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Designer Patrick Kelly: Black, Gay, And Fashion Rulebreaker

Photograph of Patrick Kelly by Oliviero Toscani
Photograph of Patrick Kelly by Oliviero Toscani

As a black man with a non-heterosexual orientation in the era of segregation, fashion designer Patrick Kelly was an unstoppable force. He broke down every obstacle in his path with his inimitable style, wit, and charm. In 1988, he became the first American and the first black person to be a member of the prestigious Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-à-Porter in France.

In an era where the topics of race, gender, and sexuality were often unspoken, Patrick Kelly was the one who fearlessly put them front and center on the runway. He adorned his cuts with his buttons and bows, flowers and dice, creating a world where anything was possible.

Fashion Magazine as Fairytale Book

Growing up in racially segregated Mississippi in 1954, Patrick Kelly’s childhood was far from glamorous. Raised by his mother and grandmother, who worked as a maid for a wealthy white family, Kelly would eagerly peruse outdated fashion magazines that his grandmother brought home from her employer’s house.

Patrick Kelly with his grandmother Ethel Rainey Source_PMA
Patrick Kelly with his grandmother Ethel Rainey. Source: PMA

He took these fashion magazines as his fairytale book, using anything he could find to imitate the styles in the magazines. He would use leftover watermelon rinds to make hats and decorate his bathrobe with flowers he found in the garden. It wasn’t until his aunt, skilled in sewing and tailoring, taught him the necessary design techniques.

Start Career with Tragedy

Patrick KellyKelly’s career began like a tragic story.

He attended Jackson State University, a historically black college in Mississippi, for a brief period. At that institution, Kelly struggled with depression and isolation because of his unique interest. He also suffered a personal tragedy when his best friend at Jackson State was arrested and committed suicide while in police custody. This devastating loss only added to Kelly’s emotional instability and made it even harder for him to focus on his studies.

One day, he decided to pack up his things and leave that sad place. He hastily boarded a Greyhound bus with no real plan in mind, carrying nothing but his dreams to Atlanta.

Fail Again

After arriving in Atlanta, Kelly started working as a volunteer for Yves Saint Laurent, where he was responsible for dressing the mannequins in the store windows. Even without payment, Kelly was excited to learn about the newest trends that he had never got a chance to see. In addition, he worked at a thrift store called Amvets, where he sorted donated clothes. Through this job, Kelly discovered various designer clothes that people had thrown away. With this as a foundation, he opened his vintage boutique.

After saving up enough money, Kelly made his way to the prestigious Parsons School of Design in New York City. However, his financial situation was still unstable, so he had to help his classmates with their homework to support his life.

He also frequented Studio 54, where he attempted to network with celebrities and other influential people he admired. Unfortunately, his social strategy didn’t work out, and the club’s expenses were incredibly high. As a result, he quickly found himself in financial trouble and had to drop out of Parsons.

Even more devastatingly, no designers were willing to hire a temporarily withdrawn Kelly.

Hard Work

One day, when Kelly was aimlessly wandering the streets, he ran into an old acquaintance in Atlanta – the now-famous supermodel Pat Cleveland. “Since you have nothing left, why not venture out to another city?” she encouraged him. Cleveland then gave him a grand gift – a one-way ticket to Paris, the birthplace of Yves Saint Laurent.

In 1980, Kelly arrived in Paris and found a small hotel to stay in and work at, sharing a tiny room with another model. Without the local language or a legal work visa, Kelly worked day and night, stitching clothes from fabric bought piece by piece to save money. Starting from flea market stalls, he gradually attracted stable custom orders for disco dancewear. Sometimes, he would even organize impromptu fashion shows on the streets of Paris with his black model friends. For additional income, he also sold Southern fried chickens on the streets.

Despite his busy schedule, Kelly remained a source of cheerful energy. He never gave up his first dream about fashion.

Designed by Patrick Kelly, American (active Paris), Fall_Winter 1988 -89, Photo Courtesy of Philadelphia Museum Of Art
Designed by Patrick Kelly, Fall/Winter 1988 -89. Photo Courtesy of Philadelphia Museum Of Art.
Dress, Hat, and Shoes, Fall_Winter 1987, Designed by Patrick Kelly, Photo Courtesy of Philadelphia Museum Of Art
Dress, Hat, and Shoes, Fall/Winter 1987, Designed by Patrick Kelly. Photo Courtesy of Philadelphia Museum Of Art.
Womens Top and Skirt, Spring_Summer 1985, Designed by Patrick Kelly, Photo Courtesy of Philadelphia Museum Of Art
Womens Top and Skirt, Spring/Summer 1985, Designed by Patrick Kelly. Photo Courtesy of Philadelphia Museum Of Art.

Love & Success

After a difficult time in Paris, Patrick Kelly met his business and life partner Bjorn Amelan. They fell in love quickly.

With Amelan’s help, Kelly received an order from the fashionable boutique Victorie on the right bank of the Seine. The boutique’s buyers highly praised his designs, and the French magazine “Elle” showcased his work, which was an unprecedented honor for an American designer.

Patrick Kelly, Via DVCLOSET.COM

Bergdorf Goodman and I. Magnin quickly placed orders, and soon Kelly’s designs were sold out in his hometown department stores. Hollywood star Bette Davis proudly displayed a dress designed by Kelly on a popular talk show and announced that her good friend Kelly was seeking funding to expand his brand. The next day, Warnaco, a large American clothing group, signed a licensing agreement with Kelly.

Genius Designer Patrick Kelly

With financial backing and market exposure, Kelly can finally showcase his fashion to the world – a fusion of African American 80s fashion and pop culture from the American South. His gowns feature bright and hot colors, exquisite draping that highlights curves, tropical fruit prints, and colorful buttons and bows. He also used buttons with the words “free South Africa” and “Golliwog” in his designs, which reflected his activism for Black rights.

Kelly's Collection

He used his influence to raise the visibility of black culture in the 80s fashion industry. His showroom is always filled with black memorabilia and beautiful black models. As for himself, he always wore a baseball cap with a ponytail, colorful basketball shoes, and loose clothes, freely riding a skateboard on the streets of Paris.

His cheerful laughter and quirky French with a Southern accent satisfied Paris’s romantic image of the United States. All of these factors, which are unfavorable in his home country of the United States, have made this African American designer extremely popular in the Paris fashion industry. The name Patrick Kelly prevailed among stars and even members of royalty.

From left, two ensembles from Patrick Kelly's Fall_Winter 1986-87 collection, and an ensemble from Fall_Winter 1988-89. Photo Courtesy of Philadelphia Museum Of Art (1)
From left, two ensembles from Patrick Kelly's Fall/Winter 1986-87 collection, and an ensemble from Fall_Winter 1988-89. Photo Courtesy of Philadelphia Museum Of Art.

A Fleeting Star

Patrick Kelly's tombIn 1989, at the peak of his career, Kelly’s health suddenly worsened. He was about to launch a line of lingerie and accessories. However, his health conditions couldn’t allow him to complete preparations for the show. Suddenly on January 1, 1990, Kelly passed away because of AIDS.

This young black fashion star is fleeting so fast and tragic, only leaving fashion shows that brought joy to his audience and models.

As a black LGBTQ+ member in the 80s fashion industry, Patrick Kelly faced many obstacles, but he paved the way with his optimistic attitude and unique colorful style.

"I want my clothes to make you smile."

If you want to know more about 70s black fashion, welcome to our post “The Bold And Beautiful: A Look At 70s Black Fashion“. Feel free to leave a comment if you have any questions or ideas about fashion ~ We are always here to exchange brilliant thoughts!

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