Opening: de Young Museum’s ‘Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love’ Exalts the Late, Lamented ’80s Fashion Star

Images by Gary Sexton

On a purely visceral level, it seems the right time, after nineteen months of a deadly pandemic, to think back on the tragedy of the AIDS crisis in the ’80s, when the fear of the unknown similarly created an immense sense of terror. There are other parallels, most especially in the way that both were ultimately shamelessly exploited by politicians who seemed to care little that actual lives were being lost in considerable numbers.

To give a bit of perspective, though, about 4.5 million people have died from the COVID virus worldwide. The current casualty count from AIDS stands at 36 million.

Tragically, the latter took the lives of some of that generation’s most towering talents, Freddie Mercury, Klaus Nomi, Robert Mapplethorpe, Keith Haring, and designers Perry Ellis and Halston. Another fashion career that was cut short far, far too soon was that of Patrick Kelly, who in the late ’80s was designing clothes for the likes of Grace Jones, Madonna, Cicely Tyson, Goldie Hawn…even an 80-something Bette Davis – and running a label with annual sales of more than $7 million. He succumbed to complications from HIV in 1990, at just 35 years of age.

This week San Francisco’s de Young Museum – in conjunction with the Philadelphia Museum of Art – opens Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love, which assembles 80 of his most glamorous / groundbreaking ensembles, along with archival video footage from his world-changing fashion shows. Like Haring and that other ’80s art star Mark Kostabi, Kelly helped to define the sometimes imitated but never truly duplicated visual palette of that wild, anything-seemed-possible decade.

The show’s title itself is edifying, as the young designer built his design ideology around messages of love and inclusion. And the exhibition traces exactly how he arrived there, beginning with his humble roots in the American South, a heritage that stayed with him through his entire career – an incredible journey from small town Mississippi to becoming 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.

Divided into seven distinct sections, the first, ‘Runway of Love’, orients visitors to the influences behind his inimitable aesthetic. And while he counted singer Josephine Baker and legendary couturiers Madame Grès and Elsa Schiaparelli amongst his muses, his greatest inspiration remained his own grandmother, a fashion “icon” in her own right.

“While Patrick Kelly dauntlessly riffed on the work of famed couturiers and works of art,” observes Laura L. Camerlengo, Associate Curator of Costume and Textile Arts at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and Presenting Curator of the exhibition, “his vision remained uniquely his own. 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.”

Perhaps the most compelling section is ‘Mississippi in Paris’, which revisits his southern roots, and reveals how women dressing up for church on Sunday first sparked his imagination. Many of his fashions were also coded with messages addressing race, sometimes even in a cheeky way – and included here is his curious collection of racist “memorabilia,” which symbols he cleverly appropriated to create such provocative garments as his controversial “golliwog” dresses.

But ultimately the exhibition is a celebration of the joy that he brought to his work, and the exuberance that his designs conveyed to the world.

Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, perhaps puts it best. “He 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.”

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