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Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

On now at the de Young Museum in San Francisco is the West Coast premiere of Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love, a celebration of Mr. Kelly and his inspired fashions of the 1980s.

Black fashion designer Patrick Kelly (1954-1990) was known for combining whimsy with classic. His unique use of embellishment as well as a constant upbeat message in his designs attracted many. Originally from Mississippi, he moved to NYC to study fashion design and in 1979 he moved to Paris. There he had friends bop around the streets in his handmade jersey outfits adorned with buttons. These colorful ensembles caught the attention of French Elle magazine and voila, he was on his way to fashion stardom.

Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

I was not familiar with Mr. Kelly before hearing of this exhibit but I’m happy to have found him and now he is among my favorites. I appreciate his humor and references to fashion history; I see a touch of Schiparelli here and a pinch of Chanel there, but with a unique Kelly twist. There is something very charming about these designs – they are playful, fun, and yet still polished. He was a master at playing with sophisticated silhouettes by adding unexpected adornments like buttons, tassels, and dice. His use of buttons was inspired by his grandmother who, when he was a child, used to replace his lost buttons with whatever style and color she had on hand. That “outside the box” approach stuck with Mr. Kelly.

Runway of Love, curated by Laura L. Camerlengo, Associate Curator of Costume and Textile Arts at the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, is divided into four sections covering Mr. Kelly’s career from hand making knit jersey dresses in his early Paris days to his successful runway shows. One of the sections includes some of his personal collection of racist memorabilia, which served as inspiration for him in his designs. Although controversial in America at that time, his use of racist symbols was his way of controlling the charged images and that puts another interesting twist on his work.

In 1988 Mr. Kelly was the first American and first Black designer to be voted into the Chambre Syndicale du Pret-a-Porter des Couturiers et des Createurs de Mode, the prestigious French association for ready-to-wear designers. This was quite an honor and well deserved!

Patrick Kelly’s archive of fashions was given to the Philadelphia Museum of Art by Mr. Kelly’s business and life partner, Bjorn Amelan, who said that he spent years after Mr. Kelly’s early death of complications from AIDS in 1990, looking for the right home for the archive.

As well as 80 fully accessorized ensembles, the exhibit includes several videos of runway shows, sketches and art by the designer, and other ephemera.

From the 80s music in the background to the upbeat videos, from the buttons to the bright colors to the cultural references – I walked out of Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love uplifted and inspired. I can’t recommend this exhibit enough.

Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love at the de Young Museum now through April 24, 2022.

A few things to know before you go:

  1. Pack a mask! Masks are required on everyone, regardless of vaccination status.
  2. The Coat Room is closed; travel light and remember that backpacks must be hand held inside the museum.
  3. To allow for plenty of safe space in the galleries the tickets are timed, so it’s a good idea to book ahead.

And there’s more! Continue to explore Patrick Kelly with a series of panel discussions Wednesdays at 5pm: October 27th, November 3rd, March 30, April 23. Click here for the full scoop.

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