Woman's Ensemble: Coat and Dress, fall/winter 1986; Woman's Dress, fall/winter 1986; Woman's Dress, fall/winter 1988; by Patrick Kelly. (Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art)

The de Young's Patrick Kelly exhibit is filled with glorious fashion, and so much heart

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You may not know anything about fashion designer Patrick Kelly before you enter the new show at the de Young Museum. But by the time you hit the museum shop, you'll never be able to forget him (or his amazing overalls).


Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love, on view through April 24, 2022, will undoubtedly introduce thousands of people to the remarkable designer's collections, career, life, and legacy. And that's exactly the point, says 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," he says. "Everyone should know the name Patrick Kelly, and we hope this exhibition does just that."

(Photograph by Oliviero Toscani; courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

Long (back) story short: Kelly—born Black, gay, and poor in 1954 Mississippi—learned to sew in high school and ultimately landed in Paris by way of Atlanta and New York, befriending supermodel Pat Cleveland along the way. (She was a fan of his designs circa 1979.)

A mutual love affair between Kelly and the City of Light blossomed and, in 1987, his namesake brand was acquired by fashion conglomerate Warnaco. The following year, PK became the first American and first Black designer voted into the distinguished French fashion association Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode. Kelly's young label was now in the same circle as Chanel, Christian Dior, and Yves Saint Laurent. Sadly just a few years later, in 1990, his promising career was cut short when the 35-year-old died of AIDS.

Back to the exhibit. It's a feast for the eyes and soul, taking visitors on a journey through Kelly's career and life via 80 head-to-toe looks from his wondrous collections. Every which way you look there's a signature heart design popping off a gown, button and bow accents nuzzling brightly colored body-con dresses, and endless nods and direct (often ironic) references to Kelly's muses and designer inspirations, i.e. Josephine Baker, Gabrielle Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli, and Madame Grès.

Without a doubt, though, the number-one fashion icon in Kelly's life was his grandmother, Ethel Rainey. She fostered his love of style with the glossy fashion mags she would bring home from her job as a cook and maid. As a child when Kelly was constantly losing shirt buttons, it was his grandma who would replace them with a mélange of new ones, in various sizes and colors. Years later, Kelly pays her homage with his signature mismatched button designs.

Installation view of "Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love" at the de Young museum in San Francisco.(Photography by Gary Sexton. Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.)

Also impossible to miss while oohing and aahing all the clothing, accessories, and prints that still read refreshingly modern: Black baby dolls, watermelon wedges, bananas, and the ever-present golliwog, a cartoonish blackface logo. You see, Kelly was an avid collector of Black memorabilia. He found power in reclaiming these racist tropes and using them in his work to confront white supremacy and challenge its anti-Black ideology, while also telling his own story as a queer Black artist.

To state the obvious, using these symbols was not without controversy. "I get a lot of criticism from Blacks, and from whites, and from everybody about who I am and my image. And with the Blacks I always say, if we can't deal with where we've been, it's gon' be hard to go somewhere," Kelly said in 1989.

Breaking boundaries and inspiring other designers of color is an enduring part of his legacy.

Along with the impeccable fashions, a collection of runway invites, illustrations, photographs, and personal effects flesh out Kelly's story. Videos of his lively fashion shows filled with models of color, including his friend Cleveland, are projected on screens throughout the exhibit. Like everything else, they help put Kelly's work into a broader context of fashion, art, politics and history.

By all accounts, Kelly the man was soft-spoken and charming with an infectious spirit, joie de vivre, and a giant heart to match his oversized talent and smarts. Every bit of this shines through in the fashions, and the fascinating exhibit itself.

"I want my clothes to make you smile," Kelly famously said. Mission accomplished, Mr. K., mission accomplished.

Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love is organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and runs at the de Young Museum through April 24,, 2022. The museum will be holding a number of companion events, including a free virtual panel hosted by André Leon Talley on Weds, Oct 27 (5pm): Working It: Supermodels and Superstars Remember Patrick Kelly.

// Reserve tickets $35) in an advance; 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive (Golden Gate Park), deyoung.famsf.org

"Woman's Ensemble: Bra Top and Banana Skirt" Designed by Patrick Kelly, American (active Paris), c. 1954 - 1990, and David Spada, American, 1961 - 1996. Worn by Pat Cleveland, American, born 1952. Fall/Winter 1986(Photography by Gary Sexton. Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.)

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