Anyone who shares my name of Kelly is of course going to immediately pique my curiosity. I have already channeled the royal actress Grace Kelly a few times (both here and here), so it was high time to dive into the history of another famous namesake. Patrick Kelly has already been a designer I have greatly respected, admired, and been interested in. Then, press for the current costume exhibit “Runway of Love”, presenting his life and designs, has recently brought him anew into my thoughts. However, it was also my desire to do something worthwhile with an old dress of mine that ultimately drove me deeper in a renewed understanding of just how deserved is the renown given to Patrick Kelly.
In his honor, I gravitated towards Patrick Kelly’s penchant for using a plethora of buttons to up-cycle a ready-to-wear black knit dress that has been sitting in my wardrobe, unloved and unworn for over a decade. One way to understand someone is to actively put yourself in their place. I tried to do that (in a lesser degree) by working with over 100 varied buttons to find a taste of Patrick Kelly’s joy and creativity, as well as comprehend his talent. The resulting “new-and-improved” little black dress is my own interpretation of his vision, nevertheless, not a copy of anything Patrick Kelly made.
Patrick Kelly was born on September 24, 1954 in Vicksburg, Mississippi. As a black man growing up in the Southern states of America, he fought through his life’s setbacks, his surrounding society’s prejudices, and the partiality practiced in the fashion design world. Eventually, he made his way to Paris with the help of his friendship with the supermodel Pat Cleveland. In 1988, he became the 1st American inducted to the “Chambre Syndicale”, a prestigious governing body of the French ready-to-wear industry that determines which fashion design houses are eligible to be true haute couture houses. Most people know the names of other members to the Syndicale – Chanel, Dior, and Givenchy to list just a few. However, as an American myself, I am painfully aware of the fact that Patrick Kelly is not as collectively well-known as his fellow designer counterparts, so I am personally doing something here to help make up for that! I love that he succeeded by being determined and dedicated to his creative vision. It is commendable how he stayed true to himself and his simple upbringing at the same time, not changing for the sake of climbing that ladder of fame. Patrick Kelly had a uniquely joyous personality that shines through to his exuberant designs. He epitomizes the garish fashions of the 1980s, but in the best way possible because he was celebrating his roots, the beauty of all women, and the happiness of living. He died young at age 35 on New Year’s Day 1990.
Patrick Kelly helps me see what it means “to sew” in a whole new light. He personally was not skilled at garment construction, and struggled with a sewing machine to the point that he threw his appliance out his apartment window in frustration one day. Yet, from a young age, Kelly’s aunt instilled in him the basic hand sewing skills he needed to mend, repair, and provide basic garment upkeep. His Grandma, who helped raise him after his father died, inspired him by the way she would always replace his missing shirt buttons with mismatched, multicolored buttons from her notions box. He never forgot to appreciate his childhood memories. After moving to Atlanta, Georgia through the 1970s to attend fashion design school, Kelly supported himself by working at an AMVETS thrift shop. He soon began selling his first creations which were vintage and secondhand garments from the store that he upcycled, refashioned, or added decorative notions (found lost on the floors at the thrift shop) to transform into something uniquely one-of-a-kind.
Why is it that the sewing culture of today acts as if this practice of re-working existing items is merely an on-trend thing to do for thriftiness, personal enjoyment, or social consciousness? Why isn’t it expressly clear to the general mainstream public that such a practice reached the level of official French couture only 40 years ago and therefore deserves a higher level of regard than it currently has?! This isn’t even addressing the fact that you don’t even need a machine or anything other than basic mending skills to do a Patrick Kelly dress, thus challenging the very ideas of sewing stereotypes. Yes, sewing is more than just a skill, he has shown how it is also self-confidence, perseverance, ingenuity, and (most importantly) joy in the process.
