Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love @ de Young Museum, San Francisco
A grape. An interviewer asks the late designer Patrick Kelly to describe what captivated him about Paris. The Mississippi native smiles at the marketplace memory of biting into a juicy grape, revealing his keen appreciation for simplicity, as well as the sweetness that can supplant an acrid seed. I spoke with curator Laura Camerlengo and scholar Sequoia Barnes about the de Young museum’s retrospective, fittingly titled Runway of Love.
Gwynned Vitello: Is that the approach taken by the Philadelphia show, addressing these issues into a celebration of his fashion pieces?
Laura Camerlengo: The team working on Runway of Love started out around 2009 and it was mounted in 2014. When they acquired the archive from his partner, Bjorn Amerlan, it was lots of clothing and buttons all mixed together, so Monica Brown went through the collections and got the ensembles back together year by year. That presentation focused on studying and showing Patrick as a fashion designer, really inserting him into the canon of the industry. He is such an important designer for a variety of reasons, and the tragedy is that he passed away only five years after establishing his own label, part of a generation of artists and designers felled by Aids.
Philadelphia really spotlighted his designs and legacy, though some of the racial kitsch was folded in. What we're doing here is revising and updating the text that looks at him as a fashion designer, but also talks about the crossroads of Black history. The project is so enriched by having folks like Darnell Pritchard and Sequoia to delve deeper into the different ways to approach this work.
From what I’ve read and the videos I’ve seen, he projects such an upbeat persona. I envision this very happy, enthusiastic person who grew up with so much love and support that he was very grounded and possessed a confidence allowing him to comfortably play with racial tropes.
Sequoia Barnes: His father died when he was young and he grew up in a house full of strong women. His mother was a teacher with a master’s degree, but his grandmother was a domestic worker from whom he derived his love of fashion. His early memories were of her mending his clothes and coming home with old fashion magazines from her employers, along with old clothing that she'd remake to wear to church. He was really inspired by the women at church who had on beautiful suits and huge hats. So I think his childhood played a huge role. When people talk about Kelly, they talk about how his work is quite autobiographical and very much directly pulled from his life growing up in Mississippi.
So being exposed to a lot of the imagery he used, growing up in the fifties and sixties, the question is what to do with these things when they are everywhere, and such a large part of your life. I think he was working through the everyday experience of racism, a world where Black representation is slowly becoming more dominant, say, with Nat King Cole on TV, along with attending church with powerful women and experiencing everyday racism in Mississippi, which was a quite turbulent, violent place to grow up.
Maybe it’s a reflection of his experience with everyone dressing up and singing in church, but it looks like his runway shows were very celebratory—the models not walking in detached, solemn straight lines, him drawing a big heart at the end of the show. They’re presented as having a good time together, like you’d want to be part of their group.
LC: There was a certain theatricality in runway presentations in the 1980s, but what I think was different about Patrick’s shows is how the models were in these small groupings. Audrey Smaltz, a famed runway show creator, whom we’ve interviewed for this project, described how Patrick had a very clear vision of the models walking in groups, talking with each other in small performative vignettes. I think it’s also connected to his own experiences, starting as teenaager when he went to the Ebony Fashion Fair presentations, probably where he saw models like Pat Cleveland, who is definitely known for her theatrical runway performances.
SB: There are a set of stories as to how he met Pat Cleveland, and it’s interesting how stories about his life change over the years. Cleveland has said that she met him in the 1970s through a friend, and as a fan of hers, presented her with this sort of Josephine Baker-esque outfit and asked her to wear it at a hair show. They became fast friends after hanging out that night. The costume got sort of revamped for 1986 fall/winter where she closes the show in the Josephine Baker costume, which is in our show.
LC: It’s made of wire spirals designed by the jewelry artist David Spata, who is known for the multi-colored freedom rings and worked with Keith Haring, as well as Kelly.
What are some elements that characterize this show?
SB: It’s been very collaborative, and I appreciate that. There were so many suggestions back and forth, “What do you think about this?” or “Maybe you should do this?” There was always someone asking, “What do I think of that?” so it’s really nice to come together and help each other out.
