Two years after this show was staged its designer, Patrick Kelly, would die at the age of 35. Another victim lost to the AIDS epidemic, another name in fashion lost to time. At his peak Kelly was the ultimate American in Paris, born and raised in the deep south, designing and showing his collections in the French capitol to great fanfare and excitement. That he was an American working in French fashion and was regarded with the same esteem as Sonia Rykiel and Karl Lagerfeld is noteworthy. That he was a black American is even more so.
Accounts of his life suggest Kelly found an acceptance and understanding overseas that he never could have had in the U.S., it’s a sentiment echoed by performer Josephine Baker and writer James Baldwin, both of whom had tremendous experiences living in the city of lights where they could escape a troubling history of racism and prejudice. In 1988 Kelly stood out as an ironic foil to the status quo; working in the upper echelons of a class-centric industry, setting standards of taste and beauty that would ultimately filter back to his native country — a land that would so easily dismiss him as “black” and nothing more. Kelly would however use his black identity as a theme and play off racist stereotypes of Black Americans that have plagued and haunted them. He adopted the Golliwog, a children’s character popular in the late 19th century, a frighteningly dehumanized black boy, as his talisman. He would flirt with stereotypes, re-appropriate them, recast them as tongue-in-cheek fashion, as if to suggest that embracing these memes could serve to render them powerless.
Never really known for being a great cutter or technician, Kelly’s charm was in his use of bold colors, punchy prints, and witty embellishment. Multicolored buttons sewn in various motifs were his most famous signature; a nod to his childhood in the south. His shows were humorous affairs. Models smiled and audiences laughed, fashion was to be fun and Kelly represented this idea in the French fashion landscape. Having begun by selling his clothes on the street he had worked his way to the top. And with backing by clothing conglomerate Warnaco and increasing exposure in the media, Kelly was poised to become the next big American designer. But like many stories from the ’80s his time was cut short well before he could make a lasting impact. Kelly died due to complications of AIDS on New Years day, 1990.