“At the black Baptist church on Sunday, the ladies are just as fierce as the ladies at Yves Saint Laurent haute couture shows“.
Patrick Kelly was a winner, one who fought and unhinged the thick, bigoted plots that American society has woven for years, through his work imbued with the most powerful weapons: courage, humor and audacity. The landmarks of the famous American designer have always been the black women of the South of the United States, those with whom he grew up and who taught him everything. His life’s work, which ended tragically too soon, was an amusing glamorous journey imbued with cultural and historical curiosity. The 1980s saw the birth and death of one of the most significant and culturally important designers of our time; Kelly fought against all forms of racism and homophobia until he had the strength to do so and today more than ever, it is essential to recall the legacy he left us.
Patrick was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi in 1954. Raised by his mother, a home economics teacher, and his maternal grandmother, after his father abandoned them when he was still very young, he became passionate about fashion as a child. At the age of 6, his grandmother showed him a magazine borrowed from the house of a “white lady”, young Patrick’s first observation was: “there are no black women“.
The answer was just as direct and true: “nobody dedicates time to them“.
That was the first spark that ignited the soul and conscience of that child who shortly afterwards put to good use the teachings of his mother and grandmother, learning to sew while attending elementary school.
In 1972 he graduated and briefly attended Jackson State University in Mississippi before moving to Atlanta, Georgia. In the same year he received a scholarship to attend the Parsons School of Design in New York, but apparently, “once the dean of Parsons discovered that Patrick Kelly was not Irish, he refused to give him the scholarship”.
The story is told by Bjorn Amelan, her boyfriend and business partner who will remain with him until the day of his untimely death in 1990. In Atlanta, Patrick earns his living working in a vintage clothing boutique where for the first time he has the chance to have designer clothes in his hands, some of which he modifies and sells in a small corner in a beauty salon, until he opens his shop in Buckhead, the fashionable district of the city.
1979 was a decisive year in Patrick’s life, he began a strong friendship with black supermodel Pat Cleveland who, esteeming the work of the young designer and appreciating the designs he made, pushed him to move to New York.
In the Big Apple Kelly tries to enter the fashion industry at any level, but the rubber wall on which he clashes is huge, “they couldn’t believe that an African-American applied for a job in fashion design”, explains Amelan.
After a horrible year in New York, he moved to Paris in 1980, again on Cleveland’s advice.
In the Parisian capital, Patrick’s life takes a different turn. Thanks to a report in Elle magazine, the success was immediate.
His clothes were conceived and designed for the black women of the south, those who had raised and inspired him throughout his life and who in a transversal way embodied the elegance of the 80s.
Princess Diana, Grace Jones, Naomi Campbell and Iman are just a few examples of the women who adored Patrick and his fantastic work, which led him to become the first American and black designer to be admitted to the Chambre syndicale du prêt-à-porter des couturiers et des créateurs de mode, the prestigious governing body of the French ready-to-wear industry.
Patrick Kelly has shocked the fashion world from the ground up, his collections have been a tool to explore and combat racist stereotypes. His approach through which he neutralized racist imagery by re-appropriating the same symbols that supported him (such as watermelon slices, black children’s dolls, bananas, etc.) thanks to playfulness, exuberance and irony has also provoked controversy. What makes Kelly an example that more than any other deserves to be remembered, are the battles he fought to establish himself in an industry dominated by whites, the same ones that many black designers continue to fight every day.
In 2004, Robin Givhan wrote on The Washington Post:
“Any lasting contribution that Kelly made to fashion’s vocabulary is dominated by the singular significance of his ethnicity. Kelly was African-American and that fact played prominently in his designs, in the way he presented them to the public and in the way he engaged his audience. No other well-known fashion designer has been so inextricably linked to both his race and his culture.“
Inclusiveness was in all the clothes he designed, in 1987 he declared to People magazine: “I design for fat women, skinny women, all kinds of women. My message is, you’re beautiful just the way you are”.
At the peak of his career in August 1989, while working simultaneously for Warnaco, Benetton and many others, Kelly fell ill with AIDS and because of this he was unable to complete preparations for that year’s show scheduled for October. His illness remained a secret until long after his death on January 1st, 1990.
At her funeral, her friend and client Gloria Steinem concluded her speech by saying: “instead of dividing us with gold and jewels, he unified us with buttons and bows.”
His work has paved the way for brands like FUBU and Jeremy Scott‘s techniques.
Patrick Kelly’s cultural and artistic legacy should be, today even more so, a beacon that guides the entire fashion system in the fight against racial discrimination in all areas and that pushes all those involved to work with strong and long-term projects and ideas that aim at upsetting an unjust and not at all inclusive status quo.