Patrick Kelly Was the Jackie Robinson of High Fashion

The American fashion designer's life and legacy are being honored with an exhibition of collages by the artist Derrick Adams.

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Sep 25 2017, 4:30pm

We lost Patrick Kelly on New Year's Day in the winter of 1990. The legendary African American fashion designer who dressed the likes of Iman, Naomi Campbell, Princess Diana, Madonna, and Grace Jones died of AIDS-related causes at the Hotel Dieu hospital in Paris in the care of his lover and business partner, Bjorn Amelan. Having just signed a $5 million production contract with the apparel manufacturer Warnaco, he left us on the precipice of seismic success that no black fashion designer of his era had enjoyed.

This was a gay black man who did not make ordinary Parisian prêt-à-porter—through his signature buttoned and bowed jersey dresses, he was bold and daring. He actively tried to reclaim racist iconography for black people. He evoked the flare and sophistication of bygone eras in his totally trendsetting collections. And he elevated the styles of the black women he grew up around in the deep South to the highest echelons of fashion. As feminist icon Gloria Steinem said when she eulogized him, "He unified us with buttons and bows, tassels and fringe..."

Unfortunately, his tragic death meant he never fulfilled all of his great promise. But his pioneering impact can still be seen all over the fashion world—from the kitschy designs of Jeremy Scott and Gerlan Jeans to the black business success of brands like Sean John and FUBU.

As Andre Leon Talley, the former editor-at-large of Vogue, exclaimed to me recently when reflecting on the designer, "Patrick was from humble beginnings! He started up small, and he ended up big!"

Derrick Adams. Photo by Jared Siskin/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

So it is fitting that the designer who was born in post-war Vicksburg, Mississippi, is being honored right now in the mezzanine of the Countee Cullen Library in Harlem with the exhibition Derrick Adams: Patrick Kelly, The Journey.

This art show presented by the Studio Museum in Harlem features none of Kelly's iconic dresses preferred by everyone from Pat Cleveland to Betty Davis. Instead, it boasts 11 new collages by the multidisciplinary artist Derrick Adams that are directly inspired by Kelly's fashion and life. Adams is the perfect artist to take on the task of reinterpreting Kelly, because of his long-standing interest in exploring the black experience formally through fashion and deconstructivism. His new art, which he considers "mood boards," explores themes important to Kelly, such as color theory, social abstraction, textiles, and racial identity.

"I've always been really interested in Patrick Kelly because of the formal structure of his fashion, his work ethic, and the content of his art at the time it was made," Adams said to me in his tidy Brooklyn studio.

Derrick Adams's The_Journey

Adams first discovered Kelly's work when he was a child flipping through the pages of one of his sister's Elle magazines. To put this honorary exhibition together, the 47-year-old artist spent the past year scouring the Patrick Kelly archive at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, where he found things like birthday cards, sketches, old recordings of Kelly's runway shows, and a book proposal about Kelly's life written by his friend and the esteemed poet, Maya Angelou.

"There are certain people who rise above the basic practice of getting dressed," explained Adams. "They want to show who they are and what they think. Patrick Kelly was a designer who enabled a fierce individuality."

No work in the show better evokes Kelly's "fierce individuality" than Adams's The Journey. The big mixed-media abstract collage hangs on the right side of the library featuring swatches of red, white, blue, and black paper and fabric. It alludes specifically to the battles Kelly—like many black designers working today—had to fight to establish himself in a white-dominated industry. It captures how Kelly was able to make a way out of no way, achieving greatness in an realm once reserved for "whites only."

Fashion designer Patrick Kelly in his studio circa 1988 in Paris, France. Photo by PL Gould/IMAGES/Getty Images

Kelly was raised in the deep South during Jim Crow. And so he felt the pangs of racism from a very early age. Even simple things like school were poisoned by oppression. His partner, Bjorn Amelan, explained to me that Kelly was especially "marked" by the fact that all of his textbooks as a boy were hand-me-downs from white schools. The white students, knowing that their old books would be sent to black schools, filled the pages with racist notes to the future readers. When it was time for Kelly to study, he had to thumb through degrading images of blackface. It's a painful experience he never forgot.

But despite the obstacles faced by black people in his community, they were able to find creative ways to work around their problems. "When buttons would go missing from Patrick's clothes, his grandmother, who worked as a maid for a white family, would sew new buttons of various colors, sizes, and shapes on them," Amelan explained. It was this kind of ingenuity that inspired him and would have a profound impact on his work ethic and his future designs.

