Patrick Kelly’s subversive fashion legacy explored in de Young exhibition

Patrick Kelly poses with models for his spring/summer 1989 collection. Photo: Image courtesy of the

Patrick Kelly poses with models for his spring/summer 1989 collection. Photo: Image courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art / © 2020 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SIAE, Rome

Alongside the designer’s famous heart-embellished gowns on display at the de Young Museum in “Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love” is a skirt made of glossy plastic bananas tied together with purple wire. It’s paired with a David Spada brassiere made from purple spiraled aluminum, creating a look emblematic of Kelly’s own story.

The ensemble is a tribute to Josephine Baker, the Black American performer who achieved stardom in France in the 1920s. By the 1980s, Black, Mississippi-born Patrick Kelly would conquer that city in his own right. In 1988, he became the first American to be admitted to France’s fashion authority, the Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode, and he often nodded at their parallel journeys.

“Josephine Baker was our inspiration growing up,” American model Pat Cleveland, Kelly’s longtime friend whose career included working for designers like Halston and Yves Saint Laurent in the 1970s and ’80s, told The Chronicle. “That was the dream, to get to Paris so that you can have opportunities and to feel free.”

This ensemble designed by Patrick Kelly was inspired by iconic performer Josephine Baker and worn by model Pat Cleveland for Kelly’s fall/winter 1986 collection. Photo: Image courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Kelly’s atelier was filled with images of “La Baker,” some of which are on view in the de Young exhibition along with a coat with a Baker-inspired print. In the finale of the designer’s 1986 fall fashion show, Cleveland danced down the runway in the banana skirt and bra combo, seen in a video projected behind the mannequin at the de Young. It’s a striking example of how the designer blended threads of Black history and culture with style, something especially notable at a time when few Black fashion designers had achieved mainstream success.

Kelly’s exhibition arrives in San Francisco as the designer, who died in 1990 from complications from AIDS at age 35, is receiving renewed attention in the American fashion industry.

In 2020, writer Kibwe Chase-Marshall, editor Jason Campbell and creative director Henrietta Gallina sent an open letter to the Council of Fashion Designers of America co-signed by 250 fellow Black fashion professionals calling for accountability, transparency and inclusivity at all levels of the industry. They titled their project “The Kelly Initiative” and this year announced textile and costume designer Lauren Baccus and writer Britnie Dates as the initiative’s first fellowship recipients.

Woman’s Ensemble: Coat and Dress, fall/winter 1986; Woman’s Dress, fall/winter 1986; Woman’s Dress, fall/winter 1988. Photo: Philadelphia Museum of Art

Laura L. Camerlengo, associate curator of costume and textile arts at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, said it was more than Kelly’s clothes that distinguished him in the fashion industry.

“He was really intelligent with how he crafted his image and how he promoted his designs,” said Camerlengo. “That started with arriving in Paris in 1979 and fashioning designs on a street corner and having beautiful models wear them around the city as his calling card and trademark.”

Kelly did not shy from his Black, Southern roots, using both as inspiration in his collections. His sensibilities as a gay Black man were also revealed in nods to vogue ballroom culture on the runways and a Hollywood love of storytelling through clothes. Buttons and bows in intricate designs were irreverent signatures in his collections, but there was ironic humor to details like watermelon-shaped jewelry, headpieces inspired by African baskets and gay pride rainbow motifs.

“Runway of Love,” originally presented at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2014, highlights Kelly’s vision, which captured the exuberance of  the ’80s and also anticipated discussions of inclusiveness and intersectionality in fashion that drive projects like the Kelly Initiative today.

Patrick Kelly’s studio eventually became a hub for Black American culture in Paris. Photo: Courtesy of the Estate of Patrick Kelly.

Kelly was born in Vicksburg, Miss., on Sept. 24, 1954, to parents Letha Mae and Danie Kelly. He followed fashion in magazines his grandmother brought home from her job as a housekeeper to a white family and learned to sew at a young age. Bjorn Amelan, Kelly’s business and life partner from 1983 until his death, recalled Kelly questioning why there were no Black women in their pages, vowing that he would one day dress women in these publications.

In the “Runway of Love” museum catalog, fashion editor and author André Leon Talley writes that Kelly “turned the folklore and memorabilia of his humble, Jim Crow, segregated roots into his distinctive personal style.”

Following periods spent in Atlanta and New York, Kelly moved to Paris, where his line was picked up by the trendy Victoire boutiques. After a multipage spread in the French edition of Elle Magazine in 1985, he began to create custom couture looks for celebrities like Grace Jones, Cicely Tyson and Bette Davis.  

Kelly’s studio eventually became a hub for Black American culture in Paris, with the designer frequently cooking American dishes and hosting friends.

Grace Jones wears a ready-to-wear costume designed by Patrick Kelly for his spring/summer 1989 fashion show in Paris. Photo: (Photo by Pierre Vauthey/Sygma/S / Sygma via Getty Images

In addition to his Josephine Baker collection, Kelly sought out Black memorabilia featuring racist caricatures to creatively engage with and reclaim their meaning. The images would inspire controversial prints in his collections and the “golliwog” blackface logo that eventually was emblazoned on his shopping bags.

Memorabilia from his collection is paired with Kelly’s corresponding work in the exhibition.

Kelly reached new professional heights with his 1987 deal with the American fashion conglomerate Warnaco that widened his distribution, including to San Francisco’s Macy’s department store in Union Square.

Following his death, his company closed and Kelly’s reputation receded in the fashion industry without an active house.

Now more than three decades later, that Kelly is a designer worthy of rediscovery is more than evident in the exhibition. The real revelation is that the swath of culture and history on display in “Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love” is so much larger than the designer.

Patrick Kelly celebrates his fashion show circa 1988 in Paris. Photo: (Photo by PL Gould/IMAGES/Getty Images) Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco / Getty Images

“I think of him like (Jean-Michel) Basquiat,” said Camerlengo, comparing Kelly to the celebrated American painter. “It’s the idea of taking the symbols that are of a particular artistic canon and using them to assert yourself into the narrative.”

“Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love”: Textile and mixed media. 9:30 a.m.-5:15 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. Opens Oct. 23. On view through April 24. $15-$30. De Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, S.F. 415-750-3600. deyoung.famsf.org



Patrick Kelly’s subversive fashion legacy explored in de Young exhibition