On Saturday, October 23, Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love opened at the de Young museum. This exhibition celebrates the career and legacy of Black fashion designer Patrick Kelly (1954–1990). Kelly drew upon his childhood in the American South, his African American heritage, his experiences in the club and gay cultural scenes in New York and Paris, and muses from fashion, art, and Black history to create lighthearted yet sophisticated designs that pushed racial and cultural boundaries. The Museums’ 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. Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love was first presented by the Philadelphia Museum of Art 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.
In this interview, Camerlengo—now Associate Curator of Costume and Textile Arts, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and presenting curator, Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love—speaks with Blum to discuss Patrick Kelly’s early professional experiences and training, the varied sources of inspiration for his designs, and the impact of presenting Runway of Love at this time.
LLC: Patrick Kelly was bitten by the fashion bug as a child. Can you tell us how his interest was sparked?
DEB: Patrick Kelly credited his grandmother, Ethel, with introducing him to high fashion through the Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar magazines given to her by her white employers. Her observation that no Black women were featured [in the magazines] sparked the “fashion bug” in the six-year-old Kelly, who confidently declared that he would design clothes for all women. He acknowledged his grandmother’s own style as being the “backbone of my taste.” As a child he especially looked forward to Sundays, when she and her friends in their church dresses formed an impromptu fashion show. Their outfits were a continuing influence on Kelly, and their sartorial choices resonated throughout his collections. While his mother taught him to draw and an aunt [taught him] to sew, it was his grandmother who encouraged Kelly’s creativity, advising him that “a sore thumb stands out.”
LLC: Patrick Kelly had been working as an independent fashion designer for many years prior to launching his label in Paris. In fact, this is something that you explore in your catalogue essay. Could you tell us about his early fashion practice?
DEB: One of Patrick Kelly’s cousins recalled that as a child he was always designing clothes for his dolls. As a teenager, Kelly designed for his school friends and others, and while a student at Jackson State University, he also styled pageants. In 1974 he moved to Atlanta and opened a small shop that sold vintage clothing, and his own designs sewn by a local dressmaker. He also designed window displays for the newly opened Saint Laurent Rive Gauche boutique, which provided an opportunity to study the ready-to-wear collections of Paris couturier Yves Saint Laurent. Kelly participated in many local fashion shows, one of which featured the famous Black American supermodel Pat Cleveland. She encouraged him to move to New York to attend Parsons School of Design. An indifferent student, he spent more time dancing at Paradise Garage than studying while also channeling his creativity into dressing its “club kids” in his latest designs.