Patrick Kelly | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Patrick Kelly

Photo courtesy Gallery One

Photo courtesy Gallery One

Vicksburg-native fashion designer Patrick Kelly's mission was to make people smile. His designs were whimsical and playful, often including elements such as multi-colored buttons and bows.

Growing up, Kelly took fashion inspiration from the women he saw at church on Sundays and from his female family members, who would embellish old and boring clothes to make them more interesting.

While his mother, Letha Kelly, hoped that he would one day become a doctor, Kelly continued pursuing art and fashion, accepting a scholarship to attend Jackson State University in 1972.

About 18 months into his studies at JSU, Kelly decided to move to Atlanta, where he began selling clothes that he made and recycled, and worked as an unpaid window dresser at the Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche Boutique. Kelly then moved to New York City to get more heavily involved in the American fashion scene but struggled to gain a foothold.

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Patrick Kelly's tomb in Paris at Pere Lachaise Photo courtesy Pierre Yves Beaudouin

In the early 1980s, Kelly relocated to Paris and worked in costuming for nightclub Le Palace, sewing dresses for dancers in his hotel room. From there, he began selling his work at flea markets and in front of boutiques and became known for his jersey tube dresses. He soon took off in Paris fashion, becoming the only American designer whose pieces sold in the famed Victoire boutiques and scoring a feature in Elle magazine.

In 1987, Gloria Steinem interviewed Kelly for the "Today Show" and introduced him to the chief executive officer for clothing manufacturer Warnaco, Linda Wachner. Wachner was impressed and signed Kelly to a $5-million contract to make a line of garments for the company.

That same year, he became the first American and African American to become a member of the Chambre Syndicale du pPret-a-Porter des Couturiers et des Createurs de Mode, the French trade association for women's ready-to-wear couturiers (a person who makes clothes to order for private clients) and fashion designers.

In January 1990, he died from AIDS complications at the age of 35.

People such as Madonna, Bette Davis and Naomi Campbell have worn Kelly's pieces, and his work has inspired people such as the gallery director of Jackson State University's Gallery1, Shonda McCarthy.

The Jackson native says she first learned about Kelly as a child, when she and her brother would go to the Richard Wright Public Library on McDowell Road to do homework and read encyclopedias and craft books. When she was done, she would read fashion magazines.

"I remember when I was young, about sixth grade, and I would see some of Patrick Kelly's designs, it just kind of resonated with me because it was nice to be able to see someone who looked like me and was from where I was from," she says.

McCarthy has been working toward creating an exhibit centered on Kelly since she became gallery director in 2016. After calling around the JSU campus to see if any of the centers had some of Kelly's work or even a photograph, she says that she realized JSU needed more inspiration for the arts and needed to exhibit the work of the fashion icon in his home state.

From Sept. 29 to Oct. 31, Gallery1 will celebrate Kelly's work in the exhibit "Patrick Kelly: From Mississippi to NYC to Paris and Back."

The gallery has partnered with the Philadelphia Museum of Art to present 25 garments from Kelly, and it will be the first venue in the state to exhibit his work.

"I personally think that this is a celebration that's long overdue," she says.

For the opening on Sept. 29, Gallery1 will also have a fashion show with pieces from Kamilah Grim that take inspiration from Kelly's creations.

Grim will show about 18 of her pieces, along with accessories from seven middle-school students from the Jackson metro area.

"(McCarthy) wanted someone who knew how to sew who could make things that were inspired by Patrick Kelly, and also, make some items that were almost like a direct recreation of what he would make in the '80s," Grim says.

She says that she was somewhat familiar with Kelly before McCarthy asked her to be part of the exhibition, but when she did more research, she found that her aesthetic was a lot like his.

For the opening night, JSU student Willis Lyons will be working with models from the JSU model troupe, the Insatiable Modeling Squad, to get them ready for the fashion show.

The opening night will also have a photo exhibition of Grim's pieces from Imani Khayyam, who is the Jackson Free Press staff photographer. His work will be up for the duration of the exhibit. Designer Zacharee Thomas did the graphic-design work and has also partnered with local T-shirt-printing company The Lew Crew to create shirts.

The opening-night reception and fashion show for "Patrick Kelly: From Mississippi to NYC to Paris and Back" is 6 to 8 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 29, at Gallery1 (1100 John R. Lynch St., Suite 4). The event is free and open to the public.

CORRECTION: In the original version of this story, we said Shon McCarthy started at Gallery1 in 2015. She actually started in 2016. The Jackson Free Press apologizes for this error.

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