Fashion and Style

The Legacy of Patrick Kelly, Cultural Provocateur

By: CHM Staff
Jun 26 2020

Born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1954, Patrick Kelly was a self-proclaimed Francophile who mixed Parisian influence with the creativity and fashion sense of his female relatives, who often embellished store-bought garments with found objects. As a young adult, Kelly moved to Atlanta, where he sold recycled clothes, and he eventually moved to New York to study at Parsons School of Design. It was in Paris, during the late 1980s, that Kelly found his greatest success. He was the first American admitted to the Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-à-Porter, the governing body of French ready-to-wear.

Silk women’s suit, c. 1988. Patrick Kelly, France. Gift of Ms. Dorothy Fuller. 2008.174.1a-b. Photographs by by CHM staff

Kelly’s designs were exuberant and humorous, as seen in this silk women’s suit (c. 1988), and some of his most memorable garments used masses of plastic buttons, wild animal prints, and suggestive embroidery. But perhaps most notably, he was known for his potent referencing of folkloric racism in his work. Kelly used to give out handmade picaninny doll pins at his fashion shows. He deliberately grappled with the images of systemic racism that were widespread in his native Deep South and translated them into a blatant commercial statement. Kelly’s creations proved to be powerful and original contributions to the field of fashion, and he was a cult figure during his brief career that was prematurely and tragically ended by AIDS in 1990.

Patrick Kelly was in the headlines again in 2020 as the namesake of the The Kelly Initiative. Organized by editor Jason Campbell, creative director Henrietta Gallina, and writer Kibwe Chase-Marshall, the petition was a response from 250 Black fashion professionals to The Council of Fashion Designers of America’s antiracism efforts and a call on the trade organization to use its status to hold the industry accountable on hiring and promoting Black people. The initiative also seeks to start The Kelly List, an annual index of 50 Black industry professionals who will be given exposure and networking opportunities, and who will pledge to hire Black professionals throughout their careers.

Three-quarter right view of women’s jumper, 1987. Denim. Patrick Kelly Paris, France. CHM, ICHi-179042

See more items from our renowned Costume and Textiles collection, which has more than 50,000 artifacts dating from the eighteenth century to the present. Explore the collection.

Translate »