SAN FRANCISCO — A zebra-striped evening gown, a coat topped by plush teddy bears, and slinky black dresses covered in lots of buttons are just a few of the playful, imaginative, and undeniably chic creations by the American fashion designer Patrick Kelly. “I want my clothes to make you smile,” Kelly once said, and, decades after his premature death in 1990 at age 35, his flair for fun continues to charm and inspire.

But Kelly’s designs were much more than quirky. The epitaph on his headstone reads “Nothing Is Impossible,” a message Kelly proved time and time again. A young, Black, gay man from the American South, he was a determined, self-taught innovator who worked his way into the highest levels of international fashion, becoming the first American and the first Black designer to be voted into the prestigious Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode, (the governing body for the French fashion industry founded in 1868). But beyond his industry accolades commercial success, Kelly also infused his work with a clear sense of purpose. His lively designs are often complex, critical reflections of his experiences and view of the world. They incorporate elements of pop culture, race, and history that are rarely seen on a runway. 

Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love installation view, de Young Museum

Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love at the de Young Museum showcases nearly 80 of Kelly’s light-hearted but heartfelt designs, including garments, hats, gloves, and other accessories. Originally staged at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2014, the West Coast display also features footage from Kelly’s festive, groundbreaking runway shows, along with his event invites, photos, sketches, and collages. The colorful exhibition is a delight for those of us who have spent the past year and a half in pajamas. But it’s also a crucial tribute to this one-of-a-kind designer who brought messages of love and Black empowerment to the world stage through fashion.

Patrick Kelly Spring-Summer 1989 Fashion Show By Pierre Vauthey. Fashion model and entertainer Grace Jones wearing a brightly colored ready-to-wear costume decorated with a cape, sashes, and a tall hat by American fashion designer Patrick Kelly. She is modeling the outfit during his Spring-Summer 1989 fashion show in Paris. (photo by Pierre Vauthey/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images, image courtesy the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

Kelly was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi in 1954. His mother, a home economics teacher, taught him to draw, and an aunt introduced him to sewing. But it was Kelly’s grandmother, Ethel B. Rainey, who first inspired him to reach for the heights of couture. When she brought the six-year-old some fashion magazines from her white employer’s house, Kelly noticed that no Black models appeared on the pages. “My granny told me nobody had time for Black women,” Kelly later remembered. “I said, ‘I will.’”

Kelly’s grandmother remained his greatest muse and the “backbone of my tastes,” he said. His Black Baptist church in Vicksburg — where worshippers dressed, in Kelly’s words, “as fierce as the ladies at the Yves Saint Laurent Haute-couture shows”— was another key inspiration. After completing coursework at Jackson State University, Kelly moved to Atlanta, where he participated in the Ebony Fashion Fair and opened a clothing shop with vintage and custom designs. He moved to New York City in 1978, but wasn’t able to gain much traction until, a year later, supermodel Pat Cleveland bought him a one-way ticket to Paris.

Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love installation view, de Young Museum

In the French capital, Kelly pioneered a unique brand of exciting designs at accessible prices. He elevated everyday materials like stretchy knit jersey and hardy cotton denim in garments meant for a variety of body types and lifestyles. Though he was inspired by vanguard designers like Issey Miyake and Elsa Schiaparelli, he also drew from old Hollywood movies and Josephine Baker — another Black American who found success in Paris — in his work. Kelly made a point to employ Black models in his popular runway shows, boosting their careers and helping to normalize their presence in the international fashion world. He also caused considerable controversy by incorporating elements from racist memorabilia into his designs, and adopted the cartoonish golliwog character as his label’s logo in 1985. His own signature look, a pair of oversized, bibbed denim overalls, was a tribute to the laborers, tenant farmers, and civil rights activists of the American South.

Kelly defended his choices by insisting, “If you don’t know where you’ve been in your history, then you don’t know where to go.” Today, his joyful, critical work reminds us of the past, but also paves the way for the future.

Paris, France – October: A model walks the runway at the Patrick Kelly Ready to Wear Spring/Summer 1989 fashion show during the Paris Fashion Week in October, 1988 in Paris, France. (photo by Victor VIRGILE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images, image courtesy the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)
Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love installation view, de Young Museum
Woman’s Ensemble: Coat and Dress, fall/winter 1986; woman’s dress, fall/winter 1986; woman’s dress, fall/winter 1988; by Patrick Kelly (Philadelphia Museum of Art: Gift of Bjorn Guil Amelan and Bill T. Jones in honor of Monica Brown, 2015, image courtesy the Philadelphia Museum of Art)
Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love installation view, de Young Museum
Patrick Kelly at the Patrick Kelly Spring 1989 show circa 1988 in Paris, France (photo by PL Gould/IMAGES/Getty Images, image courtesy the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love continues at the de Young Museum (50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, San Francisco, California) through April 24, 2022. Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love was organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art in collaboration with the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. The presenting curator for the exhibition is Laura L. Camerlengo, Associate Curator of Costume and Textile Arts, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.