I hope when they think about me, they think of being happy. There’s so much sadness in the world. And if you can stick a button on something or funny hat, I’m the one for you.¹
– Patrick Kelly
Bjorn Guil Amelan, Patrick Kelly’s former business and life partner said in an interview “Remembering Patrick Kelly”, from the book, Patrick Kelly Runway of Love, “I think Patrick was painfully branded by his youth in Mississippi and all forms of categorization.”² How shall we categorize or label Patrick Kelly (1954—1990) today, if that is even fair? As a Black designer born in the segregated south who made it big in Paris; as an American-born artist, creator of all things beautiful, whimsical, and innovative; or as the happy, exuberant designer who had boundless ideas and creativity. I’d say all the above, but, if he were here today, I wonder what he would think of all the attention, conversation, study, and presentation(s) of his body of work, how would he brand the history of “Patrick Kelly”.
Kelly was innovative in storytelling, taking what existed in society, whether it was within the arts, the community, or behavioral tactics within society, and mix it up, giving it a new meaning. When many think of Kelly, they think of his artistic use of buttons in his designs. Others remember his bold, courageous, and, arguably, controversial designs and branding on racist tropes, such as the golliwog used as his logo. However you think of Kelly’s work, he cleverly integrated the cultural dynamics of his time into his work with wit, humor, joy, and desire.
Patrick Kelly made beautiful clothes, period!
Pivotal to his style were buttons; he used buttons as decorative trim; integral to his many simple tubelike sheaths, buttons were used to design motifs, messages, shapes.²
– André Leon Talley
Kelly was known as the master of button chic. It is the one identifiable signature of his work. Buttons? You think of Patrick Kelly. The uniqueness of his mass collages of multi-colored and multi-sized buttons are the most memorable of his garments and has a cultural history within the Black community.
Button jars, big tins of buttons, button boxes, and bags of buttons were common in Black people’s household and as a child, Kelly, like many, would lose buttons off of shirts, sweaters, you name it. Recently, I was sitting among some friends of my generation talking about childhood memories of missing buttons from your clothes, reflecting on Kelly’s designs. The conversation led to our mothers having big tins of buttons and when your sweater or something needed a button, finding one that matched out of the ‘big tin’ was not going to happen, so mismatched buttons was the way it was. It became a ritual to pass down the ‘button tin’ from one generation to another.
Kelly remembers the result of mismatched buttons when buttons from his shirt would fall off and be replaced by his grandmother, Ethel Rainey. In a story told to Kim Alexis, ABC network Good Morning America fashion correspondent, in 1987, covering his Paris success at a family picnic in Vicksburg, Mississippi, he said:
“When I was young, I used to always rip the buttons off my shirts. My grandmother, being a real grandmother, would replace it, and I would rip another one and she would replace, and I would rip another one and she would replace it, and one day I looked down and there was a white one, a brown one, a red one, and I said this is ridiculous, I can’t go to school like this, but the idea stayed in my head and once when I was in Paris, I was sitting down sewing and playing around with ideas and I said why don’t I make it like that shirt that my grandmother used to make for me …”³
We know how the story ends. Kelly reimagined a part of his heritage and used the concept of mismatched buttons shaped as hearts, golliwogs, abstract designs, and bolero jackets as ornamentations intricately designed in his collections. The late André Leon Talley (1948-2022) said, in a special contribution to Patrick Kelly Runway of Love, “Pivotal to his style were buttons; he used buttons as decorative trim; integral to his many simple tubelike sheaths, buttons were used to design motifs, messages, shapes.”²
Bows, Hearts, and “More Love”
Kelly was known for his body-hugging, tube-like silhouettes made out of wool knit, cotton knit, or blended with spandex, but his true gift was in his wide-range, diverse, and whimsical collections. A master of storytelling with head-to-toe designed looks of matching or coordinating gloves, hats, pocketbooks, jewelry, scarves, and shoes.
Note: the heart shaped embroidered dress was an exclusive design for “A Fashion Salute to Heart Strings” fashion show benefit hosted by the Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS in Atlanta.
Denim and Overalls
Kelly’s own personal style and identity were right in step with his deep southern roots. Denim overalls were his go-to uniform. He proudly wore Liberty overalls, at all occasions including for dress-up events, and created denim pieces as a symbolic nod to the Black farmhands and sharecroppers of Jim Crow south, as he himself, worked the fields with his grandfather. Some didn’t get the symbolism, with natural instincts to categorize or prejudge. When buyers were meeting Kelly, the designer, for the first time in his Paris atelier, he would be mistaken for the delivery man.²
If you put my grandmother, my mother, and my aunts together, and put some of the outfits they could put together for Sunday at church, you could do 10 haute couture shows.³
– Patrick Kelly
Buttons were not the only influence from his childhood. The show stopping women in his community that paraded their “Sunday best” at church were, as he said, “big influences”. “If you put my grandmother, my mother, and my aunts together, and put some of the outfits they could put together for Sunday at church, you could do 10 haute couture shows,” Kelly told Kim Alexis, Good Morning America.³
Read Fashion Culture | I LOVE Lycra Dresses and Spare-Ribs: The Patrick Kelly Story for more on “Sunday best”.
The artwork, “Life” collage of Kelly’s parents, ca. 1986, mixed media on paper, is by the artist, Patrick Kelly, on loan to de Young Museum from Bjorn Guil Amelan and Bill T. Jones.
Patrick Kelly died 1 January 1990 of AIDS related complications, and is buried in Paris at Père Lachaise cemetery, where his epitaph states “Nothing Is Impossible.” His legacy of BUTTONS and Bows, Joy, and LOVE, live on!
EDGE Fashion Intelligence Fashion Culture series presents The Patrick Kelly Story, acknowledging the significant contribution he has made to fashion’s history. Fashion Culture provides educational content of untold stories of the under-represented historical and contemporary contributors to fashion’s history. BUTTONS and BOWS, etc.! A PICTORIAL View, The Patrick Kelly Story is the third story of a four-part essay, highlighting a visual journal of his work. Beauty, IDENTITY, and Representation: The Patrick Kelly Story is the first of the series that contextualizes the content of the de Young Museum exhibit, Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love, as a ‘ground zero’ for studying the work of Patrick Kelly. “I LOVE Lycra Dresses and Spare-Ribs”: The Patrick Kelly Story is the second story that delves into the depths of Kelly’s use of racist imagery and why it was (and still is) important as a national conversation. Kelly had a unique ability to reclaim, reappropriate white society’s racist imagery, used to degrade and oppress Black people, into a beautiful body of work that we are talking about today. The fourth story, The Marketing INGENIOUS of Patrick Kelly, shows how Kelly had a shrewd and unconventional vision in every aspect of his creative output and branding which included advertising campaigns.
1. “Patrick Kelly: The American in Paris”, YouTube video, 22:12, The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 24 November 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u59WAjIdqfM&t=1078s
2. Camerlengo, Laura L., ed., “Patrick Kelly Runway of Love” San Francisco: Yale University Press with The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 2021.
3. “Patrick Kelly Paris Good Morning America”, YouTube video, 9:03, Patrick Leroy Kelly paris, 27 June 2021 recent YouTube upload, 21 October 1987 original broadcast date, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4rL1-da2yKo&t=42s
Feature Image: Fall/Winter 1987-1988, Dress: wool and spandex knit with plastic buttons, Earring: plastic, repurposed from Patrick Kelly button brooch. “Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love” at the de Young museum in San Francisco. Gift of Bjorn Guil Amelan and Bill T. Jones in honor of Monica Brown to the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photo © Rhonda P. Hill