IN CONVERSATION WITH…
PATRICK KELLY, Designer
"White people are not offended by Mickey Mouse. Why should we be afraid of Aunt Jemima?"
Can fashion be protest and praise simultaneously, when steeped in historical pain and taboo? If you subscribe to the same belief as the late designer PATRICK KELLY, the answer is yes. And yet, I wonder if even now-especially now, in this poli-social climate of KANYE WEST and Donald Trump, is Black American culture ready to embrace and disempower the depictions once sought to inflict shame. The manifestation may very well reside in Weeksville, Brooklyn with American designer KERBY-JEAN RAYMOND, who for his Women and Men’s Spring/Summer 2019 showing of his PYER MOSS collection incorporated some of Patrick Kelly’s prints and those of multidisciplinary artist DERRICK ADAMS aside the iconic FUBU logo. Seeing the presentation, held in one of the first free American communities established by former enslaved African people, made us think about the controversial enigma the man with the buttons and bows really was, and how his boldness defied fear and convention to become celebrated among the highest echelons of Parisian Fashion society.
Born 1954 in Vicksburg, Mississippi
Raised by his mother and grandmother
An American Fashion Designer
First American admitted to the Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-a-Porter meant becoming canonized among the likes of Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent and Dior.
Died in 1990 on New Year’s Day at the age of 35.
WHY HE MATTERS
Other designers depicted a sanitized version of their past -- or one in which the rough edges were exaggerated for a surrealistic effect or the slights were romanticized into character-building hurdles. They focused on geography, class, perhaps religion. Kelly presented an ugly and discomforting look at race and did it without flinching.
Whenever he mounted a show, Paris-based designer Patrick Kelly would walk onto the runway dressed in the baggy overalls of a furtive street artist and spray-paint a large heart on the stage set. He would always give everyone in his audience a tiny brown doll with molded black hair that could be most accurately described as a pickaninny.
Kelly's mascot was the kind of poorly wrought Negro doll that black children of a certain generation refused to play with and whose parents could scarcely blame them. While the fashion industry was ignoring questions of race, he was embracing the doll as a totem.
Eventually, Kelly would make history, becoming the first American admitted to the Chambre Syndicale, France's prestigious organization of fashion designers. He accomplished that feat in the guise of a charming street urchin with a penchant for racially loaded symbols.
Kelly's clothes exuded whimsy and joy and they arrived at a moment when the fashion industry was welcoming color, ornamentation and extravagance. Kelly showed his first collection in 1985, the same year designer Christian Lacroix introduced le pouf -- the crinoline-lined party dress that overtook every society gala. The television show "Dynasty" was in its heyday. And popular culture was awash in padded shoulders, winged hair, big spenders and conspicuous consumption.
He won notice from the fashion industry with his body-conscious jersey dresses adorned with mismatched buttons, and with his witty expressions of an American tourist's enthusiasm for the City of Light. Kelly was born in Vicksburg, Miss., but his career blossomed in Paris, where in a short time he went from selling his wares on the streets to producing glamorous fashion shows alongside SONIA RYKIEL and YVES SAINT LAURENT.
Kelly's biography as a designer is not unlike those of others who dream of fame and wealth in the garment trade. Like most young designers, Kelly struggled to pay his bills and to buy fabric. But he had celebrity clients such as BETTE DAVIS, ISABELLA ROSSELLINI and GRACE JONES who helped bring his work into the spotlight. Before long he was offered financial backing from Warnaco, a powerful American fashion conglomerate. With that assistance, he hired a staff and pumped his sales volume up to several million dollars.
Any lasting contribution that Kelly made to fashion's vocabulary is dominated by the singular significance of his ethnicity. Kelly was African American and that fact played prominently in his designs, in the way he presented them to the public and in the way he engaged his audience. No other well-known fashion designer has been so inextricably linked to both his race and his culture. And no other designer was so purposeful in exploiting both.
