It’s too often the case that recently passed designers, struck down before their creative peak, are simply forgotten, cycled out of memory by an accelerating fashion system. The American designer Patrick Kelly, a perpetually upbeat Mississippian, is one such case. With the clarity of hindsight, his work in the 1980s — before his untimely AIDS-related death in 1990 — is proving to be much more trailblazing than he’s given credit for.
Kelly was a self-trained designer, save for one year at Parsons in New York, where he didn’t exactly shine scholastically, spending more time at Paradise Garage than he did in class. He was a better networker than he was a student. Around that time, supermodel-of-color Pat Cleveland felt he needed to get out into the real world and gave him a plane ticket to Paris. Following in the footsteps of his idol, Josephine Baker, he arrived in 1979 and began selling colorful tube dresses on the street, cut quickly from one piece of stretch fabric — while also hitting the clubs. He began working at Le Palais, where he made costumes for the club’s skits. That’s how he met Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé, who, nearly a decade later, helped establish the house of Patrick Kelly Paris.
In Paris, Kelly quickly absorbed his adopted culture and became besotted, as one does, with the great 20th-century couturières — the women, specifically Elsa Schiaparelli, Coco Chanel, Madame Grès, and Nina Ricci. Madame Grès is the one designer he said he’d do anything to work for, even pick up pins. So deep was his infatuation with haute couture that, in 1989, Horst photographed the up-and-comer posing as Chanel and Schiaparelli, mimicking his own earlier portraits of the two rivals.
Kelly’s career took off in Paris. He became the first American and first black designer allowed into the Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-à-Porter. For his spring 1989 collection, the first following his acceptance, he showed at the Louvre and imagined that the Mona Lisa herself had invited him. He put myriad Mona Lisa personas on the runway: Pinwheel Lisa, Jungle Lisa, and Billie Lisa, named after Billie Holiday. Grace Jones was in the show and she, too, came out as Mona Lisa.
A master magpie, Kelly collected and combined a lifetime of influences, using his African-American identity as a resource. The golliwog face became his logo, which he put on his shopping bags, and his mother made a black baby-doll pin that he handed out as souvenirs at his shows. His penchant for decoration also stemmed from his childhood memories of church-going ladies in their Sunday best, while his signature use of all-over buttons harks back to his grandmother, who’d replace lost buttons on his clothes with buttons of contrasting colors. In this way, adapting the conservatism of the Deep South to fit a chic French mold is perhaps his greatest work of pastiche, his lasting legacy.