Patrick Kelly (c. 1954-1990) began designing and sewing clothing when he was a teenager in Mississippi. Although he had some formal fashion training, many of his skills were self-taught. While in his twenties Kelly moved to Paris, started his own design company, and quickly established himself as a reputable designer. He clothes were colorful, fun, and unusual and often had a Southern influence. Large, bright, plastic buttons were his trademark. Kelly was the first American to be allowed into the elite Parisian fashion designer's organization called Chambre Syndicale.
Started Career at an Early Age
Patrick Kelly was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, on September 24 around 1954. Kelly kept the exact year of his birth a secret. As he 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." He came from a working-class African American family. His mother had a master's degree and worked as a home economics teacher. His father worked as a fishmonger, insurance agent, and cab driver. At some point in his childhood his father left home and he was raised primarily by his mother and grandmother, who worked as a cook for an upper-class white family. His keen interest in fashion showed even as a child. His earliest recollection of this passion was when he was about six years old. One day his grandmother brought home a fashion magazine and Kelly noticed that there were not pictures of African American women in it. His grandmother explained that designers did not have time for African American women and Kelly was determined to change this.
Kelly taught himself to sew and began his career as a designer at an early age. While still in junior high Kelly began to design and sew party dresses for girls in the neighborhood. Later in high school he began designing department store windows and drawing sketches for newspaper advertisements. After he graduated from high school in 1972 Kelly attended Jackson State University on a scholarship and studied art history and African American history. He only stayed there for two years when he decided to leave Mississippi to escape the oppressive racial tensions and to pursue a serious career in fashion.
Kelly moved to Atlanta and got a job sorting clothing for AMVETS, an American veterans' organization. To work his way into the fashion industry Kelly also volunteered to decorate windows for an Yves Saint Laurent boutique called Rive Gauche. These humble beginnings helped Kelly build his fashion career. From the job at AMVETS Kelly had access to a large collection of clothes, some of which carried designer labels. Kelly would redesign the old clothes and sell them on the streets along with some of his original creations. Soon he also began to collect a regular salary for working at the Saint Laurent boutique and this job also gave him some exposure in the fashion industry. Eventually Kelly set up his own vintage clothing store in Atlanta. He also worked as an instructor at the Barbizon Modeling School, where he became friends with several fashion models. One model, Pat Cleveland, convinced him that he should move to New York City if he wanted to really get noticed by the fashion industry.
Moved to Fashion Capital
Kelly followed his friend's advice, moved to New York, and enrolled in the prestigious Parsons School of Design. He struggled financially, however. He was not able to find a steady job and he supported himself with sporadic work, including a part-time job working at Baskin Robbins. He also earned money by selling his own dresses to models. Then his friend Pat Cleveland suggested that he move again, this time to Paris. Kelly laughed at the idea because he knew he could not afford the trip. However, when a one-way ticket to Paris was mailed to Kelly anonymously in 1979, he seized the opportunity and moved to the fashion capital of the world. Looking back on this important move, Kelly told Time magazine in 1986, "I can't say I wouldn't have made it in New York because I didn't stay to find out."
Kelly had much better luck in Paris than he did in New York. He was quickly hired as a costume designer for a nightclub called Le Palace. He continued to sell his own creations on the street and even sold homemade fried chicken dinners to make ends meet. He shared a tiny apartment with a model and made dresses with one Singer sewing machine. His hard work and perseverance paid off for him. People began to recognize Kelly's designs and soon there they were in demand. In 1984 an exclusive Paris boutique called Victoire hired Kelly and gave him a workshop and a showroom. Only a year later Kelly went into business for himself. He and his friend, photographer Bjorn Amelan, joined together to create Patrick Kelly Paris. Soon they were making outfits for Benetton and an upscale Right Bank boutique.
Kelly quickly established his reputation as a designer and his business blossomed. In 1987 he was interviewed by Gloria Steinem for NBC's Today Show. Steinem then introduced Kelly to Linda Wachner, the chief executive officer of Warnaco, an apparel manufacturer. Kelly signed a five million dollar contract to create a line of clothing for Warnaco, which gave him international recognition. Soon afterwards he also signed two licensing deals with Vogue Patterns and Streamline Industries for his famous big buttons. After making these deals Kelly's business revenue increased from less than one million dollars a year to more than seven million dollars a year.
Created a Fun Fashion Style with a Southern Touch
Kelly's popularity stemmed from his fun, colorful, and exotic style. As the Washington Post described him in 1988, "Patrick Kelly has a witty way with fashion." Kelly's earliest influence was his grandmother. Since she had limited resources, she would replace lost buttons on his clothing with whatever she could find and she would often add her own touch to spruce up the clothing a bit. Large, colorful buttons later became a trademark of Kelly's designs, but his creativity did not stop there. He decorated dresses with colorful bows, embroidered lips and hearts, and even billiard balls. In 1986 Time magazine described his clothes as "fitted, funny, and a little goofy."
