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.
Who’s Who of America’s fashion talent worn by the era’s most illustrious celebrities.
“May The Circle Be Unbroken”, Raf Simons’s S/S 2004 collection inspired by Herman Hesse.
“You have observed correctly. I am wearing the clothes of a rich man. I am wearing them because I have been a rich man, and I am wearing my hair like the men of the world and fashion because I have been one of them.”
– from Siddhartha
Written by Doon Arbus, directed by Avedon, styled by Julie Britt*, and cast with a Shakespearean theater company, the television ads for Calvin Klein’s blowout fragrance of the ’80s continued the brand’s reputation for provocative and stylistically innovative marketing. Though less scandalous than the Calvin Klein Jeans spots shot with Brooke Shields, also directed by Avedon and written by Arbus, they are just as effective in defining a mood and spirit essential to the Calvin brand. Model and face of the house throughout the ’80s Josie Borain is cast as the object of obsession, an apparition that lingers between the senses and just as she is within one’s grasp she is gone, a fleeting moment, an inescapable desire. It’s a dramatic pretense for a scent that is, as most critics seem to agree, wearable but far from notable. Regardless, the scent proved to be a bestseller (and I believe still is) and validated the wayward concept used for these commercials which, regardless of how the scent actually smells, are simply amazing.
*A previous version of this post had incorrectly credited Paul Cavaco as stylist. Many thanks to Simone Colina.
As a mere adolescent he cut his teeth at Cerruti, where he was reported to have shown a prodigious affinity for fabrics. From there he joined Armani in his men’s design studio; an experience one can only assume steeped him in the house’s codes: a retro classicism accentuated by a rigorous pursuit of modern masculinity. In 1995 he moved on to Prada and Miu Miu, think tanks for progressive fashion design, first heading up fabric R&D before getting involved in the design of Miu Miu’s men’s and women’s collections. He eventually found himself at Yves Saint Laurent, poached by Tom Ford to be lieutenant in the Texan’s campaign to reestablish the house as a vital and potent commercial force.
In 2004, with Ford and De Sole departing Gucci Group, Pilati found himself in what was then, and perhaps is still now, the most harassed high profile job in fashiondom: creative steward of the legacy of Yves Mathieu Saint Laurent. His take on Saint Laurent glamour and seduction was met with mixed reactions, earning due praise from the major magazines yet still hit by critics and those close to the house’s history. And though at many junctions he managed to stun and at times astound his critics with impossibly elegant and subversive collections brimming with moods and ideas that could propel a whole industry a decade forward with the weight of a single look, his tenure was still met with reluctant acceptance. His departure in 2012 was preceded by several seasons with what must have been defeating and esteem-crushing rumors of his eminent firing.
To say that Pilati was too intellectually inclined for the modern fashion game of masstige and profit margin hustling is an understatement. And one can even wonder if he channeled the house’s spirit as aptly as he could have (a fondness for color and the exotic were, along with being commercially viable, just some of the codes of the house that Pilati largely ignored). It wouldn’t even be unfair to say that Pilati’s influences, or at least the affections of his designs, skewed more Italian than French, more – let’s say – Gianfranco Ferre than Yves Saint Laurent. But what has been certain is that despite his translation of whichever house’s spirit, Pilati’s output has been profound. He has been a game changer and has introduced so many ideas that have only recently become a part of the contemporary fashion repertoire. He broached minimalism long before Phoebe Philo made it the mode at Celine. He tackled the volumes of Golden Age couture well before Raf Simon’s three part thesis on the matter at Jil Sander. And let’s not forget to thank him for the peplum, a silhouette he proposed with his debut and would reiterate throughout the years and that has now, finally, saturated the market at every tier. His accomplishments are undeniable and the only shame is that the impossible expectations placed on him at Saint Laurent eclipsed them.
Tomorrow Pilati debuts his first effort for Ermenegildo Zegna. To be overly sentimental it marks a return to his roots, back to the world of fine Italian menswear where he began as a young man. It is only fitting that a man who began at Cerruti and Armani would come back to Zegna, the oldest of the modern Italian menswear establishment. Pilati has always displayed a deft skill at continental style, often enhanced with his own unbridled and bold modernism, it’s a natural fit with immense potential. There has been little noise or hype leading up to the debut but this author can only assume it’s because the clothes won’t need it.