Thus, to create his preliminary ‘brand’ image in the 80’s, Patrick Kelly utilized what he could do, what inspired him, and what was immediately available to create something amazing. Using knit tube dresses as his canvas blanks, he worked with something that is so commonplace – buttons – people can all immediately relate to his designs more than most other pieces from couture houses. Yet, at the same time he elevated buttons on garments into an awe inspiring art form. Such a technique may look simple to replicate, but like most really good garments, there is a highly challenging level of execution hiding under the guise of effortlessness. I can vouch for this truth, just from the small scale button project that I attempted for myself!
To start with, my dress is more complicated than the seamless knit tubes that Patrick Kelly would work with, so I had to be adaptive enough to make my button placement different. Every time I attempt to imitate something that has been made by a designer, my version has to be my own twist out of respect to the unique genius of each one of us. I am not convinced by the “imitation is a form of flattery” phrase and rather prefer to believe that tapping into one’s individuality is the best tribute. The design lines to my dress prevented the possibility of any buttons being added across the entire dress body, as many Patrick Kelly designs have. Thus, I internalized my inner artist to feel out a way to display the buttons on my dress in a way that makes my own imaginative statement…but more on that later. Right now, let’s dive into the how to sew on 130 individual buttons, and not the why!
My dress has a basic bodice, which joins to a wiggle skirt, pleated in at the high waistline. It is a comfy piece that still fit me perfectly (and had pockets, too) so I felt it was worth saving. Just the very fact I was looking for something to do with my black dress, immediately led me to think of Patrick Kelly…and there was a mixed mega bag of assorted buttons at my local fabric store which has been calling to me like a siren’s call ever since I noticed it there. Yes, I felt bad that I was buying a new bag of buttons when there are so many large canning jars full of various vintage buttons at all the local thrift and antique stores. I felt guilty that I was not approaching this refashion the way Patrick Kelly would have. However, none of the button jars I came across were a colorful enough assortment for my creative vision.
To channel the spirit of Patrick Kelly’s works, it is important to go big and bold, choosing the brightest shades to create a true statement piece. Thus, I chose to buy two “Big Bag of Buttons” packs from “Favorite Findings”, which has an assorted mix of sizes, opacity, finish, and colors to offer. I chose the color way that struck me as an almost neon blend of a lime green, sunshine yellow, hot pink, fresh orange, and a bright blue. To have this burst of lively color pop off of a dark inky black background reminds me of the way Patrick Kelly wanted to be someone who could make people smile through their troubles. He once said “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. I hope when they (people) think about me, they think of being happy.”
Finding and choosing just one layout to settle on for decorating my dress with the plethora of buttons was an agonizing process. I had so many different ideas I wanted to commit to, at this rate I could do plenty more Patrick Kelly inspired button dresses of my own! Anyways, once I settled upon one idea, I laid out as many buttons as I could the way I wanted them, traced around them with tailors chalk, an then moved them out onto the floor next to my dress in the exact same lay out. Sounds easy, right? Not really. It is easy to get confused when trying to match what is on the floor back onto my dress. I took lots of quick phone pictures to help me remember the button placement along the way and sew in a way close to my original idea. The whole process was so time consuming, needing complete mental focus.
I quickly discovered that I had to sew one button on at a time. At first I thought I could interlace the buttons to make the process smoother. However, I quickly realized I had to tie each one off separately because the fabric is a knit, thus needing to stretch unconfined in between all the buttons. Trying to remember to keep the spacing and the layout, see the chalk marks that faded with every touch, and figure out placement in between sewing every button was exhausting. Then, keeping the entire household away from the area of the floor where I was working was stressful…if anyone kicked the buttons around, I was ruined. This dress has definitely been the top craziest thing I have done amongst my sewing projects. I am really curious how Patrick Kelly dresses’ insides look because I wonder if he had a better way to do this, or had some quick trick that I haven’t thought of. Slowly seeing the design come together with every button group I sewed on was the only saving grace that gave me both hope and patience to finish this project idea.
