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A Most Unlikely Couturier - Patrick Kelly

Posted on 11 March 2014

Patrick Kelly
Patrick Kelly

“I want my clothes to make you smile" Patrick Kelly

 

Ahhhh the 80's. Never has a decade gone through such a drastic transformation from the decade before. Most of us have a love-hate relationship with the era of neon and Hammer pants.  If you were a child of the 80s, you might have fond memories of puffed paint sweatshirts, giant hair bows, jelly shoes, leg warmers and bedazzled denim. But if you were an adult,  everything about the 80's definitely would have been a harsh shock to your fashion system. Free spirited, easy flowing dresses and skirts were replaced with structured cage inspired fashion. Long, straight hair became Texas high and subtle faces suddenly became clownishly bright. Everything about the 80's was big and bright.

In the middle of the shoulder pads and fashion that Valentino described as "vulgar", the 80's will also be remembered for a designer who brought his own personal experience, perspective, heritage and culture to the fashion world against all odds.  Breaking racial, cultural and socioeconomic boundaries, Patrick Kelly brought boundless love and unadulterated joy to the competitive, sometimes all too serious world that is fashion.. 

 

You would most often see Kelly himself, dressed in a pair of over-sized, baggy denim overalls. He loved baseball caps, and he usually wore one with the brim flipped up with the word PARIS on the underside. His favorite means of transportation was a skateboard. 

 

Designer Patrick Kelly
Designer Patrick Kelly

 

He was known for his happy, exuberant personality.  He started his fashion shows, by coming out, dressed in his signature overalls and spray-painting a large read heart on the backdrop of the runway. Fans of Patrick Kelly loved his personality as much as they did his sense of fashion.

 

 

But who was this extraordinary American designer who charmed Parisians and eventually the rest of the fashion world with his witty some would say, off kilter perspective? Patrick Kelly was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi in 1954 - his exact birth date was always kept a secret from the public.  When asked about it during an interview for TIME magazine in 1986,  he replied; "I never tell my age because I hope I'll always be the new kid on the block."

Primarily raised by his mother, a home economics teacher, and his grandmother, Patrick was influenced by the originality, creativity and unique fashion sense of his female relatives, who often added their own embellishments to simple garments. When his grandmother brought home fashion magazines from the home of an upper class family, where she worked as a cook,  Patrick was always mystified by the fact that there were so few black models.  That experience is one that impacted him at a very young age.

Patrick started sewing dresses for the girls in his neighborhood while still in Junior High School.  He designed department store windows for local stores in Vicksburg during High School, and after 2 years at Jackson State University on a scholarship for African American History and Art History, he decided to leave college and pursue fashion as a career.

 

 

Kelly moved to Atlanta , where he sorted used clothes at an American Veterans' Organization. He would often redesign some of the donated clothing and then sell it on the streets with some of his own original designs.  While in Atlanta, he also worked, without pay at first, decorating the windows at the Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche Boutique. Eventually, he was paid for his work at YSL and opened his own vintage clothing store in Atlanta.

 

 

One of Kelly's fashion model friends convinced him that he should move to New York City if he was serious about becoming a designer.  He took that advice, but after attending Parsons, he found it financially difficult to stay in New York. He even worked at Baskin Robbins part time to supplement his income from various other jobs.  That very same model who suggested he move to New York, Pat Cleveland, at that point suggested that he move again.  This time, to Paris.

Kelly didn't have the money to fly off to France on a whim, so he didn't really take her advice seriously, but one day, in 1979, a one way ticket to Paris showed up in his mailbox from an anonymous source. So still only in his 20s, Patrick Kelly took a chance and left the US for the city of light.

 

 

During his initial time in Paris, Kelly was hired as a costume designer for a night club, sold his own designs on the street, and even sold fried chicken dinners to pay the bills. 

But it was in 1984, when a Paris boutique called Victoire hired Kelly and gave him a workshop and showroom that his luck truly changed.  After only a year, he and his friend, Bjorn Amelean, created Patrick Kelly Paris.   Eventually, his original, brave, bright, designs became so popular, that he gained the attention of Henri Bendel, Bloomingdale's, and Bergdorf Goodman. Celebrities including Cicely Tyson, Madonna, Bette Davis, Grace Jones, and Isabella Rosellini were among his more famous clients.

 

Bette Davis in a Patrick Kelly button heart dress
Bette Davis in a Patrick Kelly button heart dress

 

Madonna in Patrick Kelly
Madonna in Patrick Kelly

 

Grace Jones in Patrick Kelly
Grace Jones in Patrick Kelly

 

Patrick Kelly Bandanna dress

Patrick Kelly Bandanna dress

 

Kelly's designs were strongly influenced by his Southern background.  He was proud of his heritage and created many pieces that included iconic Southern images. He was known for his button embellishments, watermelon brooches, dresses decorated with gardenias, and bandanna dresses. 

 

 

He also created lapel pins featuring black faces that were very controversial among mainly African-Americans. Because of the fear of them being interpreted as racist here in the States,  the pins were much more popular in Europe than America. In a response to the controversy, In an interview with Essence magazine, 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." 

The pin's image was also on his shopping bags.

 

 

All fun aside, Kelly was also a very keen businessman and a brilliant self promoter and marketer. He understood the importance of persona and marketing in the fashion industry. Though his critics tried to accuse him of profiting from the poorer stereotypical images of his race,   I think that his views about race were perfectly expressed by writer Robin Givhan in a Washington Post article in 2004; 

"Kelly's legacy bears few indications of self-doubt, anger or hatred -- self- or otherwise. Instead, it is relentlessly, ruthlessly joyful, By embodying the stereotypes, Kelly sought to deflate them. He was a cheerful and charming radical who handed out his tiny black plastic baby dolls -- their lips dyed bright red -- to anyone he might meet."

 

 

"He would purchase these little black dolls made out of plastic -- 600 a month. People would volunteer and with a glue gun attach pins to the back. He would never leave without stuffing his pockets with them," says Bjorn Amelan, Kelly's companion and business partner. The 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.. Marketing genius.

 

Patrick Kelly
Patrick Kelly

 

It is impossible to separate Patrick Kelly as a designer, from his views towards and passion for his race & culture. He wove a complicated tapestry with them so interconnected that they truly became one. Some people called it exploitation, but he called it his own and lovingly claimed it, and presented it to the world through his own unique, joyful lens.

 

 

Patrick Kelly was the first American and the first African-American to be allowed into the elite Parisian fashion designer's organization called Chambre Syndicale.  He joined the prestigious ranks of Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent, and Jean Paul Gaultier. A pretty astonishing accomplishment for a working class boy from Mississippi.

 

Patrick Kelly, Iman, Grace Jones & Naomi Campbell in 1989. Photo by Roxanne Lowit.
Patrick Kelly, Iman, Grace Jones & Naomi Campbell in 1989. Photo by Roxanne Lowit

 

Patrick Kelly 3 piece vintage suit with skirt, jacket and bustier at Dressing Vintage
Patrick Kelly 3 piece vintage suit with skirt, jacket and bustier at Dressing Vintage

 

Unfortunately, Patrick Kelly never realized the full potential of success that would surely have come his way. Sadly, like many of his contemporaries, he died at the age of 40 in 1990 due to complications of AIDS. At the time of his death, 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 and there was even talk of making an autobiographical movie. (source)

 

You can see the new fashion exhibit: Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love at the Philadelphia Museum of Art from April 27, 2014 - November 30, 2014.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=byXWZXULVcc&w=420&h=315])

You can watch these videos of some of Patrick Kelly's Fashion shows and see first hand, the joyful heart of an original.  

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