Last July, we explored Alabama’s fashion design history and, in our studio conversations about that post, we started asking one another about other designers that have emerged from the South. Dana Buchman, Pat Kerr, Johnny Talbot, and Wes Gordon all hail from states neighboring our own. When searching my brain for designers from Mississippi, the first that came to mind was Patrick Kelly.
Patrick stands out so significantly in my memory because he emerged as a designer of note in the 1980s and during my time in design school. He is, in many ways, a designer with sensibilities completely different from my own; he created body conscious garments with flamboyant embellishments. In other respects, we have a certain kinship, as he found ways to repurpose and recycle clothing into new garments. He also found inspiration in his community and neighbors, once telling People Magazine, “At the black Baptist church on Sunday, the ladies are just as fierce as the ladies at the Yves Saint Laurent haute couture shows.”
After attending school in Mississippi, Kelly moved to Atlanta, Georgia. He worked sorting clothing at a local donation center, reworking some of the clothing he gathered into new garments and selling those on the street. He also worked without pay as a window dresser for Yves Saint Laurent’s Rive Gauche Boutique. Patrick moved to New York for a time, attending Parsons School of Design. But, it was in Paris that he found his voice and his audience.
In the mid-80s, Kelly relocated his street sales approach to Paris and found work as a costumer for the elaborate nightclub Le Palais. There, he reportedly sewed several hundred costumes each week while continuing to sell his garments at street fairs and flea markets. His dresses were often decorated with dozens (or hundreds) of colorful buttons and bright ribbons—giving him a reputation for creating smart, funny, and relatable fashion. These often-flamboyant designs were initially sold at specialty boutiques, but as their popularity increased and Kelly’s persona became more recognized, major retailers like Henri Bendel, Bloomingdale’s, and Bergdorf Goodman picked them up. His clientele was versatile and included fashion icons like Grace Jones, Isabella Rosellini, and Princess Diana.
Kelly embraced his Southern and African American background and was an advocate for African American models and all models of color throughout his career. He was also known to be a bit controversial, integrating elements of racial stereotypes into his garments and runway shows. Some of his garments incorporated “Golliwog” caricatures, images of watermelon, and parodied Aunt Jemima bandana dresses. He distributed what were described as “pickaninny” dolls to audiences, subverting racial stereotypes and challenging standards of beauty in the fashion industry.
In 1988, Patrick Kelly made history by becoming both the first American and the first person of color elected as a member of the Chambre Syndicale du Pret-a-Porter, France’s prestigious ready-to-wear fashion organization. He passed away 2 years later from complications of AIDS. In the 1980s, I admired Kelly because of his bold design approach and his brave vision to re-appropriate racist iconography, turning a mirror on the fashion industry. These days, I am inspired by his acceptance and use of his “Southernness” throughout his career and appreciate how brave many of his choices were in that time and place.
Images provided by and used with permission from the Philadelphia Museum of Art.