The buttons on the front and back skirt took me a total of 8 hours to sew onto the dress, while the neckline buttons took me almost 4 hours, for an overall total of almost 13 hours. Whew! This is what I was talking about when I said (above) that it may look like these kind of dresses are easy, but it’s a real eye opener to try one out for yourself. “Don’t judge a book by its cover” or “There is more than meets the eye” are some adages that can apply perfectly to a Patrick Kelly dress, even if only talking about a paltry imitation by a home sewist like myself!
As interesting as this dress was to refashion, it is also very interesting to wear. Having that many buttons, even if only lightweight plastic, really does add substantial weight to the dress. Each button pack was almost 4 ounces alone, and I used two packs. That is half of a pound in added button weight! I am really thankful that my base dress’ knit fabric was a thick, stable knit. I half-heartedly thought to myself, at the outset of this project idea, that the hefty weight of the knit would hold the buttons well, but I did not realize how important having a thicker knit would be until all the buttons were sewn on. Also, I was surprised to discover that all the knots inside the dress from where I tied off all the buttons can become slightly bothersome the longer the dress is worn. I now wish I would have tied off the ends from the right side of the dress, under the buttons. This issue is mostly resolved by wearing a full slip underneath the dress, but it is a point worth noting. Finally, to hear how the buttons click together and jangle when I wear the dress is entertaining enough to make me chuckle under my breath. It is almost like a dull chiming music for me to move, sit, or walk in my dress. This is the most surprising effect, and one that I really enjoy. In all this dress, has been a project chock full of surprises and curious discoveries.
I wonder if these interesting ‘side effects’ are not unique to my imitation dress but also something shared by a true Patrick Kelly button garment. Since he often worked with older vintage buttons, many of which are metal or shell, I can imagine that his dresses were even heavier than my plastic button dress. I expect his button dresses (as he was an official couture house) to not have the harsh knots inside, as mine does…but who knows, though! The insides of a garment tell its full story, and couture of the past often is relegated to museum collections, thus it is hard to actually be able for a curious sewist like me to discover the details found in the guts at an up-close, personal setting. I have been looking for pictures online from listings of Patrick Kelly dresses for sale, but not many of his button creations seem to be found for sale, and neither do those listings have images of the inner garment workings. Some things from the designer world are best left a mystery, after all, I suppose.
The artistic vision behind the placement and color choice of the buttons on my dress is supposed to call to mind the life giving symbiotic relationship of the sun and the rain. My neckline has the ‘water’ in the blue color that trickles down in drips that fade from green to clear yellow by being touched by the sun. The rays which stretch out from my bottom left skirt hem corner reach out towards the rain, and filter between the classic colors chosen to represent the sun – orange and yellow – and the pink…like a beautiful early morning sunrise. Is there anything more enlivening than watching the dawn of a new day touch the wet morning dew?
My photo location’s wall mural is a tribute to the 1980s culture. It is has classic mid 80s computer gaming references that only those in the know will recognize. I love that here is a giant figure of Link, the protagonist of Nintendo‘s video game franchise The Legend of Zelda. The game dates to 1986, the same year for the Patrick Kelly button dress that were my primary inspiration! I love how the wall mural brings out the colors in my dress, as well as referencing the way Patrick Kelly was a mixed media artist on the side. He always began a runway show with a can of paint to spray a quick little artistic message on the back wall.
National Sewing Month (September) may be over now, but I have not yet moved on from the reflections and revelations I had in the spirit of such a dedication. If speaking about physical project production, September is never really anything different for me because sewing is a part of my life on a regular basis. However, celebrating such a dedication for the month prompts me to at least think back on what I have made and celebrate my achievements. Most importantly, however, I like to reconsider the why, the what, and the ideology behind sewing. In this quest, I have happily discovered a new appreciation for a designer I have known of but never previously thoroughly educated myself on – the great Patrick Kelly. To me, his life and his triumphs are not just inspirational on their own apart from the fashion world, but they are also the epitome of what sewing is all about. Please look through the pictures and explore the site links to be found on my “Patrick Kelly” Pinterest page for more on his life and his work!