Dinah: In his struggle with racism, Patrick Kelly collected racist memorabilia and worked to turn the message on its head.
Theo: All of these dolls….I mean, it ranges. There's golliwogs. There's mammies. There's minstrels. There's the Jemima figures and pickaninnies. There's all of these horrible tropes and stereotypes of Black people and particularly Black women. If you think about it, he was so inspired by women, his mother, his grandmother and then have these things with these very horrid representations of them. One of the things that I thought about when we were putting the display of the memorabilia up is like, what would my mom say or my grandmother say? I think about all Black kids or Black Queer kids. Then, you think about smaller children that literally have no idea what any of this is, and they just see a doll.
Dinah: Bjorn also admired the way Kelly was able to drive the conversation on race. He had a seemingly natural ability to use humor to push racial and cultural boundaries with his designs and reclaim racist symbols and reframe them.
Bjorn: When he printed those Black faces on dresses, that was not something that the American buyers went for. I was very naïve about those things because I was a Frenchman who knew that there had been "racism" in America, but I did not really live it and know it.
Dinah: Bjorn says that by embracing his history – even drawing inspiration from oppression, racism and homophobia, Patrick Kelly was able to figure out the path forward.
Bjorn: In hindsight, I see the intelligence of it as follows: I think that as long as something is forbidden, it retains its power. If you say that just Black racist imagery is bad and forbidden and you're not allowed to display, then people who are racist know that they have in their hand a tool that has retained its effectiveness. The Black memorabilia is going to remain a racist symbol as long as we say that it is a racist symbol. If, as Patrick did, we appropriate it – in his case as African American man – and say, "Look, this is mine. It's funny and it's cute and I don't mind it," then the power that it has is removed.
Dinah: Back in the gallery, I ask Theo to pick a favorite ensemble of Patrick Kelly’s and she points to a skirt made from a red bandana.
Theo: For him to take these fabrics and craft them into high fashion and Haute Couture, garments that are clamored for by all women, it's interesting. The subversiveness of placing such challenging politically charged content, it's remarkable to me.
Dinah: (tape) What did the bandana symbolize for him do you think?
Theo: I think for him, it symbolized everything that he ever saw, like working class women. One of the reasons that Black women had to tie their hair up during enslavement was because white women feared their beauty. That was one of the ways that they thought that they could hide it, it's like, "Well, you cover your hair." And the way that it's tied as well. When I see this, I do immediately see the woman working with the bandana tied from the back with the bow. And it's hard not to see it.
Dinah: Theo points out that this exhibition has been on view in Philadelphia and San Francisco before coming to Boston.
Theo: I spent a lot of time in the South. Here in Boston, we engage with race very differently. It's a completely different world in the south.
Dinah: She points to motifs on the clothing.
Theo: There's watermelons, there's the little Black baby dolls. To me, it's part of the legacy of the Black radical imaginary. You know, that radical imagination that allows you to exist beyond whatever your current circumstance is. It's almost poking fun at the system that has caused all of these challenges. I mean said it best himself like, you have to know your history. And he didn't allow that history to deter him. He allowed it to encourage and support him regardless of how complicated it may be. He knew exactly what he was doing, and he did not back down from anyone.
Petra: I hope there are several takeaways from the show.
Dinah: Petra again.
Petra: The first is that this is a show about Patrick Kelly as a person, as a designer, as a creative and as an artist.
Dinah: Petra says this show demonstrates the continuing impact Patrick Kelly had on fashion designers into the 21st century.
Petra Showcasing his collections, some of the best of the best of what he produced, the best of the best of in what his atelier and what Patrick Kelly Paris represented. I hope is going to be inspiring to people and will encourage them to want to dig in and learn more about designers that they don't know very much about. It's also a show that's about the social history of the 1980s and what was happening in our country happening across the world. Top level it's fun, it's colorful, it's poppy. Then there's this other level where it's serious, and there's a bit of a somber tone to it. There are issues that pertain to racism, to homophobia, to queerphobia. And then we kick off the decade of the 1990s.
Dinah: A decade Patrick Kelly barely made it into. On January 1, 1990, he died of AIDs at the age of 35.
Petra: It gives us a glimpse into what would have continued had Patrick stayed alive. If he had continued living, what would he have been capable of? Because the last two collections are brilliant, they're colorful, they're exuberant, but they're also a little bit chaotic. My assertion is that he perhaps knew that his days were limited, and I feel like he needed to get out as many ideas that were floating around in his head in the time that remained.
