Black Excellence: The Legacy of Patrick Kelly

Black Excellence: The Legacy of Patrick Kelly

To celebrate Black History Month, we pay homage to the legend who broke barriers by turning fashion on its head.

To celebrate Black History Month, we pay homage to the legend who broke barriers by turning fashion on its head.

Text: Dominique Norman

VMAN is celebrating the legends who gave us fashion, culture, music and more during Black History Month with the series Black Excellence. The second iteration of this series explores the iconic career of fashion designer Patrick Kelly.

The '80s was a blast for everyone, but this designer in particular was not only having the time of his life, but making history as well. Patrick Kelly was an American designer from Mississippi, a facet he kept central to his brand throughout his career. He started in Atlanta, then moved to New York, starting his education at Parsons School of Design before moving to Paris. Kelly entered the Paris fashion scene in 1985 after being advised by his friend, the model and Black fashion icon, Pat Cleveland, to relocate and launch his career in the fashion capital. He is remembered not only for his whimsical, one-of-a-kind designs, but for his larger than life personality to match.

Kelly was raised in the Jim Crow South, which heavily influenced his identity as a designer. His partner, Bjorn Amelan, explained in an interview for VICE that Kelly was inspired by the labor and creative reconstruction of his grandmother. "When buttons would go missing from Patrick's clothes, his grandmother, who worked as a maid for a white family, would sew new buttons of various colors, sizes, and shapes on them". Kelly also pushed racial boundaries in various ways by reclaiming racist depictions of Black people, such as Aunt Jemima, the golliwog, and pickaninnies. He used the golliwog as his logo, and handed out pickaninny dolls and brooches at his Paris boutique as a way of directly confronting the racial history and oppression he was coming from. Derrick Adams, who is currently curating an exhibit on the designer at The Studio Museum in Harlem, states that “the cultural iconography brought a level of charge. His work is very significant to '80s culture and how people were looking at identity and the surfacing of race, gender, and sexuality."

While Kelly was still gaining his footing in Paris, he designed a look for Bette Davis, which she wore on David Letterman and announced that the dress was a Patrick Kelly original, and that the designer was looking for financial backing. Overnight, the apparel company Warnaco set a deal. With backing from Warnaco, the designer’s career took off, and he was soon dressing the likes of Iman, Naomi Campbell, Princess Diana, Madonna, Farrah Fawcett, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Grace Jones Paloma Picasso, Cicely Tyson, Goldie Hawn, and Gloria Steinem, just to name a few. André Leon Talley, former editor-at-large of Vogue, noted of Kelly that "he fueled the fires of creativity in Paris”.

In 1988, Kelly became the first American member, as well as the first Black member of the Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-à-Porter, which is the governing body of the French ready-to-wear industry. In an interview, he stated of the accomplishment “Being a member puts me on another level. I’m no longer a renegade.”

By the mid 1980’s, AIDS had begun affecting creative industries, fashion included. Industry leaders responded through fundraisers and AIDS-awareness campaigns, and in 1988 Kelly paid homage to another iconic Black designer, Willi Smith, who had died from AIDS the previous year. On January 1, 1990, Patrick Kelly died from AIDS related complications, but he left behind a legacy and a story worthy of retelling a million times over.

You can catch the exhibition by Derrick Adams on the late, great designer entitled Patrick Kelly, The Journey at The Studio Museum in Harlem through February 23.

Credits: images courtesy of getty

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