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Patrick Kelly: Conquered Paris Fashion One Button At A Time

Patrick Kelly was the first American and person of color fashion designer to make a major impact in the fashion world of Paris.

P Kelly Vanity Fair                                                                               Patrick Kelly                                                                                       September 24, 1954 – January 1, 1990

From his signature overalls and high-tops to the unique styles he created, Patrick Kelly was an original.  He had a larger than life personality and big dreams to have a life in fashion.  Patrick Kelly designed clothing that was whimsical, inventive and happy.   The young man from Mississippi persevered through many trials to make his mark on the world.

Patrick Kelly became the first American and the first designer of color to be admitted as a member of the Chambre Syndicale du prêt-à-porter des couturiers et des créateurs de mode, the prestigious french fashion association of fashion designers and the only designers who were allowed to show at the Louvre.  Kelly was sponsored into the Chambre Syndicale by Pierre Berge, partner of Yves Saint Laurent.

The story of Kelly’s improbable rise to fashion fame is as interesting as the collections he created. Patrick Kelly was born and raised in Vicksburg, Mississippi.  He moved to Atlanta as a young man and worked many odd jobs and sold his clothes on the side.  It’s reported at one point he slept in a restaurant when he didn’t have a home to go to.  Later, Kelly moved to New York to attend Parsons School of Design but he dropped out because of lack of finances.  He was rejected again and again by Manhattan’s fashion houses and was evicted from his apartment in Harlem because he couldn’t pay the rent.

In 1980, his friend model Pat Cleveland suggested he move to Paris and provided him a plane ticket anonymously.  Once in Paris, Kelly began to design clothes and sell them on the streets telling women “tres chic, pas cher” (very chic, not expensive).  Kelly never gave up on his dream and eventually Kelly became successful.  In 1985, Kelly opened his own boutique in Paris.  In 1987, his designs caught the attention of the conglomerate Warnaco and Kelly signed a licensing contract resulting in his sales increasing from ~ $800,000 a year to $7 million a year.  He had become a fashion star and his clothes were sold across the world.

In the 1980’s Kelly’s dresses retailed from $395 to $2,200.  His designs provided a less expensive alternative to other Paris-based designers.  Stars including Bette Davis, Cicely Tyson, Grace Jones, and Isabella Rosellini.

I admired Kelly’s perseverance, creativity and his sense of self.  Kelly was serious about fashion but he didn’t take himself too seriously.  Kelly said about himself, “I think of myself as a black male Lucille Ball, I like to have fun and make people laugh.”

Patrick Kelly button and stud dressesButtons and ribbons were Kelly’s signature embellishments.

kelly gold button dressButtons took on new life the way Kelly used them.


Patrick Kelly buttonsKelly was a master of “You use what you got to get what you want”.

PK colorblock knit dress

Kelly used color masterfully in his form fitting color-block dresses.

037_patrick_kelly_theredlistKelly’s hooded knit dress is dramatic in brilliant blue.

Patrick Kelly ValentineKelly expressing his love.  We love you too!

 Patrick Kelly dancing with models Kelly backstage at his show with models Pat Cleveland and Iman

PK label w fuchsia fur


 A sketch from the 1982 Patrick Kelly collection

Pkelly rhinestones on blkKelly loved to embellish body hugging dresses.  This one with rhinestones.

PJ and Eboony FFKelly makes his point about stereotypes – those red lips look pretty good.

patrick_kelly_watermelonKelly poked fun at racial stereotypes about watermelon in this design.

P Kelly buttons, stonesPatrick Kelly Retrospective exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum in the 1990’s

P. Kelly at Brooklyn Museum

P Kelly Sambo dress

Kelly confronting the negative with his “Sambo Dress”

Patrick-Kelly_-Iman_-Grace-Naomi-centrictvcomKelly with 3 who became supermodels – Iman, Grace Jones and Naomi Campbell

I visited the Kelly boutique at Rue du Parc-Royal on my first visit to Paris in the 1980’s and bought a pair of those button gloves. Ofcourse, I wanted a dress but I decided to eat while I was on vacation and settled for the gloves.  It was thrilling to share a his vision come to life if only for a day and touch, feel and see his clothes and his success.

Patrick Kelly button gloves

Patrick Kelly button gloves are still fashionable today.  I loved those gloves!

Patrick Kelly b/w Unfortunately, Patrick Kelly produced collections for only 5 years until his death from AIDS in 1990.