Patrick Kelly, 1954-1990, Mississippi, Atlanta, Paris

Leaving Memphis on US Route-61 South, you hold your breath as the state line approaches. Mississippi goddam. There is a weight on your chest proceeding into the blurry horizon still above the endless acres of fields once plantations. Windows down, even the breeze is aggressive. This is the Delta, just as it was 75 years ago. As the scholar V.O. Key Jr. observed in his 1949 book Southern Politics: “Northerners, provincials that they are, regard the South as one large Mississippi. Southerners, with their eye for distinction, place Mississippi in a class by itself.” 

Take, for instance, the recently out-of-office two-term governor, Phil Bryant, who routinely marked April as “Confederate Heritage Month.” Or that on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Mississippi celebrates its own “Robert E. Lee Day.” In 2016, they swore into law the most oppressive anti-LGBTQ legislation in the nation. Until July 2020, the Magnolia flag, a declaration of secession, has sported the Confederate battle crest cruelly stitched into the top corner. And this is the modern-day, “liberal” Mississippi. The hope one must possess to be an artist from this deep soil born in the 1950s is heartbreaking. The state was defined by brutal slavery, the Ku Klux Klan lawlessness, the lynching capital of America, the murder of Emmett Till, mass incarceration, and systemic voter suppression. Mississippi will never be innocent, but Mississippi is who America stares back at in the mirror; it’s the feudal society we all come from. 

Patrick Kelly was born in 1954 in Vicksburg, Mississippi. From the start, women were his world. Kelly was raised by his mother, Letha, a home economics teacher, Aunt Bernard, and Grandmother, Ethel Rainey, a maid and cook for an upper-class white family. He frequently referred to his grandmother as a dream, “the backbone of my tastes.” One day his grandma Ethel brought home a fashion magazine, and Kelly noticed the absence of black models. When he asked her why, she said, “Nobody has time to design for them.” So, he taught himself how to sew. By junior high, he was making dresses for girls in the neighborhood. But he had to keep his passion tightlipped. “In Mississippi, you had to be a boy,” he said. “A boy sewing a dress? Oooo-EEEE!” 

Every day, year after year, Kelly felt devasted by what he was exposed to at school. The textbooks provided to the black schools were hand-me-downs from the white schools. Knowing where their books were heading at the end of the year, the white students would fill the pages with racist drawings and degrading messages to future readers. He never forgot the dehumanizing cartoons there to greet him whenever it was time to learn. 

In 1972 Kelly received a scholarship from the HBCU Jackson State University to study art history and African American history. But, his drive was too big for Mississippi. He stayed for two semesters. ’70s Atlanta was a different place. This deep-fried Southern intersection of music, queer culture, the church, new money/old money, and Civil Rights history. The city had just become majority black and elected its first African American mayor Maynard Jackson, in 1973. A perfect place to chase your hope. On first arriving, he crashed into the booths of all-night bars and diners. His first break in fashion was as an unpaid window dresser at a Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche boutique. He worked sorting donated clothing at an AMVETS thrift shop, where he would keep the best of the designer labels and a selection of the offbeat castoff gems that could be recycled and reworked afresh as his own creations. He sold these pieces on the streets and in a little shop located within a beauty salon in the city’s glitzy Buckhead neighborhood. Most fatefully, Kelly was hired as an instructor at the Barbizon Modeling School. Several fashion models became lifelong friends and inspirations (Iman’s earliest American runway walk was in Atlanta in 1976, wearing a design by Patrick Kelly). 

Atlanta was an appetizer, a perfect starter city for a rural kid raised in the “fields” of Vicksburg. Kelly had a knack for putting himself in the room. When the 1979 Ebony Fashion Fair (iconic for showcasing young black designers: Stephen Burrows, Willi Smith, L’Amour, and Kelly) came to Jackson, Mississippi, Kelly befriended the pioneering supermodel Pat Cleveland, and she encouraged him to take his talents to New York. But, New York walloped him. Much more than down South, he was met with a more polished racism. He applied and received a scholarship to attend Parsons, but once realizing ‘Patrick Kelly’ was far from an Irishman, the school dean refused to honor the financial break. Kelly lasted a semester. The Seventh Avenue designers declined to hire a Black designer with a thick Southern accent. He resorted to scooping Baskin-Robbins ice cream, hustling vintage luggage, and selling his own designs he would make out of his closet workspace on the street. Cleveland again stepped in, buying him a one-way ticket to Paris. 

It was always Paris. With limited French and no legal working papers, he landed a gig creating costumes for the legendary Théâtre le Palace, the party-hungry Parisian Studio 54-like a discotheque. Just across the street from the club, he designed a staggering thousand get-ups each week in a tiny hotel room. He started hanging out with the couture cutters at Club Sept. It wasn’t long before he opened a little atelier on the Left Bank. With no phone, his clients -mostly Black models-would pass orders under the door, including a cash advance so he could afford fabric. Black models, garment grabbers, actors, the entire Jackson Five would come by for refuge, for nourishment … namely his grandmother’s Mississippi recipes for chicken, greens, and cornbread that he would make for them between fittings. 

In 1985 editor-in-chief Nicole Crassat was fired by French Elle. The last hurrah of her tenure was to give Kelly, still far from famous, an extraordinary six-page layout. Titled “Les Tube Des Patrick Kelly,” the article featured his signature slinky, tight, and bright jersey dresses embellished with colored buttons and bows. Lots of mini dresses, bandannas with hand-applied felt hearts, and turtlenecked bodysuits, all playing with a trompe l’oeil of mismatched buttons highlighting the model’s butt. He was the ‘King of Cling.’ In 1986 he opened the first boutique in Paris, at 6 Rue du Parc Royal, and produced the first couture collection to be sold at Victoire Boutiques and Bergdorf Goodman. With greater visibility came greater responsibility, and this is when Kelly was his most raw, most Mississippi.

