A new retrospective on Patrick Kelly opens at the de Young.
Like a supernova blazing across the sky, the late designer Patrick Kelly was instantly enshrined among a sparkly ’80s pantheon of supermodels and high-fashion labels. His edgy haute couture and street style club-wear — worn by Princess Diana, Madonna and even Bette Davis — captured the era’s high-low zeitgeist, adorning denim blazers or slinky silhouettes with his signature embellishments: a riot of colorful, oversized buttons (often in the shape of a heart) paired with “black camp” bandanas or watermelon slice earrings.
This month, Kelly receives his inaugural West Coast exhibition as the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco presents Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love at the de Young Museum. On opening day of the retrospective — running October 23 through April — the museum will host a free, day-long celebration with a trunk show, live music, art making, prizes and panel conversations on Kelly’s legacy.
Originally mounted in 2014 by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, this San Francisco installation features 80 works, including fully accessorized ensembles, sketches, videos and Black memorabilia collected by Kelly. This personal collection grounded Kelly in his origin story: a young African American man in the ’60s, growing up in America’s racially divisive, Jim Crowsegregated South in Vicksburg, Mississippi.
During a still-closeted era of fashion, Kelly was also an openly gay man. His playful pushback against stereotypes echoed a similar ethos in the LGBTQ community. Usually dressed in denim overalls evoking the uniform of a Southern sharecropper, Kelly’s designs and memorabilia were a conscious defiance, rising up against centuries of racist iconography that cruelly caricatured the Black community. Even his fashion label was boldly emblazoned with a “golliwog,” the exaggerated facial features of blackface minstrel. Yet love defined his work: At every show, Kelly or a model spray painted a heart at the end of the runway.
“The Fine Arts Museums has a long history of highlighting the artistry of costumes and representing global artists, not just the Western canon,” says Laura Camerlengo, the organization’s associate curator of costume and textile arts. “Amid last year’s social reckoning spurred by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others, Kelly’s work, as an intellectual challenge to racial barriers, is, again, at the forefront: a call to action for inclusivity, equity and accessibility.”
Mostly self-taught, Kelly exhibited an early interest in design gleaned from elaborate ensembles worn by Black women at Sunday church and fashion magazines his grandmother, who helped his mother to raise him, read. According to People magazine, Kelly noticed there were no Black models. His grandmother explained, “Designers don’t have time for Black women.” From that moment, he determined to change that dynamic.
After two years of college, Kelly escaped Mississippi’s racial tension and decamped to Atlanta. His numerous fashion-related jobs led to meeting Pat Cleveland, one of the first Black models to achieve superstar status. She encouraged his move to New York. Only able to afford one semester at Parsons School of Design, Kelly, again, felt the sting of racism seeking work in the garment industry. No one would hire him.
In 1979, Cleveland (who is a speaker on the exhibition’s audio guide), again, played fairy godmother, mailing Kelly a one-way ticket to Paris. With barely a centime in his pocket, Kelly sold his creations on the streets and landed a costume design gig at Le Palace nightclub. He was soon the toast of the town and established his own atelier, Patrick Kelly Paris, in the Marais district.
“Like numerous Black American artists, from James Baldwin to Josephine Baker, Kelly achieved great success in Paris,” notes Camerlengo. “Kelly often said he wanted his clothes to make people smile.”
In 1988, Kelly was the first American and first Black designer to be voted into the prestigious Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode, the governing body of France’s ready-to-wear industry. Two years later, Kelly, who’d built a multimillion-dollar company from scratch, died in Paris of complications from AIDS. He was just 35.
With the de Young exhibition, Kelly’s achievements are lauded anew. A famous piece in Runway of Love is a banana-trimmed skirt that Kelly created for Cleveland, in homage to Baker, a fellow Black southerner who rejected America’s racism to scale the heights of Paris, and who became Kelly’s muse. Also featured: Kelly’s “hot couture” gowns, crafted from untraditional fabrics such as cashmere plaid, Lycra or knitted jersey. These form-fitting gowns adorned with graffiti-style embellishments of stars or hearts, rendered from bows, buttons and pearls, are a playful, yet irreverent, nod to Kelly’s heroes, from Madame Gres to Yves Saint Laurent and Coco Chanel.
“Patrick’s radicalized imagery in his design and collections tell his personal story of being Black in the world,” says Camerlengo. “Under his own label, he designed just 10 seasons. Yet his work resonates today. That was an impetus for this show, to retell Patrick’s story for a new audience.”