Patrick Kelly was a Mississippi born fashion aficionado who rose to fame in Paris in the 1980’s for his eccentric yet elegant women’s designs. His creations were worn by the likes of Princess Diana, Bette Davis, Grace Jones, Jane Seymour and Madonna to name a few. He was adored in the Paris fashion world and was the first American to be voted into elite Parisian fashion designers society Chambre Syndicale joining the likes of Yves Saint Laurent, Karl Lagerfeld and Christian Lacroix among others.
His humble beginnings in Vicksburg Mississippi influenced many of his renowned designs. From as early as age 6 he realized his love for fashion with his earliest memory being of his grandmother, who worked for an upper class white family, bringing home a fashion magazine in which he quickly noticed there were no pictures of black women. His grandmother told him that designers didn’t have time for African American women. This fuelled his passion and he was determined to change this and create designs inspired by the black women in his family and community; one of his famous quotes being “At the black Baptist church on Sunday, the ladies are just as fierce as the ladies at Yves Saint Laurent haute couture shows”
A self taught sewer, his career began in high school where he would sew party dresses for girls in his neighbourhood and create designs for newspaper ads and department store windows. He studied art history and African American history on a scholarship at Jackson State University but left after two years to escape the oppression ridden state of Mississippi and seriously pursue his career. The move to Atlanta saw him working for AMVETS- an American Veterans organization- sorting clothing gaining him access to some designer labels and he would redesign old clothes and sell them along with his original creations on the streets. He volunteered to decorate the window of an Yves Saint Laurent boutique called Rive Gauche and was soon added to the boutique’s payroll. He opened a vintage clothing store and doubled as an instructor at Barbican Modelling School where he met famed black runway supermodel Pat Cleveland. She convinced him that if he wanted to be a big name designer, New York was the place to be.
New York City was a struggle for Kelly. He enrolled in the prominent Parsons School of Design and resorted to working part-time at Baskin Robbins to overcome financial struggles; the upside being that he also sold his creations to models to help make ends-meet. It was then that his friend Pat Cleveland suggested that he move again, this time to Paris. But barely being able to support himself he tittered at the thought since he knew he couldn’t afford it. Soon after a one-way ticket was anonymously mailed to Kelly and he was on his way to the fashion capital of the world.
Paris is where it all came together. In no time he was hired as a costume designer for Le Palace nightclub and still sold his own creations on the streets as well as home-made fried chicken! His designs soon gained recognition and his creations were in demand. Paris boutique Victoire hired Kelly and gave him his own showroom and workshop. Within a year he formed a partnership with friend and photographer Bjorn Amelan and created Patrick Kelly Paris. Business was booming for the pair creating designs for the likes of Benetton and the glamorous Right Bank Boutique. His success continued with a five million dollar deal to produce a line of clothing for Warnaco (clothing manufacturer) which gained him international recognition. Followed by two licensing deals with Vouge Patterns and Streamline Industries for his trademark big buttons. From these deals his revenue jumped from less than a million a year to seven million plus a year.
Citing his grandmother’s resourcefulness when she replaced missing buttons on his clothing as a child with whatever she could find, large colourful buttons, embroidered lips and hearts and colourful bows became his emblem. True to his childhood dream his work featured aspects of his African American upbrining in Mississippi with polka-dotted bandannas, watermelon brooches and gardenia decorated dresses. Black culture memorabilia graced the walls of his showrooms.
His infusion of black culture in fashion was astounding. He was famously know for his love of golliwogs/black baby faced dolls and incorporating them in his designs. He even created lapel golliwog pins that he shared with everyone he met. He boasted a massive collection of over 6,000 black dolls from various historical eras that he hoped to house in a museum one day.
A passion for flare, he would emerge on the runway before each show and spray paint a heart on the backdrop-another brilliantly unique motif. Through his membership to the prestigious Parisian Chambre Syndicale, he held a fashion show at the Louvre Palace in Paris and true to his witty nature the show included a satire of the Mona Lisa.
His short-lived fame came to a screeching halt on New Years Day 1990. The cause of death was officially listed as bone marrow disease but was widely speculated to be due to AIDS- like many other young prominent designers of his day. He leaves behind a legacy as being one of fashions most promising figures. His obituary declared him as belonging to a rare group of designers who knew how to wield the cutting scissors and sew a seam. His age was never truly known as he notoriously stated in a 1986 Time magazine article “I never tell my age because I hope I’ll always be the new kid on the block” but it’s believed that he passed at the age of 35.
A true trailblazer worthy of a spot in American history, Black history and gay history books as an inspiration to overcome any prejudice that stands in the way of your dreams.
Patrick Kelly, we salute you!