Fashion Culture | Beauty, IDENTITY, and Representation: The Patrick Kelly Story

Every exhibition is its own intellectual exercise and exhibitions start conversations.

– Laura L. Camerlengo, Associate Curator of Costume and Textile Arts, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and presenting curator, Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love

San Francisco’s de Young Museum presents Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love, 23 October 2021 – 24 April 2022. First presented by the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2014, the exhibition showcases 80 fully accessorized ensembles, dating from 1984 to 1990, from the Philadelphia Museum of Art archive of Kelly’s work and recent de Young Museum acquisitions.  “Beauty, IDENTITY, and Representation: The Patrick Kelly Story” is the first part of a four-part essay that contextualizes the content of the exhibit as a ‘ground zero’ for studying the work of Patrick Kelly.

Installation view of “Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love” at the de Young museum in San Francisco. By Patrick Kelly Philadelphia Museum of Art: Gift of Bjorn Guil Amelan and Bill T. Jones in honor of Monica Brown, 2015 Photography by Gary Sexton. Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Patrick Kelly (1954–1990) was a celebrated African-American fashion designer who came to fame in France. Among his accomplishments, he was the first American admitted to the Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode, the prestigious governing body of French fashion.  Kelly’s designs were noted for their exuberance, humor and references to pop culture and Black folklore.

The exhibition celebrates the career and legacy of Kelly.  It examines how he drew upon his multi-level identity; from his childhood in the United States South, his African American heritage, his queer identity and experiences in the club and gay cultural scenes in New York and Paris, and muses from fashion, art, and Black history to create light-hearted yet sophisticated designs that pushed racial and cultural boundaries. The exhibition situates Kelly and his work in the broader context of art and fashion history by exploring the inspirations behind his designs, his significant collection of racist memorabilia (whose images he wrested to tell his own story), and footage from his exuberant and groundbreaking fashion shows.

Laura L. Camerlengo, presenting curator of Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love, said, “Every exhibition is its own intellectual exercise and exhibitions start conversations.”  Her expression was quite fitting for a stimulating conversation we had about the “behind-the-scenes” as we walked through the exhibit.  

First of all, de Young Museum of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s (FAMSF) 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 Patrick Kelly’s work.  It was first presented by the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) in 2014, where it was organized by Dilys E. Blum, The Jack M. and Annette Y. Friedland Senior Curator of Costume and Textiles, with the late Monica E. Brown, senior collections assistant, and Laura L. Camerlengo, former exhibitions assistant who is now Associate Curator of Costume and Textile Arts, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and presenting curator, Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love. 

The supportive programming of interviews, essays, videos, and in particular, the Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love catalogue, is extraordinary, providing an exploratory journey of his work and its relevance today.

One area of exploration was how did we get here?  How are we able to witness his body of work.  From an interview of Dilys E. Blum led by Laura L. Camerlengo, we learn the process of acquiring and archiving a collection of such historical magnitude.

Blum was aware of Kelly as the first American and first Black designer admitted to the Chambre Syndicale, but it was when Monica E. Brown attended the Brooklyn Museum Patrick Kelly exhibition in 2004, curated by Thelma Golden, Director and Chief Curator of The Studio Museum in Harlem, that the project took off.  In preparation for the exhibition, Brown documented the work of Kelly, adding to the department’s ongoing information on the designer from newspapers, magazines, and runway footage, and also expanding the department’s research on Black fashion designers.  Learning that the Brooklyn Museum had been storing Kelly’s work with no plans of acquiring it, Brown, on behalf of PMA, approached Kelly’s business and lifetime partner, Bjorn Guil Amelan, of their interest in acquiring the work.  In 2010, archiving the more than 800 piece collection into the PMA started a long process. Over a course of years, Monica Brown meticulously matched up garments and accessories through her research and review of fashion show footage and archival media, along with input from Amelan.

Camerlengo pointed out that this in-depth research identified which models wore what outfits.  The mannequins were designed to not only fit the ensemble, but represent the skin tone of the model who famously wore that ensemble.  Kelly used both White and Black models.  White mannequins were obvious, but, as an African-American, I may not have captured this level of detail, had this not been pointed out, because of my own neutralized view of the range of skin tones in African Americans, from the very dark to the very light-skinned models, as in the model, Pat Cleveland.

There were a few pieces of recent acquisitions by Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.  For Patrick Kelly aficionados, a well recognized pink-toned Josephine Baker banana-skirt costume printed quilted coat, has been added to their collection.  The one most people are familiar with (seen in photos) is the ankle length version.  FAMSF acquired a shorter version from Audrey Smaltz, the famed commentator of the Ebony Fashion Fair from 1970-1977, fashion-show producer, and who was runway-show coordinator for Kelly’s fashion shows.  It’s fabulous!

“Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love” at the de Young Museum in San Francisco; Coat: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco collection, gift of Audrey Smaltz; Scarf: Philadelphia Museum of Art collection, gift of Bjorn Guil Amelan and Bill T. Jones in honor of Monica Brown | photo © Rhonda P. Hill

Speaking of Ebony Fashion Fair, Kelly’s success in France, of where he established his business, did not preclude his work being exposed to an American Black audience, who largely were excluded from fashion.  Eunice Johnson, fashion editor for Ebony magazine, Ebony Fashion Fair director and producer, validated the work of Black designers who were rarely afforded the same opportunities as their white counterparts in America.  Each year she included looks from these designers from the likes of Scott Barrie, Stephen Burrows, Rufus Barkley, Henry Jackson, Willi Smith, and Patrick Kelly.

Kelly’s body of work can be viewed simultaneously as a “call out” on racism, through his clever use of racial icons, and as work of magnificently crafted designs.  What we learn from the exhibit and the programming support is that his legacy, although short lived, was profound in both beauty and reappropriation of racist imagery.

EDGE Fashion Intelligence Fashion Culture series provides educational content of the under-represented historical and contemporary contributors to fashion’s history, where their stories are unknown or overlooked, and need to be told.  The Patrick Kelly Story acknowledges the significant contribution Kelly has made to the field of fashion.

“The Patrick Kelly Story” continues:

Fashion Culture | “I LOVE Lycra Dresses and Spare-Ribs”: The Patrick Kelly Story

Fashion Culture | BUTTONS and BOWS, etc.! A PICTORIAL View, The Patrick Kelly Story

Fashion Culture | The Marketing INGENIOUS of Patrick Kelly

Suggested further study:

Camerlengo, Laura L., ed., “Patrick Kelly Runway of Love.” San Francisco: Yale University Press with The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 2021.


Rhonda P. Hill

Founder, Publishing Editor