Patrick Kelly (fashion designer)

Patrick Kelly (September 24, 1954 – January 1, 1990) was a celebrated African-American fashion designer who came to fame in France. Among his accomplishments, he was the first American 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. Kelly's designs were noted for their exuberance, humor and references to pop culture and Black folklore.

Patrick Kelly
Patrick Kelly in his Paris workshop, ca. 1985
Born(1954-09-24)September 24, 1954
DiedJanuary 1, 1990(1990-01-01) (aged 35)
Cause of deathAIDS-related illnesses
Burial placePère-Lachaise Cemetery, Paris, France
ResidenceParis, France
CitizenshipUnited States
OccupationFashion Designer
Years active1974-1990
Known forPatrick Kelly Paris
Partner(s)Bjorn Amelan

Early life and education

Patrick Kelly was born on September 24, 1954 in Vicksburg, Mississippi.[1] He was raised primarily by his mother, a home economics teacher, and grandmother after his father left home. His interest in fashion surfaced in grade school, when he learned to sew.[2] After graduating high school in 1972, he briefly attended Mississippi's Jackson State University before moving to Atlanta, Georgia.[3]


In Atlanta, Kelly supported himself by working at an AMVETS thrift shop, where he had access to donated designer dresses and coats that he modified and sold alongside his own designs from a store inside a beauty salon. He ultimately had his own store in the city's Buckhead district.[3] In 1979, he connected with the pioneering black supermodel Pat Cleveland, who admired the clothing he was making and encouraged him to move to New York City. After a lackluster year in New York, he moved to Paris in 1980, again at Cleveland's suggestion.[4] In Paris, he found more immediate success and soon developed his signature slinky, brightly colored jersey dresses adorned with colored buttons and bows in a nod to the sophisticated cut-rate style of the Southern women of his childhood.[2] Kelly met Bjorn Amelan, a photographers' representative, in 1983. The two quickly became lovers, with Amelan taking a management role in Kelly's burgeoning enterprise.

In 1985 Kelly began to sell his designs at the trend-setting Victoire boutiques in Paris.[5] In an interview, the store's buyer said, "Patrick landed like a bomb in my shop in 1985. He was so gay and so full of energy, and so were his clothes."[6] Also in 1985, the French edition of Elle Magazine covered Kelly with a six-page spread in its February issue.[7] During this period, he began to acquire celebrity couture clients, such as Bette Davis, Paloma Picasso, Grace Jones, Madonna, Cicely Tyson and Goldie Hawn.[8] He also participated in a notable collaboration with jewelry designer David Spada, one product of which was one of Kelly's most famous designs, a Josephine Baker-inspired ensemble with a banana skirt now in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.[9][10]

In 1987, the Warnaco fashion conglomerate signed an agreement to manufacture Kelly's clothing. With Warnaco's backing, Kelly designs were soon available in stores throughout the world.[2] That year, his sales approached $7 million.[11] With the support of designer Sonia Rykiel, Kelly was admitted in 1988 to the prestigious Chambre syndicale du prêt-à-porter des couturiers et des créateurs de mode. His young label thus became an official colleague of brands such as Yves Saint Laurent, Chanel and Christian Dior.[6] He was the first American to join the organization, which is the trade association for the French ready-to-wear industry. Through this affiliation, Kelly was able to present runway shows at The Louvre.[11] Describing one such 1988 show, The Christian Science Monitor commented, "Styles ranged from the sublime—tailored suits and dresses with longer hemlines, mostly in somber gray flannel, and flowing crepe pants—to the ridiculous—motorcycle-helmet hats, lopsided pockets, scoop necklines trimmed with huge gardenias, and, of course, an abundance of buttons."[6]

Kelly was an avid collector of Black memorabilia, with an affinity for items depicting racial stereotypes that many people find challenging, offensive or demeaning. He deployed this material ironically in his designs, which feature cartoonish watermelon wedges, black baby dolls, bananas and golliwogs, among other images.[8] In 2004, Robin Givhan, writing in the Washington Post, observed that an important aspect of Kelly's work as a designer was the way he foregrounded race and heritage in his designs, choices of models and public image:

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. And no other designer was so purposeful in exploiting both.[12]

