Kelly, Patrick 1954(?)–1990
Patrick Kelly 1954(?)–1990
In June of 1988, Patrick Kelly made history as the first American to be elected to the Chambre Syndicale du Prete-a-Porter, the prestigious fashion designers’ association based in Paris. The bestowal of this award reflected the great enthusiasm and appreciation that members of the fashion world, particularly in France, had for Kelly’s playful designs. It is ironic, given this achievement, that Kelly’s work was rejected by the major designers in New York City only a few years earlier.
Kelly was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, on September 24, around 1954. (The year is uncertain because Kelly refused to reveal his age.) By the time he was six years old, he was looking at his grandmother’s fashion magazines, puzzling over the fact that they failed to feature African-American models. In an interview with Charles Whitaker for Ebony, Kelly stated, “Even at that young age, I knew that wasn’t right and wanted to do something about it.” Vowing to create fashions for black women, he began his work only a few years later by designing gowns for dances and proms for girls in his neighborhood. “In high school,” noted Essence contributor Pamela Johnson, “he expanded his enterprise to designing department-store windows and doing sketches for their newspaper ads.”
After graduating from Vicksburg Senior High School in 1972, Kelly attended Jackson State University on scholarship. While there, he studied art history and African-American history. After just two years, however, the fledgling designer dropped out of college and moved to Atlanta to pursue a more serious career in fashion.
The first few months in Atlanta were a struggle for Kelly. He sorted clothing for AMVETS, an American veterans’ organization, and he worked without pay decorating windows for the elegant Yves Saint Laurent boutique. In Kelly’s inimitable style, though, he managed to turn both positions into golden opportunities. His work at the boutique gave him a certain amount of exposure, and he began to receive a regular salary. At AMVETS, Kelly took advantage of his access to the large collection of designer clothing and began his own antique clothing shop. He also sewed his own clothes and sold them on the streets. While working in Atlanta, Kelly met and became close to several fashion models. One, Pat Cleveland, urged him to go to New York, the fashion capital of the United States.
Once in New York, Kelly began to take classes at the elite Parsons School of Design and continued making dresses
Born September 24, c. 1954, in Vicksburg, MS; died of bone marrow disease (some sources speculate his death was AIDS related), January 1, 1990, in Paris, France; son of Danie (an insurance agent) and Letha (a home economics teacher) Kelly. Education : Attended Jackson State University, c. 1972-74, and Parsons School of Design, late 1970s.
Worked for AMVETS and decorated windows in Yves Saint Laurent boutique in Atlanta, GA, in the mid-1970s; opened antique clothing boutique in Atlanta; clothing designer in New York City, c. late 1970s; moved to Paris, France, 1979; designed costumes in Paris for Le Palace and sold original designs on Paris streets, c. early 1980s; became partners with Bjorn Amelan, created designs for Victoire (a Paris boutique) and for Benetton, all 1984; debut show and unveiling of ready-to-wear line, 1985; signed with Warnaco, Inc., 1987, and expanded line of fashions.
Awards: Elected member of Chambre Syndicale du Prete-a-Porter, Paris, June 1988.
on his own. He sold them to models and used the money for tuition payments. Unfortunately, this was the only work Kelly could find in the city. Once again, Pat Cleveland offered Kelly some advice. This time, she suggested he venture to Paris. Kelly was excited by the idea, but he also knew that he could not afford the trip. As Kelly told Johnson, his initial response to Cleveland’s idea was mired in disbelief: “Go to Paris?,” he exclaimed. “I don’t even have a place where I can go take a bath!” The next day, an anonymous person sent Kelly a one-way ticket to Paris. Kelly left immediately for the fashion capital of the world and the city that would become his home.
Kelly found work in Paris quickly, designing costumes for Le Palace, a Las Vegas style night club. He continued to create his own fashions, selling them on the streets and in flea markets. The clever and resourceful Kelly also sold fried chicken to make ends meet. After several years of hawking his designs on the streets, Kelly began to receive significant attention. In 1984, the buyers for Victoire, an exclusive Paris boutique, bought Kelly’s dresses and provided him with a workshop and a showroom. Also during this time, Kelly and his close friend Bjorn Amelan, a photographer’s agent, formed a partnership that eventually grew into Patrick Kelly Paris. These changes brought Kelly and his designs a larger audience and more freelance contracts, but he continued to lack financial security.
In June of 1987, however, Kelly received the biggest break of his career. Writer, editor, and women’s movement champion Gloria Steinem, who came to interview Kelly for NBC’s Today show, introduced him to Linda Wachner, the chief executive officer of Warnaco. This introduction led to a multimillion dollar deal with the apparel manufacturer and the formation of a special Kelly line for Warnaco. Only a few weeks later, Kelly made history as the first American to show a couture collection in Paris.
