“I’ve always been inspired by leaders and heroes, but my heroes have never been the guys on TV. They’ve always been people like Patrick Kelly,” said Vicksburg Mayor George Flaggs at the opening of The Patrick Kelly Fashion Exhibit “From Mississippi to NY to Paris and Back” on Sept. 29 at JSU’s Gallery1.
Guests occupied every available chair until they were standing elbow-to-elbow, all craving a glimpse of the 25 original pieces by the late free-spirited fashion designer and Jackson State alum – Patrick Kelly.
“Patrick knew what he wanted to be, he was determined to be what he wanted to be, and he didn’t take no for an answer,” said Flaggs, who was also a close confidant and high-school classmate of the designer.
Born in Vicksburg, Kelly attended JSU on an art scholarship in 1972. He later became a student at Parsons School of Design in New York. Pursuing his fierce passion for fashion since youth, Kelly soon moved to Atlanta and worked as an unpaid window-dresser at the high-end Yves Saint Laurant retail store.
Kelly’s free labor paid off when YSL chairman Pierre Berge, helped the ambitious and whimsical designer form the Paris-based womenswear fashion house Patrick Kelly Paris.
In the late 1980s, Kelly finally achieved commercial success becoming the first African-American to be admitted as member of the exclusive Chambre syndicale du prêt-à-porter des couturiers et des créateurs de mode.
From the walls of Gallery1 hang larger-than-life pictures of Kelly, dressed in his signature overalls and thermal shirt. The garments draping the stark white mannequins echo Kelly’s beatnik personality and reflect his customary use of bright primary colors and strategically placed buttons and ribbons.
Before celebrities like Naomi Campbell, Madonna, Iman and the late Princess Diana were wearing Kelly’s clothes, he was practicing his art form on his schoolmates who elegantly sat front-row at the exhibition opening.
“I was his very first model, his first Barbie doll,” said Frankie Meeks. “I just hate when he left JSU and moved to Atlanta and New York. He begged me to go with him, and I hate that I didn’t. I still sew a bit, and I have a lot of Patrick’s original designs that he’s given me.”
Pam Flagg recalls a young Kelly being more focused on his dream than his school work, “I would watch Patrick every day while we were in class drawing ladies wearing pretty dresses and I would say, ‘Patrick, do your lesson,’ and he would say, ‘This is going to pay off after a while,’ said Flagg, adding “I’m glad he reached his goal.”
Following Mayor Flaggs’ heartfelt remembrances of Kelly, attendees moved to the Liberal Arts courtyard where they were treated to a fashion show combining JSU and Tougaloo student models wearing Kelly-inspired pieces.
“The fashion show was awesome. It was so much energy, and it was an experience to honor Patrick Kelly, who studied at Jackson State. He’s a revolutionary. He did a lot of things – that are popping now – way back in the 1980’s and in his designs, you can see a lot of creativity and passion,” said Nicholas Thornton, a senior marketing major at Jackson State.
Thornton describes Kelly as a “trailblazer” and points out how Kelly was an advocate for models of color and used them significantly throughout his work.
Statuesque Tougaloo College senior and computer science major Nshia Gatlin walked down the runway, in a form-fitting red dress complete with hood, resembling a regal Grace Jones – a favorite model of Kelly’s.
Gatlin deemed the fashion reveal wonderful and said, “It was very inspiring and accomplished. I feel it should have happened before he passed since he’s a native Mississippian and JSU alum, but I’m glad he’s now getting the recognition he deserves.”
Kamilah Grim, the designer for the fashion show, admits that she was unfamiliar with Kelly, but in preparation for the event, she discovered they shared similar design aesthetics. “I’m fun, carefree and I love prints and embellishments like him, I don’t do them enough, but I love them,” she said.
Grim was moved by Kelly’s determination and the journey that led him to become a fashion icon who annually grossed over $7 million in sales, before his untimely passing in 1990 at the age of 35.
“It means that you can come from a small town like Vicksburg and make it big, anyone can do it; I love that about him. He’s so inspirational,” said Grim.
Vicksburg native Raymond Banks, an aspiring fashion designer, wears a self-made bow-tie studded with buttons as a sign of tribute to the late Kelly. Banks discovered Kelly and his work while reading an Ebony magazine and was fascinated to learn the designer was from Vicksburg.
“Patrick Kelly is my idol. He’s my hometown hero. All my life I’ve been intrigued by his work, so when I found out Jackson State was having an exhibit I dropped everything, and I came. He’s amazing – nothing compares to him,” said Banks, adding “I thought, ‘why not follow in his footsteps and continue his legacy.’”
Shon McCarthy, director of Gallery1, who diligently worked with the Philadelphia Museum of Art to bring Kelly’s designs back to his home state and alma mater, feels exhilarated by the number of people and students who attended and participated in the exhibition.
“Putting this event together was all about dreaming and working to make that dream a reality,” McCarthy said.
She candidly admits it took “a village” to pull off the affair, stating: “It took the help of JSU’s communications department, events and development; Will Lyons, our volunteer student manager; the students who worked hard; and the models who practiced late into the night. It was a community effort.”
The art director plans to ensure Kelly is remembered. “We’re going to make sure we continue the legacy by using what he did as a blueprint to teach students fashion and to inspire them to make their creative art dreams a reality,” she said. “He’s from where they’re from. He did it, and they can do it, too.”