He hadn’t grown up with these anti-black symbols that saturated his collections with the struggle he’d stomached as a black man trying to survive and thrive. In 1980 Kelly was carrying a black doll, a piece of memorabilia a friend had given to him, through an airport. When a woman approached to voice her displeasure, she asserted her daughter would never want such a doll. He answered, “In this day and time, if your daughter would throw away a black doll and she’s black, there is something wrong.” This started his eye-popping collection of more than 3,000 dolls that inhabited his studio and later work. His spring/summer ’86 show included a model wearing a long white dress dotted with black golliwog faces. The fall/winter 1986 collection had a Josephine Baker-inspired bandana skirt paired with a bra top. He pulled images of Black oppression from his extensive collection of memorabilia to confront consumers of luxury. Kelly would begin a show by entering the stage to spray-paint a large red heart on the runway’s backdrop. His models bopped down the runway, smiling, dancing playfully along to the latest Madonna or Michael Jackson hit while wearing watermelon hats, Aunt Jemima dresses, jungle prints, and big, bold images of smiling mammies with googly eyes and large red lips. It was like jumping into icy water.

The fashion industry had to work hard to ignore the conversation about why it was shivering (the New York Times would never mention the overt symbols, focusing on hinted motifs). He made a overtly racist caricature, golliwog his logo. As a souvenir, his runway audiences would take home a little black doll, and he estimated giving away up to 1,000 pins a month with his “Mississippi Lisa” logo on the streets of Paris. He showed otherworldly strength and conviction in telling his story. And he did it with relentless, unyielding joy. 

His fearlessness won the support of legends. “There is a perceptible buzz here in the studio; everyone affiliated with the program is quite excited about the presence of our next guest. Truly one of the great Actresses of the American Screen.” A fresh-faced David Letterman calls out Bette Davis, and the crowd erupts. When the wolf-whistles finally subside, we notice this elegant skintight black dress with a concentration of multi-colored buttons forming a sparkling heart on the bodice. The interview begins with a close-up of the dress as Letterman asks if there is anything she would like to share. “This dress and this hat were designed by a man named Patrick Kelly. And this heart was made just to be worn on this show with you. He is a black man from Mississippi, making a big, big way in Paris.” She then presents the host with a good luck charm, a token of friendship from the designer, in the form of a little black baby doll brooch. Letterman looks down, bemused, searching for the best placement on his lapel as Ms. Davis explains that Kelly was in New York and was looking for a financial backer. The next day Kelly inked a deal with the apparel manufacturing conglomerate Warnaco, which brought his sales to nearly $7 million. 

Only three years after showing his first complete collection, with the support of designer Sonia Rykiel, in 1988 Patrick Kelly became the first American designer to be accepted into the Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode. He made it. Going forward, his runaway shows were eligible to be held at the Louvre. For his Fall 1988 show, supermodels such as Mounia Orosemane, Khadija Adam, Dianne deWitt, and Romney Müller-Westernhagen donned tailored suits and dresses with lengthier hemlines. The vibe on the catwalk remained swishy but with an elevated sophistication, displaying a skill level that reaching new heights. His understanding of glamorous women, regardless of their silhouettes, opened him up to a grander audience. There is a famous story about one of Kelly’s leopard-print, sequin dresses that caught the eye of Princess Diana in the Harvey Nichols department store in London. She commented to her bodyguard, “It’s too tight, isn’t it?” He confirmed. It was. Lady Di responded, “I’ll take it.” 

Despite being so known for his hourglass silhouettes, he knew beauty didn’t discriminate. Kelly always thought back to the splendor of Sunday mornings in Mississippi, all women showing their respect and reverence by sporting wide-brimmed crowns and store-bought dresses extravagantly embellished at home. He’d often say, “In one pew in Vicksburg, there’s more fashion to be seen than a Yves Saint Laurent’s haute couture show.” While Kelly was now profoundly connected to the mainstream market, he always worked to kept things accessible back in the community. In 1988 Kelly worked with Vogue Patterns to enable women to make their own clothing based on his designs. For several years the New York artist Derrick Adams had a touring exhibition that made a stop here in Atlanta, titled Patrick Kelly: The Journey that explored the underlying structures of these textile patterns. The show was not based on a finished product so much as patterns, color schemes, ideas, and identities. Kelly and Adams share an ethos that the black consumer does not have to accept or settle for anything. 

We lost Kelly on the precipice of a grand career. On Aug. 23, 1989, he checked into the Hôtel-Dieu hospital. He passed on New Year’s Day, 1990. He was only 35. To avoid the negative stigma attached at the time, they said it was bone marrow disease and a brain tumor; however, it is now acknowledged that he died of AIDS. I think of Patrick Kelly often. Living in Atlanta you meet these young creatives that come from around the South and they are interested in clothes, and music, and subcultures that just do not exist in their hometowns. It is a story that is almost universal. But here it’s more than all of that. The reminders of Jim Crow, the symbols and mindset, and respectability politics insist that people of color stay passive. The mind immediately goes to him when news breaks about Uncle Ben’s Rice or when Quaker Oats removed their racist caricature, “Aunt Jemima,” who has been part of our mornings since 1889. These symbols Patrick Kelly braved it all to dismantle, reclaim, and make white audiences uncomfortable with as they applauded for them on the runway. His mission was a reallocation of power. His movement never stopped.