Bjorn: We discovered our HIV positiveness a short time after we came back from New York where we have a major licensing contract. Warnaco was going to invest a lot of money in our business. This was June of '87. We knew that if anybody found out of our HIV status, the contract would be rescinded. At that time, HIV was considered a death sentence. No corporation was going to invest millions of dollars on a business led by a person who was going to die, according to the perception of the day. So, we decided that we had to keep our HIV status a total secret to everyone.
Dinah: After Patrick Kelly died, Bjorn set out to manage this young star’s legacy.
Bjorn: Well, I was in love with Patrick. When he died, it was very tough. I was very anxious to see his legacy preserved.
Dinah: There were design samples preserved in the couple’s attic. Bjorn was able to donate all the video and paper archive to the Schomburg Library, the division of the New York Public Library devoted in Harlem to the study of Black culture. Then in 2014, the Philadelphia Museum of Art took the clothing.
Bjorn: I was very happy to know that everything now is accessible at the perpetuity to future researchers. There was a great consolation once he died, the fact that I had been able to help a person I loved help their dream to come true.
Dinah: I asked Bjorn what helped him have the faith to move on in his own life. How did he go on to marry another famous artist, the choreographer and dancer Bill T. Jones?
Bjorn: Falling in love and both of us having being HIV positive and having lived through the demise of our friend, there was this leap of faith of willingness to recommit. There's a level of trust one must have, and willingness to chance it in order to... All I can say is that 30 years later, here we are in the love still together.
Dinah: And their meeting story honors their previous partners.
Bjorn: As I was grieving for Patrick, I read an interview of Bill T. Jones whom I knew nothing about. Bill T. Jones had lost his partner of 17 years after dying to AIDS in '88, so a year and half before Patrick died. In the interview, he was asked about how had he dealt with grief, and his answer which moved me very much and which was the first thing other than his looks which made me attracted to Bill T. Jones, he said, "Cultivate the qualities you loved in the departed ones. In so doing, you will keep him or her alive within yourselves." I thought that was very moving. When you grieve you hear a lot of platitudes. That was something that I could relate to.
Dinah: (tape) What have been the things that Patrick Kelly had that you have wanted to cultivate?
Bjorn: A deliberate attitude and decision to be happy. I think Patrick, from his background, growing up African American in the '50s in Mississippi, I think it was not easy because of his homosexuality which was, I think, rejected. This deliberate attitude towards positiveness. This decision of his that was very conscious that he wanted his dresses to make one smile. He used to say, "One can be chic, but so what. If a dress can make you happy, can make you smile. When he died, a lot of journalists and professionals told me how much they had missed the gaiety – in the traditional sense of the word. The gaiety, the happiness that those shows exuded. There was a sense of positive energy that was flagrant and that people relished in our shows. And that came entirely from Patrick.
Theo from opening reception: Good evening everyone. As I’m looking at these remarks, I’m fully aware that I’m about to totally go off script.
Dinah: This is Theo, speaking to an exuberant crowd on opening night of the exhibition.
Theo: Yes, it’s fashion, it’s colorful. There’s buttons, zippers and ruffled edges. You’ll see the matriarchy muses, you will see the antiblack memorabilia, you’ll see Grace Jones. You’ll see all of these methods for communicating who we are. We have to make ourselves known. We have to have representation. And this beautiful moment that Peabody Essex Museum has presented, we are able to celebrate so much joy. And I have to say that in that joy we can also celebrate the inherent joy of blackness and queerness and yes, I”m going to wait for you to clap for that.
Dinah: (tape) Wherever Patrick Kelly is, how do you think he feels about Black designers today, queer designers, you, and this position you have?
Theo: Were there any Black fashion curators at his time? I doubt it. I can honestly say that I would hope that he would see me and agree that we were both our ancestors' wildest dreams come true.
Outro: Thanks to theo tyson, Petra Slinkard and Bjorn Amelan. Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love is on view at PEM through November 6, 2022. Inspired by Patrick Kelly’s Love Lists, an activity in the gallery invites guests to create their own list and tell us who and what inspires them. This special collaboration allowed us to partner with North Shore Alliance of GLBTQ Youth, otherwise known as NAGLY. Guests can also see lists created by NAGLY youth during the museum’s PRIDE dance party. Things that inspire them: Nature, music, art, golden sunshine, tiny mushrooms and spending time with BFF’s. This episode was produced by me, Dinah Cardin, and edited and mixed by Erica Sutter. We've had a great summer at the museum and here in Salem. And there is still good weather left for a self guided walking tour of PEM's historic houses. Join me for PEM Walks. You can find PEM Walks at pem.org or on the signs outside our properties throughout our walkable city. The PEMcast and PEM Walks are generously supported by the George S. Parker Fund.