Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love Debuts to West Coast Audiences
Oliviero Toscani, Spring/Summer 1989 Collection. Photograph by Oliviero Toscani
Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love
de Young museum / October 23, 2021–April 24, 2022
SAN FRANCISCO – The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco are proud to announce the West Coast debut of Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love, celebrating the remarkable career and legacy of African American fashion designer Patrick Kelly (ca. 1954–1990). The exhibition, organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, arrives at the de Young museum to spotlight 80 of Kelly’s sophisticated and light-hearted designs. These fully accessorized ensembles are presented alongside footage from his groundbreaking fashion shows, as well as Kelly’s significant personal collection of Black memorabilia, 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 fashion 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 six different sections, the exhibition explores his influences, including his childhood in the Southern United States, his African American heritage, his 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, and Monica E. Brown (1949–2015), Senior Collection Assistant. 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. The exhibition will be on view at the de Young museum from October 23, 2021 to April 24, 2022.
The exhibition’s first section, “Runway of Love,” will orient 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, will feature 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” will feature Kelly’s work that boldly addressed the designer’s upbringing, as well as racial tropes inspired by his own personal collection of Black memorabilia. 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.) This adaptation would prove controversial in the United States, as the golliwog was (and still is) widely understood as a symbol of racism. For Kelly, a Black artist who studied art history and Black history at Jackson State University, there was power in wresting these images to tell his own story.
“Hot Couture” will be 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” will feature 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,” will be 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.
About Patrick Kelly
Patrick Kelly (ca. 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 organization. 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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Information regarding tickets can be found at deyoungmuseum.org.
Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love is organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art in collaboration with the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
About the Caroline and H. McCoy Jones Department of Textile Arts
Since its inception, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco have been devoted to the collecting, study, and display of costume and textile artworks. Today, the Caroline and H. McCoy Jones Department of Textile Arts has grown to be truly global in its scope, with holdings that span two-and-a-half millennia and represent cultures from 125 countries. The collection comprises more than 13,000 textiles and costumes from traditions around the world. Collection highlights include rare 12th- through 15th-century Central Asian and North Indian silks, the most important group of Anatolian kilims outside Turkey, Turkmen carpets, European tapestries, ecclesiastical textiles, contemporary Bay Area fiber art, and 20th- and 21st-century couture. Since the opening of the new de Young in 2005, the textile arts department has enjoyed an exciting and successful exhibition program by developing in-house exhibitions and hosting major touring exhibitions, as well as collaborating with other museums, fashion houses, artist’s studios, and guest curators. Past fashion exhibitions include Yves Saint Laurent (2008–2009), Pulp Fashion: The Art of Isabelle de Borchgrave (2011), Balenciaga and Spain (2011), and The Summer of Love Experience: Art, Fashion, and Rock & Roll (2017).
About the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco oversee the de Young, located in Golden Gate Park, and the Legion of Honor, in Lincoln Park. It is the largest public arts institution in San Francisco and one of the most visited arts institutions in the United States.
The de Young originated from the 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition in Golden Gate Park and was established as the Memorial Museum in 1895. It was later renamed in honor of Michael H. de Young, who spearheaded its creation. The present copper-clad landmark building, designed by Herzog & de Meuron, opened in October 2005. Reflecting an active conversation among cultures, perspectives, and time periods, the collections on view include American painting, sculpture, and decorative arts from the 17th to the 21st centuries; arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas; costume and textile arts; and international modern and contemporary art.