Fashion Is Eternal: Looking Back At Style Avant Patrick Kelly
If Patrick Kelly had a spiel, it was that he made ‘happy clothes.’ This was, if you’re at all familiar with the designer, a rationale that coincided with his jovial approach to life: “I think of myself as a black male Lucille Ball,” he once gushed. “I want my clothes to make you smile.”
Born and raised in Vicksburg, Mississippi, Patrick Kelly’s inspiration was attributed to fashion glossies, but also harkened back to a black Baptist church on Sunday, where, according to him, “the ladies are just as fierce as the ladies at Yves Saint Laurent haute couture shows.” It was those ladies, along with the grotesque ideologies of the south that were his trademark. His logo was a grinning golliwog, plastered on the front of his shopping bags; he made watermelon slices for hats, he gave fans three-inch plastic black doll pins as memorabilia. Plastic buttons were his sentimental tokens of choice; for when he was a child, his peers used to laugh at him because the buttons on his shirts didn’t match. These buttons were later sewn on to figure-hugging silhouettes worn by the likes of Bettie Davis and Diana, Princess of Wales, and he would have the last laugh, when he became the first American included in the esteemed Chambre Syndicale alongside venerable couturiers elected to show at the Louvre, including Chanel, Christian Dior and Yves Saint Laurent, the man he’d owe a majority, if not all of his success to. “He was my hero,” he once said. There was a time, when living in Atlanta that he decorated the designer’s windows for free: “I tried to do them just the way Mr. Saint Laurent would have wanted them.”
But he wasn’t laughing in a spiteful way, of course not, he was just always laughing. And his positive affirmations were infectious. When asked what the secret to his success was the designer (who attended Jackson State University then later Parsons School of Design and dropped out of both institutions) simply said, “I’m nice. You have to be meek to be able to learn. I don’t mean to be a pushover, but if you already know something, how can you learn anything?” Kelly’s clothes were big business. And models, primarily women of colour, sashayed down his runways all hips and endless attitude, adorned in floral accoutrements and promoting his designs to the front row with the same air of confidence they’d exude at shows for Kelly’s predominately white male counterparts. Then again, though this was the ’80s, and a formidable time in fashion, women of colour weren’t in abundance at any avenue of the industry. Kelly provided that platform. Perhaps that’s why his clothes were so sought-after.
After moving to Atlanta to conquer fashion full-time, he got a job delivering used clothes. Restaurants were not an uncommon – albeit unusual – bedsit for the then-burgeoning designer. He even had a boutique, but that didn’t guarantee the type of success, or means, he truly wished for. However, his clothes were seen by the right people, and supermodel of the moment, Pat Cleveland, encouraged Kelly to move to New York City to further his career, and that he did, arriving in 1980. He sold his pieces on the street, but was snuffed by the city’s cut-throat cognoscenti. He took up jobs as a Gofer, collected rejection letters from Manhattan’s Seventh Avenue, and, unable to make his rent, was evicted from his Harlem flat. Down but not defeated, he received a one-way plane ticket from an anonymous friend (revealed, later, to be Ms Cleveland) and ended up in Paris, where the rest, as they always say, is history.
If New York represents the business side of fashion, Paris is a city of true artistes. Without a question of a doubt, Kelly was the embodiment of creativity. What would be considered utterly sacrilege by American standards were applauded in his new home. His irreverence was a thing of folklore: invitations to his shows featured photos of Kelly naked with nothing more than a gilt loincloth, and the fashion press frequently referred to him as “Le mignon petit noir American,” loosely translated to mean “a cute little black.” But despite the theatrics, he was never one to compromise: an all-American black boy, stylishly gay in size 56 denim overalls, who remained ageless (“You stay younger when you don’t tell”), he skateboarded through Paris’ sketchier arrondissements and juggled seventeen freelance gigs in addition to his own collection.
His headquarters, on the Rue du Parc-Royal, was filled with mementos: Aunt Jemima rag dolls, Josephine Baker posters and he imported southern delicacies, such as grits by way of relatives who would come to visit. He had a love for fried chicken and chili dogs, but you could equally find him at the L’Ambroisie, savouring the succulence of scallops and Sauterne. By no means was this gentleman raggedy: his grandmother, Ethel Rainey worked as a cook for “rich white people,” but his mother, Letha was an economics teacher educated to a master’s level, and his father worked as a fishmonger, insurance agent and cabdriver. He was embedded with a vigorous work ethic, and his mother did try to steer him into a career in education, until he bestowed her with three handmade suits woven from the finest imported silk. “My friends knew it came from Paris,” she once said, “They sure hadn’t seen anything like that in Vicksburg.”
By 1985, this once scarcely-known man brand was then a multimillion-dollar empire, signing a licensing contract with the conglomerate Warnaco, shooting his sales from six figures per year upwards in the area of five to seven million, and allowing for expansion into new markets and orders by the likes of Saks, Bergdorf-Goodman and the Victoire boutique in Paris. He broke boundaries not many could, paving the way for generations of talent with fields of dreams. Sadly, in 1990, news had spread that Patrick Kelly had succumb to bone marrow disease and a brain tumour. He was 35. The fact that he really died of AIDS-related symptoms could only mean that his family and associates had not fully accepted his sexuality and harsh reality, whatever it was. But he was never shameless with his homosexuality, and there were no scandals to draw upon.
But that’s not how he’d want to be remembered. Kelly seemed to always find a way to spin life, and fashion, on its pretty little head. He was having fun, and don’t be the slightest bit surprised if it was so until the very end. “Kelly’s clothes are Parisian in spirit.” Christian Lacroix once said. But one must always remember, the spirit runs through the veins.
Safra Ducreay is a Toronto-born, London-based journalist who spends her time reading books and watching YouTube.