US show to celebrate work of black fashion trailblazer Patrick Kelly

A retrospective of the work of Patrick Kelly, the black fashion designer who confronted racist stereotypes, will be staged in the autumn.

Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love will open at San Francisco’s de Young Museum on 23 October, celebrating his short but hugely influential career. The exhibition originally ran at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2014, but will be expanded for the West Coast.

Born in 1954 in Vickburg, Mississippi, Kelly began selling his designs from a shop inside an Atlanta beauty salon. He became friends with the black model Pat Cleveland, who suggested he move to Paris where he established his own fashion house, Patrick Kelly Paris, in 1988. His designs were worn by stars including Madonna, Princess Diana, Grace Jones, Cicely Tyson and Bette Davis.

“He was a trailblazer,” Laura Camerlengo, the associate curator of costume and textile arts at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, told the fashion industry publication WWD.

“He was born during the time of the segregated south, grew out of that most racist violent environment, and worked his way to Atlanta, to New York and to become the toast of Paris who had a successful multimillion-dollar company when he died. And remarkably, he was lauded with accolades while being and remaining one of the few designers of any colour to directly address race in his work.”

With racially charged images such as the golliwog and black mammy in his designs, plus the use of the black church as an inspiration, Kelly was a pioneer of the “black camp” aesthetic.

“Although I could list many ways that Kelly employed camp in his design, his runway shows, ad campaigns and personal style, arguably his most striking use of camp came in the form of the ways he reappropriated the bigotry and violence of racist imagery,” said Prof Eric Darnell Pritchard, who is writing a biography of Kelly.

The exhibition will feature 80 outfits with accessories from between 1984 and 1990 as well as his working collages and sketches. Kelly was the first black American designer to be voted into the governing body of the French fashion industry, Fédération Française de la Couture.

Last year, the Kelly Initiative was launched in his name, with an open letter to the CFDA (the Council of Fashion Designers of America) calling for more transparency and inclusivity in the fashion world.

“Kelly called attention to the absurdity and the negative history of [racist] imagery, while simultaneously reclaiming those images toward making beauty and joy on his own terms,” said Darnell Pritchard.