How Designer Patrick Kelly Broke Racial Barriers in the Global Fashion Scene

Some say, “Paris is always a good idea.” If that’s the case, then the old adage serves as a viable explanation as to why the city has historically been a creative haven for black artists to thrive.

Josephine Baker, a legendary entertainer, and Langston Hughes, the socially-conscious poet, are among the greats who called the French hub home. In the fashion realm, it was African-American designer Patrick Kelly (Sept. 24, 1954 – Jan. 1, 1990) who rose to prominence in the European locale in the 1980s.

patrick kelly, black fashion designer
Patrick Kelly.
CREDIT: Instagram @imdariusa

Kelly made history as the first American ever accepted into the Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-à-porter in Paris in 1988, the prestigious French ready-to-wear association.

Not only was this a huge feat for an American in general, but for a black American to be recognized in such a manner at a time when civil rights were a burgeoning concept for said group was an astounding accomplishment. Yet, the designer’s signature of eccentric, colorful collections transcended bias and discrimination to hold court in the fashion world.

His bold and bright garments included body-con dresses with flashy buttons and various references to black culture, which first turned heads at ELLE. The publication ended up featuring Kelly’s first commercial collection in February of 1985, sparking widespread acclaim for his designs. He experienced a tumultuous road to success along the way, however.

The Mississippi-born and raised designer moved to Atlanta in 1972 at the age of 18 to take on his first fashion role at an Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche boutique. While gaining experience there, he applied to Parsons School of Art, where he eventually landed a scholarship. However, his offer was later rescinded — speculated on account of race — and Kelly was forced to raise tuition on his own. He was only able to fund one semester before dropping out.

Kelly then submitted to the “concrete jungle” as we still know it today — a never-ending hustle to conquer the city because, “if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere,” right? Unfortunately for Kelly, it seemed that race prevented him from securing jobs in the industry and he was relegated to side-hustles and the peddling of his own creative goods.

Eventually, Pat Cleveland, the groundbreaking black fashion model, stepped in to intervene on his behalf. She bought Kelly a one-way ticket to Paris where his creativity (and love life) soared.

After meeting Bjorn Amelan, the two would join as partners in both business and life, which was a turning point for the young designer’s career.

While he initially struggled in Paris, after presenting his designs to Victoire boutique he became the first American designer to be sold in the French retailer. This deal led to his work in the pages of ELLE, which subsequently led to Kelly’s first fashion show in March of 1985.

And as they say, the rest is history. His pieces were eventually lauded by the likes of Princess Diana, Naomi Campbell, Grace Jones and Madonna, among others.

After experiencing a few years of success, the designer unfortunately died of AIDS-related causes in 1990. In the end, however, Kelly managed to complete one of his main goals as a designer.

He once said, “I want my clothes to make you smile.”

Watch the runway show of his 1988 collection below:

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