LC: We’ve gotten tremendous feedback from Philadelphia about situating the show in our space, very different in that it meanders in some ways. We’re starting outside of the textile galleries and some adjacent galleries, trying to evoke the feeling of Patrick’s home. There was a spread in Architectural Digest in 1989, and we were actually able to pull a lot of the artifacts you see in that feature. I also had the opportunity to go through what remains from his estate with Bjorn. Our hope is that when people come through, they’ll have all the updated texts, which Sequoia is working on. The idea is that you’ll have quotes from Kelly and feel like you’re in his space, and really get a sense of who he was as a person.
SB: His home was in Paris, and he used lots of gold, gilded frames, mirrors and chairs. There were lots of small pictures on the white walls, an amalgamation of all the things he was into, like a picture of Josephine Baker, something else and something else. It looked very lived in.
LC: Reviewing a lot of things that have been in his studio and home has been an amazing experience. You see items that he lived with that were very much used, things he appreciated. One of the conservators noted that on a lot of picture frames there were candle drippings, a reminder of the candlelit dinners that he and Bjorn hosted, beautiful brunches and meals inspired by the Southern cuisine he loved. I recently went through two large wooden crates of his materials, from which we’ll show the things that gave him inspiration. I found Michael Jackson dolls, Diana Ross dolls, Mr T dolls and Black baby dolls in beautiful dresses. The racial piece is very important to his practice, but it’s also important to see the larger whole and see the full extent of what he had.
SB: At the time they were made, many cheap consumables were made, in addition to other items where they were selling something like food or cleaning products, so that the figures were a kind of toy for play that asserted certain social and racial hierarchies. Kelly collected these things, but in addition to Black art and Josephine Baker costumes and memorabilia. It’s more complex than just asserting that these things are inherently harmful. As stewards of Blackness, a lot of Black creatives collected racial kitsch. It’s about confronting the past in order to move forward to some type of future, reclaiming and trying to find some kind of agency in a world that is always seeking to oppress you. Avoiding these things isn’t the answer to moving forward. I think it’s important to think about those complexities, about what it means to be a person of color who collects racial kitsch. What does it mean to do that, and what are you working through in that process?
Nick Cave addresses this in his shows. I’m thinking of the jockey ornaments.
SB: I met with Nick Cave and talked about it, and there was a question of why he used those racist jockeys. It was very much about who is represented in heaven, and what does heaven look like based on how people talk about the afterlife, like working through being segregated and working through that exclusion, but being included in a different way that doesn’t help you lift yourself up. The jockeys are like a representation of that; we’re allowed in heaven too.
I’m curious about the women who bought Kelly’s clothes and if they were aware of his intentions, if they were making a statement of some kind.
SB: It gets quite nuanced because fashion is meant to be consumed, right? You buy clothes to cover your body, but at the same time, it’s double edged. What does it mean for a white person to consume something with these images? What is Patrick Kelly doing when he sells these clothes? On one hand, it could be, “Hey, we’re all in this, we’re all making money right now.” Or it could be a covert act about perpetuating your own manifesto or your views on racism for the consumption of fashion, which fashion was getting into at that time; that is, appropriating motifs from Black culture. What does it mean for a Black individual to wear these garments?
LC: And to that point, the way the designs were received was very different in the United States than in France. There’s a great article about the late Wilkes Bashford being the first cothier to sell Patrick Kelly in San Francisco. He brought back all the racialized clothing, including the Black babydoll Patrick would give out at the shows. He gave them to everyone he met, and in Paris they were so popular and well received, and it was understood to be part of Patrick’s identity. When Bashford put the clothes in his window, people basically saw it as a racial slur and were extremely upset. That said, I interviewed someone about Macy’s at Union Square where Patrick would come for meet and greets. The clothes sold really well because people had the opportunity to meet him, or learn his story from his staff.
I definitely picked up on such a warm, down-to-earth vibe from the videos and remembrances. I’m thinking of him at the airport and his conversation with his grandmother.
SB: There's a story from a doll-collecting journal about him holding a Black babydoll at the airport when a woman looked at him strangely, and he was kind of like, “Are you okay?” She said that her daughter would never carry a Black doll, and he was incredulous, like, “That’s crazy, we’re all Black; if you don’t want something that represents you or as a toy, then what is the point of anything?” The conversation with his grandmother came about when he was looking at one of the fashion titles she brought home and asked her why there were no Black people in the magazines. I think his grandmother said it was because nobody cares about us. He decided right then, as a young child, that he would make clothes for Black women. Knowing that is quite powerful.
Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love will be on view at the de Young museum in San Francisco from October 23, 2021—April 24, 2022