Runway of Love
Love was the center of Patrick Kelly’s world. The designer opened each of his runway shows by spray-painting a heart on the back wall of the stage in the spirit of urban street art. Kelly’s warmth, generosity, and loving spirit were legendary. Wherever he went he brought people together—his studios, showrooms, and home were a welcoming place of acceptance for friends both old and new.
Patrick Kelly’s early ready-to-wear designs were the embodiment of "fast fashion." In the 1980s the term referred to body-conscious clothing primarily made of knit fabrics, often in vibrant colors and lively patterns. Simple, narrow silhouettes paired with interchangeable pieces insured maximum impact for minimal fashion and cost. Fast fashion responded immediately to ever-fluctuating trends, and allowed designers to be experimental in their use of fabrics. It was a lively, functional approach to high fashion, one that connected the runway with the everyday.
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From the beginning, Kelly strived to create fun and interesting clothes that would be affordable to “real” people, not just the rich and famous. He also wanted women of all ages to love their bodies, making designs that would celebrate any shape or size. Known for his generous, exuberant personality and as a loyal, down-to-earth friend to many, Kelly was also a sharp businessman and savvy marketer. Kelly’s playful, colorful designs brought a sense of humor to high fashion. As he often said, “I want my clothes to make you smile.”
Mississippi in Paris
Patrick Kelly grew up in Mississippi, which during the 1950s and 1960s was considered the most racist and violent state in the US. He was raised by strong, supportive women, including his grandmother Ethel Rainey, who made 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—where he noticed how "fierce" the ladies were in their head-to-toe Sunday best—Kelly drew inspiration from his roots and took pride in who he was and where he came from.
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In 1979 Kelly moved to France, which offered him a safe haven and creative freedom, much like it had nearly fifty years earlier for one of his muses, Josephine Baker. While living in Paris as an expatriate, Kelly began to acquire black memorabilia, including examples of advertising, dolls, knickknacks, and household products that displayed racial stereotypes, caricatures, and slurs. He reappropriated these 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.
Kelly’s interest in fashion was sparked around the age of six, when his grandmother gave him old copies of Vogue
and Harper’s Bazaar
. As a teenager, he attended the Ebony Fashion Fair, which presented high-end European designs to black middle-class American women. Founded in 1958 by Eunice W. Johnson, the Fashion Fair celebrated African American confidence, beauty, and style—something Kelly wholeheartedly embraced.
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In 1974 Kelly moved to Atlanta, where he volunteered to design window displays for Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche. The Rive Gauche line and boutiques were created in 1966, when Yves Saint Laurent became the first haute couture designer to popularize ready-to-wear in an attempt to democratize high fashion.
Kelly, known for spoofing couture with his designs and runway segments, drew inspiration from the work of fashion icons such as Madame Grès, Coco Chanel, and Elsa Schiaparelli. The French loved his irreverent approach to the classics, and in 1988 he was elected into the prestigious Chambre Syndicale—sponsored by Pierre Bergé, cofounder of Yves Saint Laurent, and designer Sonia Rykiel.
Lisa Loves the Louvre
Upon his arrival in Paris in late 1979, Kelly found work creating costumes for Le Palace, the Parisian equivalent to New York’s legendary nightclub Studio 54. Known for extravagant, theatrical events and cutting-edge music supplied by DJ Guy Cuevas, Le Palace broke down barriers, mixing an international crowd of rich and poor, black and white, gay and straight. This energetic atmosphere, along with the ambience of Paradise Garage (a club that Kelly frequented when he lived in New York), greatly influenced the staging of his runway shows.
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Kelly’s Spring/Summer 1989 collection paid homage to the Mona Lisa,
which hangs in the Louvre in Paris. Presented in the courtyard of the museum, it was his first show as a member of the elite French fashion group Chambre Syndicale. Models danced down the runway in designs featuring Kelly's favorite Lisas, from Billie (Holiday) Lisa
to the otherworldly Moona Lisa
Presentations of the Fall/Winter 1989–90 ready-to-wear collections in Paris coincided with centennial celebrations of the Eiffel Tower and the bicentennial of the French Revolution. In what would prove to be his final show, the designer chose to celebrate his two loves, France and America. Dresses and hats with rhinestone Eiffel Towers and a runway segment titled Casino de Patrick
—a reference to Josephine Baker, who had performed her signature song “J’ai Deux Amours” (“I Have Two Loves”) at the Casino de Paris in the 1930s—reflected his reverence for the French, while fringed denim suits, multicolored “Indian” striped dresses, and black-and-white, pinto-patterned sweaters nostalgically recalled the American West.
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In early October 1989, Warnaco announced that Kelly would not be showing his Spring/Summer 1990 collection that month due to illness. By November 1989, Warnaco had canceled their contract with the designer due to noncompliance. Patrick Kelly passed away on January 1, 1990, from AIDS. The epitaph on his headstone in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris is emblematic of the designer and his legacy: “Nothing Is Impossible.”