If you’ve been looking for a reason to visit the Peabody Essex Museum, now is the perfect moment to pop by and view Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love. The new exhibition celebrates the brief and creative life and legacy of the late fashion designer Patrick Kelly, a self-taught designer who challenged fashion before his premature death from complications of AIDS in 1990.
“Since his passing more than 30 years ago, Patrick Kelly’s vibrant aesthetic has become part of the lexicon of global fashion,” says Petra Slinkard, PEM’s Director of Curatorial Affairs and The Nancy B. Putnam Curator of Fashion and Textiles. “He promoted powerful messages of joy and love, while addressing important cultural and social issues head-on.”
The exhibition opens with a photo of a smiling Kelly clad in his signature oversized overalls, then continues on to a rainbow of fashion dotted with buttons, bows, and hearts. He also incorporated images of golliwogs, a fictional and racist Black character that first appeared in a British children’s book in 1885. There was controversy when he adapted the symbol into his brand’s logo, but he found power in reclaiming racist imagery for his own purposes and stories.
Born in Vicksburg, Mississippi in 1954, Kelly was primarily self-taught and drew inspiration from his Black heritage, his days in the New York and Paris club scenes, and muses including a trio of female relatives: His mother May Rainey Kelly, who taught him to draw; his Aunt Bertha Rainey Thomas who educated him about the art of sewing; and his grandmother Ethel Viola Bernard Rainey, who mended his childhood clothes with mismatched buttons, inspiring the backbone of his style.
Kelly launched Patrick Kelly Paris in 1985 with Bjorn Guil Amelan, his partner in both business and life. By 1987, he had signed a multimillion-dollar contract with the American apparel giant Warnaco. By 1988, Kelly became the first American and the first Black designer elected into the elite Chambre Syndicale du Pret-а-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode, an honor that allowed him to show his collections during Fashion Week in the tents at the Musée de Louvre.
The exhibit features footage from the Kelly’s exuberant and groundbreaking fashion shows and over 75 fully accessorized runway ensembles created between 1984 and 1989.
“Kelly’s colorful, joyful designs fashioned with DIY flair embodied his sensibilities of freedom and epitomized the glamorous, ballroom, camp-inspired drag of ‘80s fashion — anything was indeed possible,” says theo tyson, Advising Scholar and the Penny Vinik Curator of Fashion Arts at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Be sure to stop by and fill out one of the heart messages of love at the end of the exhibition.