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Cultural Icon: Patrick Kelly; celebrated designer and obscure alum

Cultural Icon: Patrick Kelly; celebrated designer and obscure alum

by Rachel James-Terry

His creations were innovative, vibrant, quirky, and fun. He was ambitious, driven, gifted and gone too soon, but his style left a lasting impression.

Legendary African-American fashion designer Patrick Kelly attended Jackson State on an art scholarship in the early ’70s. His craft and designs would evolve and later adorn the bodies of iconic beauties Naomi Campbell, Iman, Grace Jones, Madonna, Princess Diana and other noted Hollywood Glamazons, starlets and socialites.

A Vicksburg native, Kelly’s runway dreams made him restless, and he moved to Atlanta where he worked without pay as a window-dresser for the couture store, Yves Saint Laurent. Soon after that, he found his way to the fashion mecca of New York City spending a stint at Parsons School of Design.

Unable to receive his big break in the Big Apple, Kelly moved to Paris where his skin color did not overshadow his abilities. In the late ’80s, commercial success finally caught up with the charismatic couturier. His graceful and colorful dresses, embellished with his trademark buttons, ribbons, tassels and fringe, provoked a whimsy and uniqueness that were undeniable.

Paris boutique Victoire was deeply impressed with Kelly’s offerings, and his line became the first American brand carried by their store. From there, the designer was featured in an issue of French Elle, and luxury retailers in and outside the U.S. began requesting his work.

Cognizant of the black experience in his home state of Mississippi, Kelly would also incorporate Aunt Jemima, black-face pickanninny dolls, watermelon and similar images into his patterns as a means of addressing race issues and stereotypes.

Breaking barriers, Kelly was the first African- American to become a member of the exclusive governing body of the French fashion industry – Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode. 

Tragically, he died at the age of 35 from a bone-marrow disease.

Last Fall, Jackson State University’s director of galleries, Shon McCarthy, secured 25 original Patrick Kelly designs from the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

In a celebration of his legacy, students from JSU and several local institutions presented the exhibit “Patrick: From Mississippi to NY to Paris and Back.” Nearly 500 people, including Kelly’s childhood friends, like Vicksburg Mayor George Flaggs, attended the event.

The University also hosted the Patrick Kelly Sewing Workshop to familiarize JSU and JPS students, of all age ranges, with Kelly, the art of sewing, the business side of the fashion industry, and the conservation and preservation of textiles.

Recently, an additional 250 pieces from the Kelly estate and the Philadelphia Museum of Art were donated to Jackson State and securely housed inside H.T. Sampson’s University Archives.

On Dec. 9, the Mississippi Museum of Art displayed two of Kelly’s dresses during its exhibition Picturing Mississippi, 1817-2017: Land of Plenty, Pain, and Promise.

Curator of Exhibitions, Kathleen Varnell said, “As a young woman in Jackson, I was always excited by Patrick Kelly’s designs and by the fact he was a Mississippian. I remember a time as teenagers, my friends and I wore overalls, with buttons sewn on, to emulate Patrick Kelly.”

Varnell explains that after attending JSU’s Gallery 1 commemoration of the designer, she was inspired to use his work. After speaking with McCarthy and researching further, the curator was able to learn more of Kelly’s “illustrious” but virtually enigmatic career.

“I felt it was crucial he was included in this bicentennial celebration. As an alumna of JSU, I would like to thank Jackson State University, University Archives and Special Collection, H. T. Sampson Library, and the Department of Art for their collaboration with the Mississippi Museum of Art to help make this possible,” Varnell said.

The exhibition Picturing Mississippi, 1817-2017: Land of Plenty, Pain, and Promise at the Mississippi Museum of Art runs until July 8, 2018.

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