Patrick Kelly: American roots, Parisian style

African-American fashion designer Kelly broke barriers in the stiff European fashion industry

by
Marta Franceschini (opens in new window) (European Fashion Heritage Association)

'Patrick landed like a bomb in my shop in 1985. He was so gay and so full of energy, and so were his clothes'.

This is how the buyer at Victoria boutiques in Paris described Patrick Kelly and the fashion he dreamed and made – as if the man and his practice were one the natural extension of the other.

Patrick Kelly is probably one of the most renowned and cherished African-American fashion designers, who managed to set records and, most importantly, break barriers in the stiff European fashion industry.

Born in Mississippi in 1954, he learned to sew at a very young age, probably helped by his mother, who was a home economics teacher. Right after graduating, he moved to Atlanta, where he worked in a thrift shop and was exposed to a great deal of vintage designer clothes, which he sometimes modified turning them into new, original designs.

Model Pat Cleveland, a big fan of his creations, pushed him to move to New York to establish his label. But the true turning point for his career was moving to Paris in 1980, where he could fully pursue his passion and express his utter talent as a fashion designer.

It is indeed in Paris that Kelly became the designer of records. He established his company Patrick Kelly Paris with friend photographer Bjorn Amelan in 1985.

In 1988, he was the first American designer to be admitted to the prestigious Chambre syndicale du prêt-à-porter des couturiers et des créateurs de mode: something that consecrated him to the status of ‘createur’.

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His style was playful and daringly excessive, and he was known for cuts as well as for loud accessories, as Eiffel pins and crazy buttons.

He was extremely proud of his roots and culture, and actively included his own background into his practice, merging the celebration of Black identity with an extraordinarily contemporary aesthetic and witty nods at Parisian fashion tradition.

Kelly’s designers were highly influenced by his art history and African American history studies, which showed an interest that he then pursued becoming a collector of Black memorabilia - he had a collection of over 6,000 Black dolls from various periods - and an avid admirer of pop art.

He often directly referenced African American culture, and some items even caused controversy, as lapel pins featuring black babydoll faces, which were inspired by his doll collection and, according to Kelly, belonged to Black history.

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His creations were loved by celebrities and his style was mostly popular in Europe. Not only did he have his label, but also designed for companies such as Benetton, managing to design amazing and meaningful clothes that people could actually afford - and he loved this.

In 1986, he told a journalist of the Times: ‘I'm the hero of people who just don't want to spend a lot of money on clothes.’

His penchant for flamboyance and subversion emerged also in the way he orchestrated the presentations of his collections, which had to be the very first celebration of his creative thought. His fashion shows were joyful and diverse, under every aspect.

He included models of different sizes and body types on his runways. When asked about this daring action, he declared: ‘I design for fat women, skinny women, all kinds of women. My message is, you’re beautiful just the way you are.’ The subversion to the canon represented by French fashion did not stop - in 1987, he sent a model who was eight months pregnant onto the catwalk.

Unfortunately, Patrick Kelly died in 1990 from AIDS, at the height of success, leaving a huge gap in the industry.

The words pronounced by his friend and feminist activist Gloria Steinem at his memorial summed up his creative mind as well as his social commitment. She stated: ‘Instead of dividing us with gold and jewels, he unified us with buttons and bows.

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