'Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love' debuts to West Coast audiences

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'Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love' debuts to West Coast audiences
Installation view. Photo: Gary Sexton.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA.- The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco announced the West Coast debut of Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love, celebrating the remarkable career and legacy of Black fashion designer Patrick Kelly (1954–1990). The exhibition, organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, arrives at the de Young museum to spotlight almost 80 of Kelly’s sophisticated and light-hearted designs. These fully accessorized ensembles are presented alongside footage from his groundbreaking fashion shows, revealing a designer’s enduring message of love—one that boldly asserted Black empowerment and fearlessly pushed the bounds of fashion.

"The de Young museum has always been committed to showcasing the world's finest fashion designers, and we could not be more delighted to present Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love to our audiences,” said Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. "Kelly was a trailblazing artist who created an extraordinary array of designs during his lifetime. Everyone should know the name "Patrick Kelly" and we hope this exhibition does just that."

Though Black fashion designers have continuously pushed the industry’s barriers, Patrick Kelly was a true groundbreaker. His bold and bright creations stood out on the streets, in nightclubs, and especially on the runway. This extraordinary vision resulted in Kelly becoming the first American and first Black designer to be voted into the Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode, a prestigious French association for ready-to-wear designers. Perhaps more remarkably, Kelly was lauded with such accolades while being, and remaining, one of the few designers who directly addressed issues of race in his work.

“While Patrick Kelly dauntlessly riffed on the work of famed couturiers and works of art, his vision remained uniquely his own,” said Laura L. Camerlengo, Associate Curator of Costume and Textile Arts at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and Presenting Curator of the exhibition. “From the models on his runways, like superstar Pat Cleveland, to his staunchest brand advocates, including the esteemed actress Bette Davis, Kelly’s ability to both charm and befriend amplified his talent. He is not just beloved, but revered.”

Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love situates Kelly and his designs in the broader context of art and fashion history by looking deeply at his inspirations. Through seven different sections, the exhibition explores his influences, including his Black heritage, memories of his childhood in the United States South, experiences in the club and gay cultural scenes in New York and Paris, and his muses from art, fashion, and Black history.

Kelly’s promising career was cut short by his premature death on January 1, 1990, from complications related to AIDS. Since his passing, Kelly has served as a symbol of hope and a rallying cry for other designers of color, as recently seen by “The Kelly Initiative,” an open letter to the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) from Black fashion professionals. Written in 2020, the letter calls for action to ensure transparency, accountability, and inclusivity at all levels of the fashion industry in Kelly’s name.

The extraordinary archive of Kelly’s ensembles, dating from 1984 to 1990, was given to the Philadelphia Museum of Art from Kelly’s business and life partner, Bjorn Amelan, and Amelan’s current partner, the dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones. The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s presentation of Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love marks the first time that Kelly’s work has been presented by a West Coast museum, and allows further opportunity to unpack the social, cultural, and political contexts behind Kelly’s work.

Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love is presented by Laura L. Camerlengo, Associate Curator of Costume and Textile Arts at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Camerlengo served as the Exhibition Assistant for the presentation of Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2014. The exhibition's organizing curators are Dilys E. Blum, the Jack M. and Annette Y. Friedland Senior Curator of Costume and Textiles at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, with curatorial support from Monica E. Brown (1949–2015), Senior Collection Assistant for Costume and Textiles at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Brown’s research on Patrick Kelly culminated in the gift of the designer’s archive to the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2014–2015. Sequoia Barnes, based at University of Edinburgh, serves as advising scholar.

In Detail

The exhibition’s first section, “Runway of Love,” orients visitors to Kelly’s aesthetics with a focused exploration of the heart-shaped embellishments that prominently feature on Kelly’s clothing. These were often composed from his signature buttons. As a child, Kelly would often lose his buttons, which his grandmother, Ethel Rainey, would replace with an array of other buttons in different sizes and colors—a look that Kelly later adapted for his fashion designs. While Kelly had many muses, such as the American expatriate entertainer Josephine Baker or couturiers Madame Grès and Elsa Schiaparelli, the original fashion icon in his life was his grandmother.