The designer himself was always seen in outsize overalls -- even if the occasion was formal and before such silhouettes became the uniform of rappers and their fans. He wore a bike messenger's cap, its brim flipped up to reveal "Paris" embroidered on the underside. Kelly acknowledged most every stereotype attributed to Southern blacks. He made fried chicken for his friends, sprinkled his conversations with "honey chile" and made liberal use of aphorisms gleaned from the Good Book and at his grandmother's knee.
One could argue that as an expatriate in Paris, Kelly profited from enduring and damaging stereotypes while blacks back home suffered them. He played the quaint Southern naif. And in that analysis he could be one of the mercenary race traitors in "Bamboozled," Spike Lee's troubled film about popular culture and racial prejudices.
But Kelly's legacy bears few indications of self-doubt, anger or hatred -- self- or otherwise. Instead, it is relentlessly, ruthlessly joyful. By embodying the stereotypes, Kelly sought to deflate them. He was a cheerful and charming radical who handed out his tiny black plastic baby dolls -- their lips dyed bright red -- to anyone he might meet.
In March 1988, Vanity Fair ran a profile of Kelly and he was photographed by Annie Leibovitz. In one picture, he is dressed in overalls and a tuxedo jacket and is surrounded by models, one of whom is in blackface. In another, Kelly is made up like a pickaninny, with bows decorating his hair and big white buttons held up to his eyes to give the impression that they are bulging. Even now the image is disconcerting as it floats out into a culture that still struggles with preconceptions based on race.
It is hard to know how deeply Kelly thought about the effects of the images he created. It may be that Kelly would only be disappointed that a decade after his death the images still have the power to outrage and embarrass.
And while many black Americans have become keen collectors of this memorabilia, others still find it troubling. "One very intelligent woman said she didn't like the Aunt Jemimas because they reminded her of maids. I said, 'My grandmother was a maid, honey.' My memorabilia means a lot to me."
Bjorn Amelan, Kelly's companion and business partner, recalls that Kelly would say, "White people are not offended by Mickey Mouse. Why should we be afraid of Aunt Jemima?"
Kelly, who studied art history and black history at Jackson State University, drew on his background to inspire his work. His button dresses were born out of his grandmother's habit of repairing his clothes with mismatched buttons. Even his interpretation of a Chanel suit, with its boxy little tweed jacket, had mismatched buttons.
"While he loved MADAME GRES and Yves Saint Laurent, he'd say that in one pew at Sunday church in Vicksburg, there's more fashion to be seen than on a Paris runway," Amelan says.
AIDS : A Commentary on Time
Kelly died on New Year's Day 1990, before he could truly take advantage of his financial stability and explore the big plans Warnaco had for him. He was 35. The cause, people said then, was bone marrow disease and a brain tumor. Now it is acknowledged that he died of AIDS.
NY TIMES Obituary Jan. 02, 1990 - Patrick Kelly, the American designer whose sexy, witty clothes attracted attention in Paris, died yesterday at the Hotel Dieu, a hospital near the Cathedral of Notre-Dame. The cause of death was bone marrow disease, Bjorn Amelan, his business partner, said.
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The most direct descendants of Kelly are the designers and entertainers who have sprung from hip-hop: men and women who use racial epithets as a synonym for "buddy," who celebrate pickaninny braids and nappy roots, who model glamorous clothes after uniforms of defeat, desperation and poverty. That connection makes sense. Kelly wasn't creating fashion as much as he was crafting a silk and satin portrait of his culture. In fact, Kelly often used collages as a way of working out a collection, says THELMA GOLDEN, deputy director for exhibitions and programs at Harlem's Studio Museum.
It is not the responsibility of the fashion industry to explore the politics of race. But Kelly "understood that the media gave him a voice," Golden says. He decided to take that opportunity to express who he was. And in that process, he explored how he had been, and would be, seen by history.
Article excerpts originally penned Monday, May 31, 2004 by Robin Givhan for Washington Post. To read the full unabridged version go to www.washingtonpost.com