I discovered the talents of Patrick Kelly through the fashion history blog OMG that dress! The first image I saw was a slinky little black dress heavily decorated with buttons and the most amazing cuffs ever! I immediately Googled the designer name and to my surprise learned that he was a Black designer, now this is someone they shouldn’t have skipped over in fashion history class!
A little background info on Patrick Kelly:
-“The Prince of Paris”
-Born in Vicksburg, Mississippi
- Studied at Jackson State (Art History/Black Studies) then went on to Parsons after realizing that life in the deep South was crippling his attempt at a life in fashion
-Raised by his mother, a home economics teacher and grandmother who supported his fashion dreams.
-1st Black and American designer to be inducted into the Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode in 1988
- Moved to Paris in 1979, established Patrick Kelly Paris
-1988 released a line of sewing patterns in collaboration with Vogue Patterns
-Produced collections from 1985-1990
- His grandmother worked as a cook/maid for an upper class White family in the South. After admiring the fashion magazines that she would bring home, Kelly often asked where were the photos of the African-American women. His Grandmother’s response-Designers didn’t have time for black women. This sparked the catalyst in Kelly to change America’s perception.
-Kelly taught himself to sew and began stitching dresses for classmates during his school days.
-Aesthetic developed from: Southern/Black roots, art history, Josephine Baker, Schiaparelli, Gres, pushing racial/cultural boundaries, club/gay culture scenes
Kelly’s career beginnings started while working for an American Veterans Organization sorting clothing as well as volunteering to design windows for YSL’s Rive Gauche Boutique. Working for the Vets Organization gave Kelly access to a vast amount of clothes that he reworked and sold as original garments. After moving the New York, Kelly struggled to survive in the big city as any artist would. He earned a living by working dead end part time jobs and selling his sample dresses to models. 1979, a one way trip ticket to Paris was sent to Kelly…coincidently after model friend Pat Cleveland suggested that he make the move. "I can’t say I wouldn’t have made it in New York because I didn’t stay to find out." -Time Magazine, 1986.
Kelly’s star began shine brightly as soon as he arrived in Paris. He was quickly hired as a costume designer for Le Palace nightclub and continued to sell his handmade goods to whoever would buy. 1984, an opportunity that helped his career tremendously came knocking. Victoire Boutique gave Kelly space to create and sell and soon after began selling work in other Paris boutiques.
One thing led to another, which then led to a $5 million contact with the Warnaco apparel manufacturing company. This partnership led to international recognition. Revenue went from less than $1 million a year to more than $7 million.
Patrick Kelly Paris made it’s debut in 1985. Soon thereafter he began dressing clients like Princess Di, Grace Jones, Fran Drescher, Bette Davis, etc.
Colorful buttons of various sizes has to be one of the most iconic motifs of Kelly’s work. It was interesting to find out the origin of his obsession with the object, his grandmother would replace lost buttons on his clothing with whatever button she could find, no matter that size or color. This inspiration carried over into his design work and he took it to another level of using fun objects and shapes to embellish his clothing.
"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.” -GeoClan
Unfortunately, many great designers of the 80s succumbed to the horrific AIDS virus. October 4, 1989 announced he was too ill to show at F/W Paris Fashion Week. Patrick Kelly died at the age of 40 in 1990, the height of his career. All we can do is question what the face of fashion would be if this visionary was still creating today. We lost so many influential minority designers in the 80s/early 90s, I believe the runway and fashion meccas of the world would look completely different today.
All I want to know is…
Where are the books, movies, shows, etc. about this man?! Why didn’t anyone continue the label in his namesake?! I want to know and experience so much more about him. A retrospective exhibition entitled Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love, is soon to open this Spring the the Philidelphia Museum of Art along with a complementary show from Gerlan Marcel, Gerlan Jeans Loves Patrick Kelly.
I’m especially inspired by his ability to process his upbringing and culture as a Black man from the south whose career skyrocketed in the 80’s. Often times it can be hard as an artist to express your point of view as a minority without getting the ‘racist’ label thrown at you. I think the use of Black memorabilia motifs within his work is pure genius. He took something that was used to mock and oppress Black America and used them to inspire his designs.
I have to obtain a piece of this fashion history…I’m scouring Etsy and Ebay as we speak!
It’s amazing to find a designer from the past and align so many parallels between your work and theirs. I have another designer to add to my list of inspiring artists, I may have not been alive during his reign but I am mostly certainly glad he created beautiful work that lasted through the decades.
Click these links and find out more about this inspiring artist and stay tuned for more Black Fashion History posts!
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=byXWZXULVcc (This is a very cool video of a Patrick Kelly presentation and narrated by a young Brooke Shields!)