Two years after this show was staged its designer, Patrick Kelly, would die at the age of 35. Another victim lost to the AIDS epidemic, another name in fashion lost to time. At his peak Kelly was the ultimate American in Paris, born and raised in the deep south, designing and showing his collections in the French capitol to great fanfare and excitement. That he was an American working in French fashion and was regarded with the same esteem as Sonia Rykiel and Karl Lagerfeld is noteworthy. That he was a black American is even more so.
Accounts of his life suggest Kelly found an acceptance and understanding overseas that he never could have had in the U.S., it’s a sentiment echoed by performer Josephine Baker and writer James Baldwin, both of whom had tremendous experiences living in the city of lights where they could escape a troubling history of racism and prejudice. In 1988 Kelly stood out as an ironic foil to the status quo; working in the upper echelons of a class-centric industry, setting standards of taste and beauty that would ultimately filter back to his native country — a land that would so easily dismiss him as “black” and nothing more. Kelly would however use his black identity as a theme and play off racist stereotypes of Black Americans that have plagued and haunted them. He adopted the Golliwog, a children’s character popular in the late 19th century, a frighteningly dehumanized black boy, as his talisman. He would flirt with stereotypes, re-appropriate them, recast them as tongue-in-cheek fashion, as if to suggest that embracing these memes could serve to render them powerless.
Never really known for being a great cutter or technician, Kelly’s charm was in his use of bold colors, punchy prints, and witty embellishment. Multicolored buttons sewn in various motifs were his most famous signature; a nod to his childhood in the south. His shows were humorous affairs. Models smiled and audiences laughed, fashion was to be fun and Kelly represented this idea in the French fashion landscape. Having begun by selling his clothes on the street he had worked his way to the top. And with backing by clothing conglomerate Warnaco and increasing exposure in the media, Kelly was poised to become the next big American designer. But like many stories from the ’80s his time was cut short well before he could make a lasting impact. Kelly died due to complications of AIDS on New Years day, 1990.
Birgitt Hörlin photographed by Roxanne Lowit
“The positive power of pure white in winter. Here, the whole looks marvelously fresh and inordinately rich because of color, although each part may not have cost very much.”
– SUSAN SOMMERS in FRENCH CHIC, 1988
In tandem with photographer Oliviero Toscani, ESPRIT took a controversial route with their catalog as well as with their campaigns. Prompting catalog recipients with enigmatic questions of identity and behavior, it was not simply about giving an ideal for the consumer to buy into but rather a fully concious lifestyle. Together with their iconic advertisements, ESPRIT’s imagery proved to be some of the most groundbreaking of its era establishing a new discourse in how a brand can use subversion to address its customer’s needs.
It was started in 1983 as an alternative to Polo Ralph Lauren for an audience that might have been attracted to Lauren’s WASP aspirations but intimidated by his lofty “designer” status. J.Crew joined a slew of catalog retailers including L.L. Bean and Land’s End purveying well-bred Americana tinged with the look of moderate success. It’s summers on the east coast, camping in the mountains, trots on the beach, and apple picking – not all that different from the imagery used by Ralph Lauren but strangely distinct in its normalcy and lack of grandiose romantics. The whole look is reassuring, allowing a sense of stability and ease far removed from the fuss of fashion. You could call it “generic”, but amid the blur of schizophrenic fashion mood swings, that adjective is almost appealing.
From a 1988 campaign, photographed by Aldo Fallai
“Giorgio Armani was the first to float the idea. When the Milanese maestro of the tailored suit decided to soften his precise shapes a few seasons ago, he also began paying special attention to the blouses that accompanied them. Adding details like delicate collars or a bit of draping, and making the blouses from semisheer silky fabrics, he started a trend that has bloomed into an American fashion statement.”
– “The New Blouse” by Carrie Donovan for the NYT, September 20, 1988
Selected looks from Mizrahi’s 1988 Spa collection
A NEW STAR IS RISING, BUT NOT TOO FAST
by Anne Marie-Schiro
Remember the name Isaac Mizrahi. He is this year’s hottest new designer. His first and only fashion show, in April, was so professionally executed, so tasteful and imaginative that it catapulted him into the big time. Continue reading
…well, except for maybe Christian Lacroix.