Celebrated fashion designer Patrick Kelly was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, on 24 September 1954. Raised primarily by his mother, Letha Kelly, a home economics teacher, and his grandmother, Ethel Rainey, a cook and maid, Kelly developed an interest in fashion at a young age. By his junior year in high school, the self-taught Kelly was creating dresses for neighborhood girls while designing department store windows and sketching newspaper ads. After his 1972 graduation from high school, Kelly enrolled at Jackson State University, where he studied art history and African American history before moving to Atlanta two years later.
There, a job sorting clothes for AMVETS gave him access to clothing, including designer wares, which he refashioned and sold along with some original creations. He also began decorating windows for Rive Gauche, an Yves Saint Laurent boutique. His friendship with model Pat Cleveland subsequently transformed his life. Cleveland encouraged Kelly to move to New York, where he briefly attended the Parsons School of Design.
With Kelly financially unstable, Cleveland then suggested a move to Paris and anonymously sent Kelly a one-way ticket in 1979. Kelly became a costume designer for Le Palace, a nightclub, and freelanced for designer Paco Rabanne. When Kelly began adorning his signature body-hugging jersey dresses with colorful buttons, a practice inspired by his grandmother, his star began to shine.
Kelly’s personal clothing—oversized overalls and a cap—the southern dinners he sold when money was tight, and the “honey chiles” and other southern expressions that peppered his speech charmed the French. He closed his fashion shows with gospel music. However, his practice of pinning a miniature doll resembling a pickaninny on his designs as well as on people he encountered proved controversial, especially as his fame grew in the United States.
Victoire, an exclusive Paris boutique, began selling his designs in 1985, and the next year he created Patrick Kelly Paris with his business and personal partner, Bjorn Amelan. A 1987 interview with Gloria Steinem on NBC’s Today Show led to an introduction to Linda Wachner, CEO of apparel manufacturer Warnaco. Negotiations tipped in Kelly’s favor when actress Bette Davis appeared on The David Letterman Show wearing a body-hugging Patrick Kelly original and raved about him. Significant licensing deals with Vogue Patterns for his designs and Streamline Industries for his buttons also followed. In 1988 Kelly became the first American and the first black admitted to the Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode, the governing body of the French fashion industry, and showed his collection at the Louvre. Kelly sought to design clothes that would “make you smile,” and his dresses featured bright colors, bold patterns, and eye-catching trim. On the brink of becoming a household name, Kelly died in Paris on 1 January 1990. Bone marrow disease and a brain tumor were announced as the cause of death; in reality, however, Kelly had contracted AIDS and died of complications of the disease.
Kelly’s work has garnered critical attention since his death. A 2004 exhibition, Patrick Kelly: A Retrospective, at the Brooklyn Museum of Art was guest curated by Thelma Golden and revealed that Kelly was far from racially naive. The exhibition included not only his designs but also more than eight thousand examples of advertising, dolls, and other items employing racial stereotypes from Kelly’s personal collection of black memorabilia, including items celebrating Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, and Josephine Baker. In 2014 the Philadelphia Museum of Art presented another exhibition, Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love, again featuring not only his ensembles but also videos of his fashion shows, photographs, and items from his memorabilia collection.
- Robin Givhan, Washington Post (30 May 2004)
- Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love exhibition website, www.philamuseum.org/exhibitions/799.html
- Horacio Silva, New York Times (22 February 2004)