Podcast: Patrick Kelly - An Unsung American Hero

Patrick Kelly was a wildly unrecognized designer who dressed the likes of Iman, Naomi Campbell, Princess Diana, Madonna, and Grace Jones. Kelly's work inspired designs of Jeremy Scott and Gerlan Jeans as well as black owned superpowers Sean John and FUBU. 

Patrick Kelly is lesser known than our previously covered subjects; but with a story like his, it has to be told. His rags to riches story deserves a book, movie or Netflix series that should be added to everyone’s phones automatically like that one shitty U2 album a while back. As Vice put it, Patrick Kelly is the Jackie Robinson of high fashion. 

Kelly was born September 24, 1954, in pre-civil rights Jim-Crow-Era Vicksburg, Mississippi. He was raised by his mother - who earned a master's degree and worked as a home economics teacher - and grandmother who worked as a maid to a wealthy white family. One day his grandmother brought home a fashion magazine and Kelly noticed that there were no pictures of African American women in it. His grandmother explained that designers did not have time for African American women. This realization struck a chord in Kelly, and he set off to make it his life's work to design high fashion that catered to all women, regardless of race. 

Kelly got to work at a young age sewing party dresses for girls in his neighborhood. Later on in high school, he began designing department store windows and drawing sketches for newspaper advertisements. Not only did Kelly fight the uphill battle of simply finding jobs in Vicksburg, he began carving himself a path in the fashion industry. Accomplishing all of this at such a young age, while facing discrimination for his race and sexual identity was no easy task. 

Having graduated from high school in 1972, Kelly attended Jackson State University (HBCU) on a scholarship; and studied Art History and African American history. He was only enrolled for two years when he decided to leave Mississippi to escape oppressive racial tensions and pursue a serious career in fashion.

Kelly's departure from Mississippi led him to Atlanta, Georgia where he worked at a vintage clothing store. His work enabled him to begin building a vast clothing collection, including some designer label pieces. Kelly collected, resold and reconstructed pieces from his collection and would sell them on the streets of Atlanta. Kelly also worked designing window installations for an Yves Saint Laurent boutique in Atlanta. These passion projects led Kelly to open his own vintage clothing store, where his passion for design and craftsmanship continued to grow. In addition to his store, Kelly also worked as an instructor at the Barbizon Modeling School, where he became friends with several fashion models. Kelly built his most valuable relationship at Barbizon with Pat Cleveland. As their friendship grew, Cleveland ultimately convinced him that he should move to New York City if he wanted to really get noticed by the fashion industry.

Kelly moved to New York, and enrolled in the prestigious Parsons School of Design. Kelly was removed of his initial scholarship when the Dean of Parsons discovered that 'Patrick Kelly,' wasn't an Irishman. Kelly attempted to work his way through school in New York, but ultimately dropped out and held up odd-jobs throughout town, while maintaining his hustle selling his designs on the street. Eventually, Pat Cleveland decided the best move for Kelly was to leave the States entirely and move to Paris. She anonymously gifted Kelly a one way ticket to Paris in 1979. 

It took Kelly a few years to find his footing in Paris. He started off designing costumes for dancers, and continued to sell his work on the streets. He switched up his hustle to selling coats because women couldn’t try dresses on in the street. Enter, Bjorn Amelan, an agent in Paris for fashion photographers. Kelly and Amelan met at a dinner party in Paris and within a year, Amelan and Kelly were partners in life and business. 

Amelan was a huge catalyst for Kelly's success; funding Kelly's first collection of dresses which were picked up by Victoire boutiques. Kelly's line was the first ever to be sold at Victoire designed by an American. The Victoire placement helped land Kelly a six-page spread in the February 1985 issue of French Elle titled, "Les Tube Des Patrick Kelly."

Kelly's first fashion show followed in March of 1985, staged in an old Paris apartment. Bright colors in cotton and jersey dresses were the star of the show. One piece, a super tight, button covered mini dress, took Paris by storm and this look became the building blocks of Kelly's design style. 

In 1988, Kelly became the first American and black person to become a member of the August Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-à-Porter (Ready-to-Wear Union Chamber), which governs the French ready-to-wear industry. This allowed him to be a part of the mainstream calendar of Paris Fashion Week and present his shows at the Louvre Museum. True to Kelly's style, his first show at the Louvre featured a spoof on the Mona Lisa, The Kelly Lisa. 

Kelly was one of the first designers to purposely and vocally produce designs for all women. In an article in People magazine (1987), Kelly is quoted, “I design for fat women, skinny women, all kinds of women. You are beautiful just the way you are.” He proved this by having a model who was 8 months pregnant walk for one of his shows in March 1987. Kelly also stressed the importance of differentiating between cheap and affordable. In a 1986 Time magazine article Kelly declared, "I'm the hero of people who just don't want to spend a lot of money on clothes." Pricing set his designs apart from the majority of other designers in Paris.

Kelly signed a five million dollar contract to create a line of clothing for Warnaco (multinational fashion conglomerate, most famously associated with SPEEDO), which gave him international recognition. Soon afterwards he signed two licensing deals with Vogue Patterns and Streamline Industries for his famous oversized buttons. After making these deals Kelly's business revenue increased from less than one million dollars a year to more than seven million dollars a year.

Patrick Kelly died shortly after his Warnaco contract and licensing deals, on New Year’s Day 1990. Kelly was 35 years old and passed from complications due to AIDS. 

Patrick Kelly lived the American dream as a gay black man in 1980's Paris. His style and influence likely would have never reached the world, without removing himself from the racist and oppressive systems of the United States. He grew fertile roots from seeds sown in Jim Crow Mississippi, drawing inspiration from the women that shaped him. He taught himself to sew, acquired collections from thrift stores and ran his own vintage clothing shop. He was the first American to be admitted to the French Ready-to-Wear Union Chamber. His design influence is still felt in streetwear and haute couture today, altering culture and how people view identity and the interpretation of race, gender, and sexuality. Kelly died at the peak of his career, and unfortunately we will never know what his brand and influence could have become. Kelly's story is one of resilience, tenacity and a little bit of luck; and it should never be forgotten.