Kelly was a man who enjoyed pushing the limits of social normality, he liked to make others question our predispositions. Dily Blum, an exhibition curator for Kelly explains some of the many ways he would use fashion as a way for people to interact with their racial susceptibility, "He handed out racist pickaninny dolls for white society ladies to pin to their lapels, designed a watermelon hat to be worn by a black model (the watermelon is an old symbol of racist iconography in the US – Kelly was reclaiming it) and the logo he splashed across his boutique bags was the cartoonish face of a golliwog, an image he was beginning to make his own."[13] Kelly sought inclusiveness in the clothes he designed, telling People Magazine in 1987, "I design for fat women, skinny women, all kinds of women. My message is, you're beautiful just the way you are." At his March, 1987 show, one of his models was eight months pregnant.[4] Kelly was one of the first designers to have a many Black

By 1989, Kelly was at the height of his success, producing his line for Warnaco in addition to other contracts—including one for Benetton—while developing plans for lingerie, perfume and menswear lines.[4] That August, Kelly became ill and was unable to complete preparations for his October show, which soon resulted in the cancellation of his Warnaco agreement. Kelly was sick with AIDS, but the hope of his partial recovery and business considerations kept the nature of his illness secret until after his death.[2] Kelly died on January 1, 1990, survived by Amelan and his mother.[1] At Kelly's memorial service, his friend and client Gloria Steinem concluded her remarks by saying, "Instead of dividing us with gold and jewels, he unified us with buttons and bows."[8] Kelly is buried in the 50th division of Paris's Père-Lachaise cemetery.[14]


In 2004, The Brooklyn Museum presented Patrick Kelly: A Retrospective, featuring 60 Kelly ensembles together with fashion photographs and selections from his collections of Black memorabilia, all borrowed from the Kelly estate.[8] In 2014, the Philadelphia Museum of Art mounted Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love, which celebrated the promised gift of 80 ensembles to the museum from the estate.[15]

There are two main repositories of Kelly's garments in the United States. In addition to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Jackson State University, which Kelly briefly attended, maintains a collection of approximately 250 items. Jackson State exhibited part of its holdings in Patrick Kelly: From Mississippi to New York to Paris and Back in 2016.[16] The Schomburg Center of the New York Public Library holds Kelly's sketchbooks and related materials, as well videos of runway shows, interviews and his memorial service.


  1. "Patrick Kelly", Retrieved online 28 December 2018.
  2. Silva, Horacio. "Delta Force". New York Times. Retrieved October 11, 2017.
  3. Hyde, Nina (November 9, 1986). "From Pauper To the Prints Of Paris". Washington Post. Retrieved October 11, 2017.
  4. Johnson, Bonnie (June 15, 1987). "In Paris, His Slinky Dresses Have Made Mississippi-Born Designer Patrick Kelly the New King of Cling". People Magazine. Archived from the original on April 1, 2017. Retrieved October 11, 2017.
  5. Victoire's English-language Web page does not mention Kelly, but the image in the panel at the bottom of the page linked here is taken from an invitation to a Kelly runway show, with a caricature of the designer second from left: "70's – A vision of fashion". Victoire. Archived from the original on October 12, 2017. Retrieved October 12, 2017.
  6. Dissly, Meggan (August 25, 1988). "An American in Paris fashion. The Southern accent of designer Patrick Kelly". Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved October 11, 2017.
  7. Sermak, Kathryn (September 17, 2017). "Bette Davis and Designer Patrick Kelly Made Oddly Perfect Pals". The Daily Beast. Archived from the original on October 11, 2017.
  8. Brooklyn Museum. "Patrick Kelly: A Retrospective exhibition labels". Brooklyn Museum. Archived from the original on August 21, 2016. Retrieved October 11, 2017.
  9. Gross, Michael (April 1, 1986). "Notes on Fashion". The New York Times.
  10. "Woman's Ensemble: Bra Top and Banana Skirt". Philadelphia Museum of Art. Retrieved December 10, 2017.
  11. Hornblower, Margot (April 3, 1989). "An Original American In Paris: PATRICK KELLY". Time. Archived from the original on June 2, 2010. Retrieved October 13, 2017.
  12. Givhan, Robin (May 31, 2004). "Patrick Kelly's Radical Cheek". Washington Post. Archived from the original on February 1, 2017. Retrieved October 11, 2017.
  13. Dazed (April 25, 2014). "The secret history of Patrick Kelly". Dazed. Retrieved February 25, 2019.
  14. "KELLY, Patrick". Amis et Passionnés du Père-Lachaise (in French). Archived from the original on March 22, 2016. Retrieved October 11, 2017.
  15. "Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love". Philadelphia Museum of Art. Retrieved October 11, 2017.
  16. "Patrick Kelly: From MS to NY to Paris and Back". Jackson State University. Retrieved October 11, 2017.
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