Patrick Kelly Fashion Retrospective Opens at San Francisco's de Young Museum

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Monday November 1, 2021
Originally published on October 29, 2021

A new exhibit at San Francisco's de Young Museum shows the work of American fashion designer Patrick Kelly, along with the influences from Black and LGBTQ+ culture that informed it.

"Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love," which opened on Oct. 23, will continue through April of next year. W Magazine reported that "The West Coast presentation of this exhibition, which originated at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2014, is a comprehensive collection depicting Kelly's childhood growing up in the South, his experiences as a Black man, his involvement in the club and gay cultural scenes in New York and Paris, and his muses from fashion, art, and Black history."

To that end, the "show features original designs, personal artifacts, and other ephemera from Kelly's life, in addition to seventy-nine fully accessorized ensembles" across seven themed exhibit sections.

Among the personal effects included in the show are items drawn from Kelly's extensive collection of "racist memorabilia," which the designer had "amassed over the years," AD PRO detailed about the de Young exhibit. Those items feature prominently in a section titled "Mississippi in Paris."

Described as "a steward of Blackness," Kelly included "kitschy and controversial items" in his collection, but also, according to exhibition curator Laura L. Camerlengo, "Josephine Baker ephemera and African textiles and masks." Baker, in particular, was an inspiration for the young designer.

Beyond his intersectional influences, Kelly's personal style injected a crucial new element into fashion. Colony Little, author of the W Magazine piece, recalled that Kelly's runway presentations were "fun — the models sashayed, skipped, and twirled in his clothing, turning the catwalk into a party." The designs themselves reflected a similarly exuberant sensibility, with a collage-like incorporation of elements such as hearts, outsized buttons, and other dazzling elaborations.

Born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1954 and raised by his mother and grandmother after the death of his father, Kelly headed to Paris at age 25, where he created pieces — reflected in the exhibit's "Fast Fashion" section — that his model friends "would wear around the city, becoming living advertisements of his vision," recounts text about the exhibit posted at the de Young's website. "These dresses quickly caught the attention of an editor at French Elle magazine," the text adds.

From there, The New York Times would recall in Kelly's obituary in 1990, Elle "devoted six pages to dresses he had made on his portable Singer sewing machine.

"He had a rapid success with his short, snug dresses decorated with bows, and sequined outlines of the Eiffel Tower and watermelon slices," the Times added.

Kelly launched his label in 1983 with life partner Bjorn Amelan, with whom he had become romantically involved after moving to Paris. "Together they took on the world with clothing that became not only internationally known but also representative of his personal expression that fearlessly addressed Blackness, systemic racism, and the queer experience," the San Francisco Bay Times recounted.

Influential at the time, Kelly slipped into relative obscurity after his death, from AIDS-related complications, in 1990, at the age of 35. The New York Times praised Kelly's creations as being "sexy" and "witty" in his obituary but sidestepped direct acknowledgment of his having been gay and partnered, referring to Amelan as Kelly's "business partner" before, later in the piece, calling Amelan his "companion." The Times also avoided any mention of AIDS in the obit, citing Amelan as saying that Kelly had died of "bone marrow disease."

Amelan became the guardian of Kelly's vision, preserving his work and personal effects across the decades and eventually enabling Camerlengo and exhibition designer Tristan Telander to reconstruct the experience of being in Kelly's atelier, AD PRO recounted.

Now, AD PRO went on to add, "Kelly's work has found new gravitas in an industry calling for inclusivity" —†a fitting legacy for a designer who holds the distinction of being "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," as SF Bay Times noted.

More recently, Kelly was remembered and celebrated when a coalition of Black designers and other design professionals created The Kelly Initiative last year.

The initiative is "committed to no longer allowing many of our best and brightest talents to go deliberately ignored, obstructed, or erased by the industry's prioritization of optics over the authentic pursuit of equity," notes the initiative's website.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.