“Fast Fashion,” the exhibition’s next section, features designs that Kelly had assembled to sell on the streets of Paris after he moved there in 1979. Astutely, Kelly dressed his model friends in these body-conscious knits, which they would wear around the city, becoming in effect living advertisements of his vision. These dresses quickly caught the attention of French ELLE magazine, which featured Kelly’s fashions in a six-page spread in February 1985, as well as the Paris boutique Victoire. His first collection was also purchased by Bergdorf Goodman, which promoted Kelly’s designs “fun, chic, affordable, and Parisian.”

Often informed and inspired by the American South, Kelly used the concept of women dressed up in their Sunday best as a point of departure for many of his looks. “Mississippi in Paris” features Kelly’s work that addressed the designer’s upbringing, as well as Kelly's personal collection of racist memorabilia featuring Blackface and golliwog tropes. These included an Aunt Jemima bandana as well as golliwog dresses, the latter of which was adapted as his logo. (A golliwog is a fictional and racist Black character that first appeared in a British children’s book in 1885. It is one of the least known of the major anti-Black and racist caricatures in the U.S.) Kelly's adaptation of this symbol would prove extremely controversial in the United States, as the golliwog was (and still is) widely known to be a symbol of racism and hate against Black people. Yet for Kelly, there was power in wresting these images to tell his own story of being Black in the world. Kelly's collecting and appropriation of this imagery aligns with the artistic practices of other post-Civil Rights movement Black American artists and collectors, such as Nick Cave, Robert Colesott, Ramekon O'Arwister, Betye Saar, Kara Walker, and Fred Wilson.

“Hot Couture” is a playful tribute to Kelly’s muses and to fashion history. Many of his presentations parodied fashion show traditions and riffed on the work of famed couturiers such as Yves Saint Laurent, Gabrielle Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli, and Madame Grès, the designer whom Kelly held in the highest regard. A master at draping and manipulating fabric into Greek goddess–like gowns, Madame Grès inspired his much more practical knitted jersey dresses with wraps that tied around the body in various ways.

In 1988 Kelly became the first American and the first Black designer elected into the elite Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode. Membership in this exclusive group allowed Kelly to present his ready-to-wear collections in the Paris Fashion Week tents at the Musée du Louvre. The section titled “Lisa Loves the Louvre” features designs that Kelly created in response to a fantasy that the museum’s most famous resident, Mona Lisa, invited him to show his latest designs. His collection was a spirited evocation of all his favorite Lisas, from Billie (Holiday) Lisa to the otherworldly Moona Lisa.

The exhibition’s final section, “Two Loves,” is a tribute to Kelly’s two home countries, America and France, which were also embraced by his muse Josephine Baker. The designs in this section are from Kelly’s final Fall/Winter 1989–1990 collection and pay homage to cultural icons from both countries, including the Eiffel Tower and the cartoon character Jessica Rabbit. The rousing finale alludes to the Casino de Paris music hall, where Baker performed during the 1920s, and which Kelly transforms into the Casino de Patrick to show his collection.

Patrick Kelly

Patrick Kelly (1954–1990) was born and raised in Vicksburg, Mississippi. His mother, a home economics teacher, taught him how to draw, and his grandmother, a cook and maid, fostered a love of fashion by bringing him fashion magazines from the family for whom she worked. Kelly briefly studied art and history in Jacksonville and Atlanta, as well as fashion in New York City, before moving to Paris in late 1979. In 1988, he became the first American and the first Black designer to be voted into the Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode, the French fashion industry association and standards for ready-to-wear designers. Kelly’s career was cut short by complications related to AIDS on January 1, 1990. The epitaph on his headstone in Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris, is emblematic of the designer and his legacy: “Nothing Is Impossible.”

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