Kelly was also able to recognize the elegance and sophistication the people of his community had in the face of Jim Crow. He was especially fascinated with the churchgoing ladies he saw on Sundays. These women flaunted their wide-brim hats and elaborately embellished store-bought dresses while they waved their paper fans in the name of the Lord. As Kelly once remarked in a 1987 interview for PEOPLE, these "ladies are just as fierce as the ladies at Yves Saint Laurent's haute couture shows."

In 1972, when Kelly was 18 years old, he finally escaped small-town Mississippi and moved to Atlanta. His first fashion related job was working as an unpaid window dresser at the local Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche boutique. When he wasn't reworking the thrift store finds he sold to pay the rent, he worked on his application to Parsons School of Art and Design.


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But racism met him in New York City, too. "Once the dean of Parsons discovered that 'Patrick Kelly,' wasn't an Irishman, he refused to give him the scholarship he had won," Amelan said to me. I reached out to Parsons about the school revoking a scholarship for Kelly due to his race, but it declined to comment. According to Amelan, Kelly was forced to raise his own money for school tuition. Kelly attended Parsons for one semester, but he ultimately dropped out due to financial reasons.

After leaving school, Kelly tried to get jobs in the industry around the city, but Seventh Avenue designers refused to hire him. "They couldn't believe an African American would be applying for a fashion design job," said Amelan. So, to make ends meet, Kelly started hustling—he sold vintage Louis Vuitton luggage, his own fashions, and antique buttons on the streets of New York.

"New York put him through the hoops of fire, you know," said Andre Leon Talley, who was a friend of Kelly. "New York would of not embraced him! I am sorry to say!"

But things finally changed for Kelly in 1979. After complaining about the lack of opportunity in New York City to his friend Pat Cleveland, the supermodel anonymously bought him a one-way plane ticket to the City of Light and sent it to Willie Thompson's hair salon where Kelly hung out. This finally gave him the opportunity to compete, because as Talley explained to me, "Paris believed in full-on creativity."

French fashion designer Patrick Kelly during the after party of the Pret a Porter Autumn Winter 1989 collection. Photo by John van Hasselt/Sygma via Getty Images

During his first few years in France, Kelly struggled to find his footing. By 1983, he was making a living selling coats outside of the Saint-Germain-des-Prés Abbey church on the Left Bank. But then, he fell in love.

He met his soulmate, Bjorn Amelan, at a dinner party. They were seated next to each other. At the time, Amelan was working as an agent for fashion photographers. They immediately hit it off. "He was very passionate about his work, and it intrigued me," Amelan exclaimed to me. "I had the great satisfaction of seeing the dream of the man I loved come true."

"He told me he sold coats because women couldn't try on dresses in the street," Amelan said laughing. "Patrick was very determined and a hard worker."

Within a year, Amelan and Kelly were partners in life and business. "One day, Patrick called me, saying he had found some cheap fabric at the Paris flea market, and I had to come at once," Amelan recalled. "Patrick didn't have any money, so I bought the fabric for him."

In late 1984, Kelly and Amelan presented the dresses Kelly made with the wool fabric at the offices of Paris's important retailer, Victoire boutiques. "Patrick was charismatic, and his dresses were elegant, colorful, and unpretentious," said Françoise Chassagnac, Victoire's buyer and fashion director. Kelly's line was the first the boutique had ever sold from an American designer. The Victoire buy helped land Kelly a six-page spread in the February 1985 issue of French Elle titled, "Les Tube Des Patrick Kelly." (Colloquially, "les tube," means "a hit" in French.) For French Elle to endorse the clothes of an unknown black designer in 1985 was big deal.

Fashion model and entertainer Grace Jones wearing a brightly colored ready-to-wear costume decorated with a cape, sashes, and a tall hat by American fashion designer Patrick Kelly. She is modeling the outfit during his spring-summer 1989 fashion show in Paris. Photo by Pierre Vauthey/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images

Kelly's first fashion show followed in March of 1985, staged in an old Paris apartment. He debuted a women's ready-to-wear collection of tube cotton and jersey dresses in bright colors he had sewed by hand. One dress he showed that night set Paris on fire. It was a lurid look, a sexy and body-hugging mini-dress covered playfully in colorful buttons. The dazzling adornments on the dress became his signature and helped ensure Kelly's rise in Paris fashion.

