Patrick Kelly’s Radical Cheek

by Robin Givhan
Washington Post
May 2004

Patrick Kelly (1954 – 1990) became the first American member of the Chambre Syndicate du Pret-a-Porter, the body that governs the French ready-to-wear industry. He was known for flamboyant garments, incorporating clusters of mutlicolored buttons or grosgrain ribbons. He also used controversial images of racial stereotyping in his works.

Whenever he mounted a show, Paris-based designer Patrick Kelly would walk onto the runway dressed in the baggy overalls of a furtive street artist and spray-paint a large heart on the stage set. He would always give everyone in his audience a tiny brown doll with molded black hair that could be most accurately described as a pickaninny.

Kelly’s mascot was the kind of poorly wrought Negro doll that black children of a certain generation refused to play with and whose parents could scarcely blame them. While the fashion industry was ignoring questions of race, he was embracing the doll as a totem.

Eventually, Kelly would make history, becoming the first American admitted to the Chambre Syndicale, France’s prestigious organization of fashion designers. He accomplished that feat in the guise of a charming street urchin with a penchant for racially loaded symbols.

Kelly’s clothes exuded whimsy and joy and they arrived at a moment when the fashion industry was welcoming color, ornamentation and extravagance. Kelly showed his first collection in 1985, the same year designer Christian Lacroix introduced le pouf — the crinoline-lined party dress that overtook every society gala. The television show “Dynasty” was in its heyday. And popular culture was awash in padded shoulders, winged hair, big spenders and conspicuous consumption.

He won notice from the fashion industry with his body-conscious jersey dresses adorned with mismatched buttons, and with his witty expressions of an American tourist’s enthusiasm for the City of Light. Kelly was born in Vicksburg, Miss., but his career blossomed in Paris, where in a short time he went from selling his wares on the streets to producing glamorous fashion shows alongside Sonia Rykiel and Yves Saint Laurent.

Kelly’s biography as a designer is not unlike those of others who dream of fame and wealth in the garment trade. Like most young designers, Kelly struggled to pay his bills and to buy fabric. But he had celebrity clients such as Bette Davis, Isabella Rossellini and Grace Jones who helped bring his work into the spotlight. Before long he was offered financial backing from Warnaco, a powerful American fashion conglomerate. With that assistance, he hired a staff and pumped his sales volume up to several million dollars.

But Kelly died on New Year’s Day 1990, before he could truly take advantage of his financial stability and explore the big plans Warnaco had for him. He was 35. The cause, people said then, was bone marrow disease and a brain tumor. Now it is acknowledged that he died of AIDS.

Any lasting contribution that Kelly made to fashion’s vocabulary is dominated by the singular significance of his ethnicity. Kelly was African American and that fact played prominently in his designs, in the way he presented them to the public and in the way he engaged his audience. No other well-known fashion designer has been so inextricably linked to both his race and his culture. And no other designer was so purposeful in exploiting both.

For the first time, Kelly’s significance within the fashion industry is examined in an engaging retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. The exhibition, which runs through Sept. 5, is one of several that the museum is using to announce its intent to put the interests of its multicultural community before those who would proclaim themselves guardians of high culture. The exhibition portrays Kelly as a subversive kind of race man — one whose weapons were often big smiles and childlike pranks. With his work he explored racial politics and positioned fashion and style as central to the way in which people are defined.

The pieces on display from Kelly’s vast collection of black memorabilia are as important as his garments. Kelly accumulated more than 8,000 examples of advertising, dolls, knickknacks and household products that employed racial stereotypes, caricatures and slurs. His collection includes mammies, pickaninnies, Topsys and golliwogs. Kelly enthusiastically embraced all of the cliches, both good and bad. He was as enraptured of black icons as he was of racist propaganda. The show features Diana Ross and Michael Jackson dolls, and Josephine Baker posters juxtaposed with old boxes of “darkie toothpaste.”

The designer himself was always seen in outsize overalls — even if the occasion was formal and before such silhouettes became the uniform of rappers and their fans. He wore a bike messenger’s cap, its brim flipped up to reveal “Paris” embroidered on the underside. Kelly acknowledged most every stereotype attributed to Southern blacks. He made fried chicken for his friends, sprinkled his conversations with “honey chile” and made liberal use of aphorisms gleaned from the Good Book and at his grandmother’s knee.

One could argue that as an expatriate in Paris, Kelly profited from enduring and damaging stereotypes while blacks back home suffered them. He played the quaint Southern naif. And in that analysis he could be one of the mercenary race traitors in “Bamboozled,” Spike Lee’s troubled film about popular culture and racial prejudices.

