Patrick Kelly's Radical Cheek
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.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Patrick Kelly, like his grandmother, favored unmatched buttons, here on a knit dress.
(Adam Husted - Courtesy of The Brooklyn Museum)
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