What's fascinating is that the buttons he placed on the dress were not part of some homage to bygone European design. Instead, they were directly influenced by his grandma in Mississippi, who Kelly grew up watching place unconventional button pairings on clothes. The buttons gave the design a kind of riotous, black Southern femininity that became one of his lasting legacies. As the late Parisian designer Sonia Rykiel once remarked to Fashions of the Times, in an article I found looking through Kelly's archive, "The way he played with buttons is still being copied around the world."

"He fueled the fires of creativity in Paris," said Talley. In a few short seasons, his clothes were not only being retailed Victoire, who discovered Thierry Mugler and Azzedine Alaia, but also in America. His work was sold at luxury retailers like Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman.

By 1988, Kelly was the first American and black person to become a member of the august Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-à-Porter, which governs the French ready-to-wear industry. This allowed him to be a part of the mainstream calendar of Paris Fashion Week and present his shows at the Louvre Museum.

At the time, Paris was taken with the avant-garde fashions of Japanese designers like Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo's Comme Des Garcons. Kelly burst onto the scene with a post-modern look with simple silhouettes that Talley said were executed "at the sophistication of fashion as it was in the 1930s with Elsa Schiaparelli, who used adornment to create statements and deceive the eye."

Naomi Campbell at the Patrick Kelly Spring 1989 show circa 1988 in Paris, France. Photo by PL Gould/IMAGES/Getty Images

But it wasn't just the elegance of his work that propelled Kelly to the top. He also imbued his collections with the pain and struggle that he'd endured as a black man trying to survive in the world at large.

Kelly sent radical looks down those official Parisian runways. In 1986 for his fall/winter collection, he showed a Josephine Baker-inspired bandana skirt. Later that year, during his spring/summer '86 show, he sent a model wearing a long white dress with black golliwog faces all over it. And in 1988, his boutique released the graphic "Mississippi Lisa" T-shirt, depicting a black woman resembling Aunt Jemima. Off the runway, Kelly pushed racial boundaries even further by using a grinning golliwog face as his logo and handing out black-faced pickaninny dolls and brooches to everyone who came to his central Paris boutique. Kelly developed a near obsession with trying to neutralize racist imagery by re-appropriating it into his fashion, like the way some black rappers like Kendrick Lamar believe they can reclaim the N-word.

Maya Angelou regretted Kelly's use of racist imagery throughout his collections. According to Amelan, Angelou once told him that "poison no matter what kind of crystal bottle you wrap it in, it's still poison."

Fashion designer Patrick Kelly circa 1989 in Paris, France. Photo by PL Gould/IMAGES/Getty Images
A model at the Patrick Kelly Spring 1989 show circa 1988 in Paris, France. Photo by PL Gould/IMAGES/Getty Images

In Adams's reverential exhibition at the Countee Cullen Library based on the works of Kelly, the artist manages to capture the designer's spirit. There's the subtle inclusion of an image of a watermelon in Adams's collage Sunday's Best, which alludes to the racially charged fruit that Kelly placed in the headdress of a black model in his spring/summer 1988 runway show. It also serves as a reminder of Kelly's willingness to confront hateful, racist stereotyping of the black experience. And in the disquieting collage Mixed Patriotism, Adams glues together an abstracted blackface made out of a pattern for a shirt with a single blue sleeve embossed with the white stars of the American flag. This represents Kelly's battle to be accepted in New York fashion as a black man.

"He knew who he was and he inserted himself into his clothing," Adams told me. "The cultural iconography brought a level of charge. His work is very significant to 80s culture and how people were looking at identity and the surfacing of race, gender, and sexuality."

Derrick Adams's Sunday's_Best
Derrick Adams's Mixed Patriotism

Unfortunately, the struggle Kelly faced is not exactly unique. Racism is still rampant in the fashion industry. While we have our Shayne Olivers and Virgil Ablohs of the world, their stories are few and far between. And of course, when these designers do succeed creatively and commercially, their work is often placed in a diminutive streetwear category that seeks to overshadow their craft in design.

Patrick Kelly's life story and work should be instructive for these young black designers as they contend with such unsavory forces: Take that pain and turn it into power by channeling it through your work.

Fashion designer Patrick Kelly circa 1989 in Paris, France. Photo by PL Gould/IMAGES/Getty Images

The Studio Museum in Harlem presents Derrick Adams: Patrick Kelly, The Journey through October 20, 2017. For more information visit the museum's website here.

Follow Antwaun Sargent on Twitter.

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