But Kelly’s legacy bears few indications of self-doubt, anger or hatred — self- or otherwise. Instead, it is relentlessly, ruthlessly joyful, a spirit that is captured in the exhibition. By embodying the stereotypes, Kelly sought to deflate them. He was a cheerful and charming radical who handed out his tiny black plastic baby dolls — their lips dyed bright red — to anyone he might meet.

“He would purchase these little black dolls made out of plastic — 600 a month. People would volunteer and with a glue gun attach pins to the back. He would never leave without stuffing his pockets with them,” says Bjorn Amelan, Kelly’s companion and business partner.

One afternoon, in the years when both Kelly and his clothes were fashionable, he was mingling over cocktails with clients at Martha, the posh New York boutique. The shop has since closed, but it was a place filled with bluebloods, society swells and wealthy white women. “Each lady walked out with a little black baby doll pinned to their lapel,” Amelan says. “He was operating on multiple levels. It was all very knowing.”

In March 1988, Vanity Fair ran a profile of Kelly and he was photographed by Annie Leibovitz. In one picture, he is dressed in overalls and a tuxedo jacket and is surrounded by models, one of whom is in blackface. In another, Kelly is made up like a pickaninny, with bows decorating his hair and big white buttons held up to his eyes to give the impression that they are bulging. Even now the image is disconcerting as it floats out into a culture that still struggles with preconceptions based on race.

It is hard to know how deeply Kelly thought about the effects of the images he created. It may be that Kelly would only be disappointed that a decade after his death the images still have the power to outrage and embarrass.

The day the exhibition opened, a white woman arrived with a little girl. Just by the entrance is a display case filled with some of the designer’s ebony-hued dolls. The girl, also white, exclaimed her interest in the toys, with their protruding eyes and exaggerated lips. Without a word of explanation, the woman deftly redirected the child’s gaze and led her to the pretty dresses in another corner of the room. Better, even now, to leave a difficult topic unexplored.

And while many black Americans have become keen collectors of this memorabilia, others still find it troubling. The exhibition recounts one of Kelly’s anecdotes. “One very intelligent woman said she didn’t like the Aunt Jemimas because they reminded her of maids. I said, ‘My grandmother was a maid, honey.’ My memorabilia means a lot to me.”

Amelan recalls that Kelly would say, “White people are not offended by Mickey Mouse. Why should we be afraid of Aunt Jemima?”

Kelly began to collect black memorabilia after receiving a porcelain ashtray with a caricatured black face in its center. It was a gift from Amelan, who had found it in a Paris flea market. “I was totally innocent of its loaded racist history,” says Amelan, who is French. “I only saw a funny, charming piece.”

“He, in his typical manner, chose to appropriate it and enhance it rather than hiding it,” Amelan says of Kelly. “There’s an empowerment in an act of ownership — not physical but mental ownership.

“From there, we started what became a whole collection. It was even in the logo that he designed. . . . this brown face on white fabric,” Amelan continues. “I didn’t realize the controversial aspect of what he did. I got educated after the fact. It’s a shortcoming of mine. I’m not proud of that fact. When buyers came from the U.S. stores, they said, ‘We can’t buy this print.’ I didn’t understand why. Warnaco refused to allow the use of the blackface logo on bags.”

Kelly, who studied art history and black history at Jackson State University, drew on his background to inspire his work. His button dresses were born out of his grandmother’s habit of repairing his clothes with mismatched buttons. Even his interpretation of a Chanel suit, with its boxy little tweed jacket, had mismatched buttons.

“While he loved Madame Gres and Yves Saint Laurent, he’d say that in one pew at Sunday church in Vicksburg, there’s more fashion to be seen than on a Paris runway,” Amelan says.

Other designers depicted a sanitized version of their past — or one in which the rough edges were exaggerated for a surrealistic effect or the slights were romanticized into character-building hurdles. They focused on geography, class, perhaps religion. Kelly presented an ugly and discomforting look at race and did it without flinching.

It would seem that over the years, another designer would have come along and taken up some of the symbols that fascinated Kelly. But few have. The hurdle, suggests Amelan, is that with past racial transgressions, there has been no “truth and reconciliation.”

“In this culture, it’s tucked under a rug,” he says.

The most direct descendants of Kelly are the designers and entertainers who have sprung from hip-hop: men and women who use racial epithets as a synonym for “buddy,” who celebrate pickaninny braids and nappy roots, who model glamorous clothes after uniforms of defeat, desperation and poverty. That connection makes sense. Kelly wasn’t creating fashion as much as he was crafting a silk and satin portrait of his culture. In fact, Kelly often used collages as a way of working out a collection, says guest curator Thelma Golden, deputy director for exhibitions and programs at Harlem’s Studio Museum.

It is not the responsibility of the fashion industry to explore the politics of race. But Kelly “understood that the media gave him a voice,” Golden says. He decided to take that opportunity to express who he was. And in that process, he explored how he had been, and would be, seen by history.