De Young Museum’s ‘Runway of Love’ exhibition is decadent remembrance to Patrick Kelly

Photo of the Patrick Kelly exhibit
Gary Sexton/Courtesy

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To be in the presence of an artist’s work is enthralling, but to feel the artist’s aura within the same room is another story. First showcased at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the exhibition “Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love” has now made its way to The San Francisco de Young Museum. The exhibition encapsulates Kelly’s character and showcases his career as a fashion designer through multiple rooms of memorabilia and original designs from the runway in the exhibit until April 2022. 

Upon entering the exhibition is a dimly lit room embossed with its own title, where original pieces from his Fall/Winter 1986-87 show command the spotlight. The initial appearance of Kelly lies in ball gown dresses with buttoned patterns and heart symbols that both juxtapose and emulate the designer’s serious yet silly approach to fashion. Even though Kelly was best known for his cheeky personality, deconstructing systematic racism was fundamental to his career. 

Kelly went on to become one of the first American and Black designers to be designated in the Chambre Syndicale du prêt-à-porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de mode, or the French Federation of Fashion and Ready-to-Wear Courtiers and Fashion Designers. He also worked with the Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche boutiques and lines to design window displays.

The essence of Kelly’s work is felt in every room. An immense photo of Kelly in his signature overalls and a smile overlooks a line of his designs ranging from snakeskin and neon patterned swimsuits to colorful striped cocktail dresses with matching gloves. The modernity in each piece is uncanny, with prints and patterns that are similar to those in popular brands, such as Princess Polly or Forever 21. 

It goes unsaid that Kelly and other Black queer designers within the industry propelled and influenced American fashion and culture. Seeing Kelly’s designs come to life with a video projection of one of his show’s detail his eccentricity, with big smiles and a liveliness that makes the show look like a party. The designer’s vision to include Black models in the show as well demonstrate his lifelong push for inclusivity and recognition within fashion.

In another room illustrates Kelly’s collection of anti-Black memorabilia that he reclaimed within his work. Growing up in Mississippi, Kelly embraced his southern culture that celebrated “Black confidence, beauty, and style.” Alongside the racist trinkets and caricatures is a dress clad with buttons that shape a similar figure to the caricatures sitting on the wall. Even though the collection and images are jarring, Kelly’s vision to reimagine and reclaim these figures in his work are a part of an epic legacy that is easily appreciated

The final showing of the exhibition swallows the viewer within an army of Kelly’s work. His range of creating campy styles to simpler silhouettes was showcased between looks inspired by Jessica Rabbit and simple yet exuberant gowns. 

The designer’s eye for over-the-top styles is sure to be an influence for Jeremy Scott’s Moschino who radiates similar outrageous looks. And basically, the exhibit highlights this exact concept that Kelly served as a trailblazer for an absurdist, fun and imaginative take on fashion. 

In its totality, “Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love” is a whirlwind demonstration of Kelly’s lasting influence and prosperous fun career. Within the exhibit, his long-lasting impression of fashion is clear with past looks coinciding with modern and current popular brands. Each layout of sketches, personal items, looks and memorabilia tell Kelly’s story in a way that battles between the anxiety and exhilaration he must have felt in opening the door to a new perspective into fashion and couture.

Kaitlin Clapinski covers fashion. Contact her [email protected].