Price was an important factor for Kelly's designs and he stressed the importance of differentiating between cheap and affordable. Contemporary Fashion described Kelly's designs as "unpretentious yet sexy, affordable while glamorous." He strove for the latter in order to distinguish himself from other Parisian designers whose clothes came with a hefty price tag. In a 1986 Time magazine article Kelly declared, "I'm the hero of people who just don't want to spend a lot of money on clothes."
Kelly's designs also carried a Southern flavor. He was proud of his heritage and his upbringing as an African American child in Mississippi was reflected in his work. For example, he was known for his watermelon brooches, dresses decorated with gardenias, and polka-dotted bandannas. He also made Billie Holliday and Michael Jackson earrings and used Josephine Baker memorabilia to decorate his showroom. Kelly's use of African American culture in his art even generated some controversy. He created lapel pins featuring black babydoll faces that some thought were offensive to African Americans. Kelly defended the image as a part of Black history. In fact he had a collection of over 6,000 Black dolls from various eras of American history that he hoped to house in a museum. Nonetheless, the pins were more popular in Europe than America because some Americans were afraid the image would be misinterpreted. In an interview with Essence magazine, Kelly noted his surprise regarding the controversy. He said, "Recently somebody Black told me they were harassed about wearing the Black baby-doll pin. And I thought, you can wear a machine gun or a camouflage war outfit and people think it's so chic, but you put a little Back baby pin on and people attack you." These pins became a trademark for Kelly and he gave them away to everyone he met. It was estimated that he gave away 800-1,000 pins a month.
Kelly's carefree style and southern heritage were apparent in his own image as well. He was most often seen dressed in a pair of oversized denim overalls. He often sported a baseball cap and his favorite means of transportation was a skateboard. He had a fun-loving and extroverted personality. For example, he would start his fashion shows by entering the stage dressed in his overalls and spray-painting a large read heart on the backdrop of the runway. Parisians loved Kelly's persona as much as they loved his designs. Despite his humble beginnings and simple personal style, Kelly was a sharp businessman and a skilled marketer. He understood the importance of publicity in the fashion industry.
Died at the Height of His Career
Kelly's designs never became a household name, but his clientele included many famous people, such as Bette Davis, Grace Jones, Jessye Norman, Isabella Rossellini, and Jane Seymour. In 1988 Kelly was voted in as a member of the Chambre Syndicale, an elite organization of designers based in Paris. Kelly was the first American to join the ranks of famous designers such as Saint Laurent, Lagerfeld, and Lacroix. One privilege of being a member of this elite group was the opportunity to have a show at the Louvre Palace. True to Kelly's fun style, his first show was a spoof on the Mona Lisa.
Unfortunately, Kelly's career ended soon after he became famous. Kelly died on January 1, 1990. While the official cause of death was listed as bone marrow disease, many suspect he died of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) like several other young prominent figures in the fashion industry who had died in the 1980s, including Perry Ellis, Willi Smith, Isaia Rankin, and Angel Estrada. By the early 1990s the fashion industry had suffered huge losses, both personal and financial, due to the epidemic. A 1990 article in Time magazine declared that "The industry's creative energy is being dissipated—and diminished—by AIDS."
Kelly's rather sudden death left a lot of unfinished business. He was negotiating licenses for his designs for furs, sunglasses, and jewelry. He was also looking for a museum to house his large, unique Black doll collection. There was even talk of making an autobiographical movie.
Despite his untimely death, Kelly left his mark on the fashion world. In his obituary The Independent declared, "Kelly belonged to that rare group of designers who knew how to wield the cutting scissors and sew a seam. Both proved invaluable when in 1979 he arrived in Paris with nothing but that unflagging good humour." Kelly has also inspired a new generation of designers, including Sharon "Magic" Jordan and Patrick Robinson. Kelly's designs are also on display at the Black Fashion Museum in Washington, D.C. and a special exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art called "A Century of Fashion, 1900-2000."
Contemporary Fashion, St. James Press, 1995.
Ebony, February 2000.
Essence, May 1989; December 1996.
Independent, January 11, 1990.
Newsweek, June 27, 1988; October 31, 1988; July 13, 1992.
Seattle Times, January 17, 1990.
Time, November 10, 1986; April 3, 1989; April 9, 1990.
U.S. News and World Report, January 15, 1990.
Washington Post, September 25, 1988.
"Black Fashion Museum in Washington, D.C.," http://www.anyiams.com/Fashion-museum.html (November 1, 2001).
"LACMA: A Century of Fashion," http://www.lacma.org/info/press/centFashion.html" (November 1, 2001).