“I want my clothes to make you smile”—that was the goal of Black fashion designer Patrick Kelly. He achieved this on the streets, nightclubs, and runways of New York, Paris, and beyond in the heady 1980s. In the process, he became the first American and first Black designer to be voted into the prestigious fashion association, the Chambre Syndicale.
Raised in Mississippi by strong, supportive women, Kelly moved to France in 1979, where he found a safe haven and creative freedom. He never forgot his roots and took pride in where he came from. For example, some of his designs reference the mismatched buttons his grandmother used to mend his shirts. While living in Paris, Kelly collected Black memorabilia and reappropriated its racially charged imagery; although criticized, Kelly was unapologetic—he believed it was necessary to know one’s history to move forward.
Kelly’s aesthetic developed out of his Black and Southern roots, his knowledge of fashion and art history, and influences from the club and gay scenes in New York and Paris. During the 1980s, AIDS decimated the fashion community. Kelly himself was diagnosed with the illness in 1987, shortly after signing with the American apparel company Warnaco to produce his ready-to-wear collections. He passed away on January 1, 1990, from the disease. The epitaph on his headstone in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris is emblematic of the designer and his legacy: “Nothing Is Impossible.”