Kelly (c. 1954-1990) began designing and
sewing clothing when he was a teenager
in Mississippi. Although he had some formal
fashion training, many of his skills were
self-taught. While in his twenties Kelly
moved to Paris, started his own design
company, and quickly established himself
as a reputable designer. He clothes were
colorful, fun, and unusual and often had
a Southern influence. Large, bright, plastic
buttons were his trademark. Kelly was
the first American to be allowed into
the elite Parisian fashion designer's
organization called Chambre Syndicale.
Started Career at an Early Age
Patrick Kelly was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi,
on September 24 around 1954. Kelly kept
the exact year of his birth a secret.
As he stated in a 1986 Time magazine article,
"I never tell my age because I hope
I'll always be the new kid on the block."
He came from a working-class African American
family. His mother had a master's degree
and worked as a home economics teacher.
mother had a master's degree and worked
as a home economics teacher. His father
worked as a fishmonger, insurance agent,
and cab driver. At some point in his childhood
his father left home and he was raised
primarily by his mother and grandmother,
who worked as a cook for an upper-class
white family. His keen interest in fashion
showed even as a child. His earliest recollection
of this passion was when he was about
six years old. One day his grandmother
brought home a fashion magazine and Kelly
noticed that there were not pictures of
African American women in it. His grandmother
explained that designers did not have
time for African American women and Kelly
was determined to change this.
Kelly taught himself to sew and began
his career as a designer at an early age.
While still in junior high Kelly began
to design and sew party dresses for girls
in the neighborhood. Later in high school
he began designing department store windows
and drawing sketches for newspaper advertisements.
After he graduated from high school in
1972 Kelly attended Jackson State University
on a scholarship and studied art history
and African American history. He only
stayed there for two years when he decided
to leave Mississippi to escape the oppressive
racial tensions and to pursue a serious
career in fashion.
moved to Atlanta and got a job sorting
clothing for AMVETS, an American veterans'
organization. To work his way into the
fashion industry Kelly also volunteered
to decorate windows for an Yves Saint
Laurent boutique called Rive Gauche. These
humble beginnings helped Kelly build his
fashion career. From the job at AMVETS
Kelly had access to a large collection
of clothes, some of which carried designer
labels. Kelly would redesign the old clothes
and sell them on the streets along with
some of his original creations. Soon he
also began to collect a regular salary
for working at the Saint Laurent boutique
and this job also gave him some exposure
in the fashion industry. Eventually Kelly
set up his own vintage clothing store
in Atlanta. He also worked as an instructor
at the Barbizon Modeling School, where
he became friends with several fashion
models. One model, Pat Cleveland, convinced
him that he should move to New York City
if he wanted to really get noticed by
the fashion industry.
Moved to Fashion Capital
Kelly followed his friend's advice, moved
to New York, and enrolled in the prestigious
Parsons School of Design.
struggled financially, however. He was
not able to find a steady job and he supported
himself with sporadic work, including
a part-time job working at Baskin Robbins.
He also earned money by selling his own
dresses to models. Then his friend Pat
Cleveland suggested that he move again,
this time to Paris. Kelly laughed at the
idea because he knew he could not afford
the trip. However, when a one-way ticket
to Paris was mailed to Kelly anonymously
in 1979, he seized the opportunity and
moved to the fashion capital of the world.
Looking back on this important move, Kelly
told Time magazine in 1986, "I can't
say I wouldn't have made it in New York
because I didn't stay to find out."
Kelly had much better luck in Paris than
he did in New York. He was quickly hired
as a costume designer for a nightclub
called Le Palace. He continued to sell
his own creations on the street and even
sold homemade fried chicken dinners to
make ends meet. He shared a tiny apartment
with a model and made dresses with one
Singer sewing machine.
Kelly with models and tools at hand
hard work and perseverance paid off for
him. People began to recognize Kelly's
designs and soon there they were in demand.
In 1984 an exclusive Paris boutique called
Victoire hired Kelly and gave him a workshop
and a showroom. Only a year later Kelly
went into business for himself. He and
his friend, photographer Bjorn Amelan,
joined together to create Patrick Kelly
Paris. Soon they were making outfits for
Benetton and an upscale Right Bank boutique.
Kelly quickly established his reputation
as a designer and his business blossomed.
In 1987 he was interviewed by Gloria Steinem
for NBC's Today Show. Steinem then introduced
Kelly to Linda Wachner, the chief executive
officer of Warnaco, an apparel manufacturer.
Kelly signed a five million dollar contract
to create a line of clothing for Warnaco,
which gave him international recognition.
Soon afterwards he also signed two licensing
deals with Vogue Patterns and Streamline
Industries for his famous big 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.
Created a Fun Fashion Style with a Southern
Kelly's popularity stemmed from his fun,
colorful, and exotic style. Kelly's popularity
stemmed from his fun, colorful, and exotic
style. As the Washington Post described
him in 1988, "Patrick Kelly has a
witty way with fashion." Kelly's
earliest influence was his grandmother.
Since she had limited resources, she would
replace lost buttons on his clothing with
whatever she could find and she would
often add her own touch to spruce up the
clothing a bit. Large, colorful buttons
later became a trademark of Kelly's designs,
but his creativity did not stop there.
He decorated dresses with colorful bows,
embroidered lips and hearts, and even
billiard balls. In 1986 Time magazine
described his clothes as "fitted,
funny, and a little goofy."
Kelly's carefree style and southern heritage
were apparent in his own image as well.
He was most often seen dressed in a pair
of oversized denim overalls. He often
sported a baseball cap and his favorite
means of transportation was a skateboard.
He had a fun-loving and extroverted personality.
For example, he would start his fashion
shows by entering the stage dressed in
his overalls and spray-painting a large
read heart on the backdrop of the runway.
Parisians loved Kelly's persona as much
as they loved his designs. Despite his
humble beginnings and simple personal
style, Kelly was a sharp businessman and
a skilled marketer. He understood the
importance of publicity in the fashion
Died at the Height of His Career
Kelly's designs never became a household
name, but his clientele included many
famous people, such as Bette Davis, Grace
Jones, Jessye Norman, Isabella Rossellini,
and Jane Seymour. In 1988 Kelly was voted
in as a member of the Chambre Syndicale,
an elite organization of designers based
in Paris. Kelly was the first American
to join the ranks of famous designers
such as Saint Laurent, Lagerfeld, and
Lacroix. One privilege of being a member
of this elite group was the opportunity
to have a show at the Louvre Palace. True
to Kelly's fun style, his first show was
a spoof on the Mona Lisa.
Kelly died at the age of 40 in 1990
due to complications of AIDS.
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