“I want my clothes to make you smile”—that was the goal of African American fashion designer Patrick Kelly. He achieved this on the streets, nightclubs, and runways of New York, Paris, and beyond in the heady 1980s. In the process, he became the first American and first Black designer to be voted into the Chambre Syndicale, a prestigious fashion association.
Early Designs & Influences
Kelly’s early creations—body-conscious dresses with colorful buttons—first attracted the attention of French Elle magazine in 1985. His aesthetic developed out of his African American and Southern roots and knowledge of fashion and art history, as well as from the club and gay scenes in New York and Paris. His playful looks also reflected an admiration for couturiers like Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli, and Yves Saint Laurent.
From Mississippi to Paris
Kelly was raised in Mississippi by strong, supportive women. His grandmother Ethel Rainey had a particularly significant impact on him. From the mismatched buttons she used to mend his shirts to attending the local black Baptist church with her, Kelly never forgot his roots and took pride in who he was and where he came from. His move to France in 1979 offered him a safe haven and creative freedom, much like it had nearly fifty years earlier for African American entertainer Josephine Baker, one of his muses.
While living in Paris, Kelly began to collect Black memorabilia, including ads, dolls, knickknacks, and household products that displayed racial stereotypes, caricatures, and slurs. He reappropriated such images for his designs and brand; although criticized for using such charged imagery, Kelly was unapologetic—he believed it was necessary to know one’s history to move forward.
During the 1980s, AIDS decimated the fashion community, and Kelly himself was diagnosed with the illness in 1987, shortly after signing with the American apparel company Warnaco to produce his ready-to-wear collections. He passed away on January 1, 1990, from the disease. The epitaph on his headstone in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris is emblematic of the designer and his legacy: “Nothing Is Impossible.”