The security and exposure provided by Warnaco allowed Kelly to share his designs with the world. He had realized his childhood dream, dressing many black women and employing several as models for his shows. In fact, Kelly’s designs are noted for their significant references to African-American history and culture. For example, he made Billie Holiday earrings, and he filled his showroom with Josephine Baker memorabilia. Kelly’s designs were also influenced by his childhood. In the Ebony interview with Whitaker, Kelly stated that his signature pieces—“dresses covered in up to 3,000 buttons or tiny satin bows”—recalled the shirts he wore as a child. His grandmother replaced lost buttons on his clothing with “whatever color buttons she could find,” adding extra buttons for decoration. The result was a look that Kelly liked as a child and turned into a multimillion dollar business as an adult.
The great respect and appreciation the French felt for Kelly was expressed in their invitation for him to join the Chambre Syndicale du Prete-a-Porter in June of 1988. This achievement placed the designer within the exclusive ranks of the profession that had previously rejected him. Membership in the elite group allowed Kelly to show his collections at the elegant Louvre Palace. It also offered him a coveted position in the fashion world. Sadly, Kelly was only able to enjoy a year and a half of this awesome success. He died on New Year’s Day, 1990, leaving behind a legacy of bold and unique designs.
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—Karen L. Murphy
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."
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American designer working in Paris
Born: Vicksburg, Mississippi, 24 September 1954. Education: Studied art history and black history at Jackson State University, Jackson, Mississippi, and fashion design at Parsons School of Design, New York. Career: Held various jobs in Atlanta, Georgia, including window dresser, Rive Gauche boutique; instructor, Barbizon School of Modeling; vintage clothing store proprietor, mid-1970s; moved to Paris, 1980; costume designer, Le Palais club, early 1980s; also freelance designer, 1980-90; Patrick Kelly, Paris, formed, and first ready-to-wear collection introduced, 1985; freelance sportswear designer, Benetton, 1986; opened first boutique in Paris, produced first couture collection, sold worldwide rights to ready-to-wear collections, 1987. Died: 1 January 1990, in Paris.
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Articles also in Women's Wear Daily (New York), 3 January 1990 and 2 April 1990.***
According to a "Love List" published in Women's Wear Daily in March 1990, designer Patrick Kelly adored fried chicken, foie gras, and pearls. Kelly's designs celebrated pride in his spiritual upbringing in the American South and a tourist-like adoration of Paris. Not for the faint-hearted, his specialty was form-fitting knits irreverently decorated with oversized and mismatched buttons, watermelons, black baby dolls, and huge rhinestones densely silhouetting the Eiffel Tower.
Wearing too-big overalls and a biker's cap emblazoned "Paris," Kelly engendered folklore as important as the clothing he designed. Growing up in Mississippi where he was taught sewing by his grandmother, Kelly later sold vintage clothing in Atlanta, and failed to be hired on New York's Seventh Avenue. He bought a one-way ticket to Paris from a model/friend and the trip resulted in his being discovered while selling his own designs in a Paris flea market.
Kelly was exotic and different. He and his clothing charmed the French and the rest of the world, and he was the first American ever admitted to the elite Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, the group of Paris-based designers permitted to show collections in the Louvre. Exuberantly witty, his first show at the Louvre began with Kelly spray painting a large red heart on a white canvas, and included dresses entitled "Jungle Lisa Loves Tarzan," a spoof of Mona Lisa featuring leopard-print gowns.
Kelly's designs remained unpretentious yet sexy, affordable while glamorous. Dresses were fun and uncontrived, yet Kelly paid great attention to design details. Bold, theatrical details such as white topstitching on black, low necklines, and dice buttons on a pin-striped business dress, silver fringe on a western skirt, and vibrant color combinations make one want to shimmy just looking at them. Kelly's art was in embellishment of women, young and old. Trims become jewelry; collars and hemlines become frames. Frills are exaggerated, enlarged, unexpected, and rethought, saucily decorating what would otherwise be rather simple designs.
A love-in atmosphere prevailed at an April 1989 show and lecture for students at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology. A standing-room-only crowd screamed, laughed, and applauded Kelly— his effervescence and his happiness were contagious. He showed a sassy and smart collection, including a tight black mini dress with shiny multicolored buttons outlining a perfect heart on the buttocks; wide, notched, off-the-shoulder collars; leopard-print trench coats and turtlenecked body suits; multicolored scarves suspended from the hip, swaying below abbreviated hemlines; and a trompe l'oeil bustier of buttons on a fitted mini dress. Kelly's models danced, even smiled, down the catwalk, delighted to be wearing his clothing (they modeled this show for free). The audience was delighted to be there: the clothing and designer seemed to be welcoming everyone to a good party, and everyone had a good time.
Kelly's personal attention to detail, his love of design, his spirit, sold his clothing. He stated "the ultimate goal is selling," but he did more than just sell. Wearing a Patrick Kelly dress meant embracing one's past, doing the best with what you have, triumphing over failure, and laughing at oneself. One could be part of Patrick Kelly's fairy tale and celebrate his joie de vivre. Kelly died too young, at age 35, of a brain tumor and bone-marrow disease, in Paris.