Patrick Kelly, “I Love Fashion Scandal” Evening Dress, back view, fall/winter 1986, wool knit and plastic buttons, appeared in Fashion Scandal; Photograph by John Alderson, © 2013 Chicago Historical Society
Patrick Kelly, “I Love Fashion Scandal” Evening Dress, front view, fall/winter 1986, wool knit and plastic buttons, appeared in Fashion Scandal; Photograph by John Alderson, © 2013 Chicago Historical Society
Among the sumptuous tableaux of ready-to-wear and couture on display in Inspiring Beauty
, worn by a mannequin turned coyly away from the viewer, a sleek black jersey dress adorned with nonfunctional buttons spells an insouciant message. It is the work of Patrick Kelly, whose contribution to international fashion in the ’80s is a story worth telling.
Born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1954, Kelly had a formative moment at the age of six, looking at a fashion magazine. He noticed there were no black women pictured, and his grandmother said, “Nobody has time to design for them.” That observation engendered his eventual mission to make fashion more inclusive and affordable—and not just for women of color. “I design for fat women, skinny women, all kinds of women,” People quoted him as saying in 1987, after he sent a pregnant model down the runway. “My message is, ‘You’re beautiful just the way you are.’”
Kelly’s path to success took him briefly to college and then to Atlanta, where he began making clothes. He couldn’t find work in New York and relocated to Paris in 1980, where he developed an aesthetic that could be described as “street style” for multiple reasons: His use of stretch fabrics, daring lines, bold colors, and exaggerated detailing was strongly associated with youth culture (his first client in Paris was a nightclub in need of costumes). And in those first few years, he literally sold his designs on the street. The memory of his grandmother rewarded him again: A shirt she’d mended with mismatched buttons inspired Kelly to feature them as ornamentation on his garments, and that became a signature aspect of his style; some of his pieces include over 500 buttons of various sizes and colors. (An iconic black dress from his last collection features a glass button Eiffel Tower from collarbone to mid-thigh.) In 1985 he gave his first runway show and springboarded onto the pages of Elle and the windows of department stores across Europe and America.
Patrick Kelly's grave in Père-Lachaise Cemetery, Paris; Photo: Pierre-Yves Beaudouin / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons
The next five years were a dizzying ascent. Kelly was the first American designer (of any ethnicity) admitted to the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne
, allowing him to show his collections at the Louvre. By 1989 he was juggling over a dozen design roles for various companies and signing new deals, when his life was cut short by AIDS-related illness. He ended with the ’80s, passing away in Paris on January 1, 1990.
Kelly’s legacy as a fashion designer isn’t just buttons. It’s also heritage and charm. An aficionado of the African American South, Kelly once told Vogue he could develop an entire runway collection out of any single dress he saw at church in Mississippi. He daringly integrated racist images of mammies and golliwogs in some collections, recontextualizing them to emphasize their playfulness and joy, while draining their venom. That succeeded, in part, because of Kelly’s infectious persona, which was central to his brand’s success. His emblematic ads in the late ’80s were two-page spreads, featuring a clutch of models dressed in coordinating looks from his latest collection, laughing and flirting with Kelly himself, who stood in their midst, usually dressed in his signature denim overalls, red shirt, and bicycle cap.
Promotional photo of the designer with models, 1980s
Kelly’s tailored work shows his veneration of classic designers like Chanel and Schiaparelli, but his pieces were only occasionally so rigorously constructed. His lasting contribution to fashion is the bridge he helped build between fun and stylish dressing. It’s tragic that this singular artist didn’t live past the age of 36.
Inspiring Beauty is on view through January 21, 2018.