Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Willi -vs- Patrick not only Legendary But Iconic

When asked to write an icon article for Black History Month during NY Fashion Week about a black designer, I was honored and very excited! I started my college career in the late 80’s as a fashion student, a pure fashion junkie. I knew my STUFF! Watching CNN’s Style with Elsa Klensch, Fashion America hosted by Allison Anna Brooks while reading W religiously when it was still printed on newspaper stock. I could hold my own with the New York fashion FIT’s kids.

So writing on a fashion icon was not the problem but choosing who to write about became my dilemma. Who was the ideal black fashion icon? And Two Names --- Two Names stood on the fore-front. Willi Smith and Patrick Kelly. Willi or Partick? So, I will bless the kidz with knowledge on both men who are true Icons!

Willi Smith has been called “the most successful African-American fashion designers in fashion history.” At the peak of his success in 1986, his company Williwear Ltd. sold $25 million worth of clothing.

A leap-year baby, Willi Donnell Smith was born to Willie Lee Smith, an ironworker, and June Eileen Bush Smith, a homemaker, on February 29, 1948, in Philadelphia. He studied commercial art at Mastbaum Technical High School and studied fashion at the Philadelphia Museum College of Art. In 1964, Smith won two scholarships to Parsons School of Design and moved to New York. In 1967 he quit Parsons to pursue a career designing on his own. In 1969 he designed a label for Digits and freelanced with Arnold Scassi and Bobbie Brooks Sportswear Companies. In 1973, Smith along with his sister Toukie , model and actress best known for her role on NBC’s 227 as Eva Rawley, founded their own clothing company; however, lacking business experience, soon saw their enterprise fail. Smith continued to design and in 1976 he went into business with Laurie Mallet and formed “Williwear."

Willi Smith designed with natural fabrics, a relaxed, comfortable fit, colorful and eye-catching material, with a reasonable price tag. Smith's style has been described as "street couture," a designation with which Smith quibbled. While acknowledging that he was acutely aware of what was being worn on the streets of America, he emphasized that he was not designing "for young people who like to look alike," but rather for people who wanted "real clothes" with a sense of designer fashion. His oversized clothing anticipated the casual styles and attitudes of the following decades: baggy trousers and shorts, slouchy sweaters and generously proportioned shirts.

Today, Hip Hop Style is almost identical to the designs which he started in the 1970's and 1980's. His colours and fabrics were bright and easily mixed together. At first WilliWear produced only women's clothing, but in 1978 the WilliWear Men line was added. Smith won a Coty American Fashion Critics' Award for women's fashion in 1983 and a Cutty Sark Menswear Award in 1985. In the golden years of WilliWear, Smith designed the wedding dress worn by Mary Jane Watson when she married Peter Parker in the Spider-Man comic book and comic strip in 1987 and the suits for Edwin Schlossberg and his groomsmen when he married Caroline Kennedy in 1986. Smith also created the uniforms for the workers on Christo's 1985 wrapping of the Pont Neuf bridge in Paris and clothes for Spike Lee 's 1987 film School Daze (1987).

At the young age of 39, Smith died unexpectedly after contracting pneumonia while on a trip to India, apparently as a result of AIDS. It is suspected that Smith, himself, didn't know he had the disease although those around him knew he was fragile in the end days. Several young designers worked and apprenticed with Willi; Anthony Mark Hankins, James Mischka (partner in Badgley-Mischka design house) and John Bartlett, who took over the design when Smith died, and remained till 1990.

But then, I discovered the designer we all wanted to truly be… Patrick Kelly. Small town dress maker becomes PARIS Fashion Designer Royalty! He let us all know it could be done.

Patrick Kelly known as “The Prince of Paris” was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, on September 24 around 1954. Kelly kept the exact year of his birth a secret. As he stated in a 1986 Time magazine article, "I never tell my age because I hope I'll always be the new kid on the block." He came from a working-class African American family. His mother had a master's degree and worked as a home economics teacher. His father worked as a fishmonger, insurance agent, and cab driver. At some point in his childhood his father left home and he was raised primarily by his mother and grandmother, who worked as a cook for an upper-class white family. His keen interest in fashion showed even as a child. His earliest recollection of this passion was when he was about six years old. One day his grandmother brought home a fashion magazine and Kelly noticed that there were not pictures of black women in it. His grandmother explained that fashion designers did not have time for black women and Kelly was determined to change that notion.

Kelly taught himself to sew and began his career as a dress maker at an early age. While still in junior high Kelly began to create and sew party dresses for girls in the neighborhood. Later in high school he began designing department store windows and drawing sketches for newspaper advertisements. After he graduated from high school in 1972 Kelly attended Jackson State University on a scholarship and studied art history and African American history. While only spending two years at Jackson State University, Kelly says, he was fed up with racism, Mississippi-style. It was the mid-seventies. He caught a Greyhound bus to Atlanta, the city "too busy to hate." He'd heard there was an Yves Saint Laurent boutique there. He did not have a place to live, a job or much money did not weigh heavily on him.

For a while, he says, he lived on the streets and worked for AMVETS, an American veterans' organization. He volunteered to decorate windows at the Yves Saint Laurent boutique called Rive Gauche and eventually got a paying job there. In his spare time, he sewed clothes, sometimes redoing used ones, and sold them on the streets. He also worked as an instructor at the Barbizon Modeling School, where he became friends with several fashion models. One model, Pat Cleveland, convinced him that he should move to New York City if he wanted to really get noticed by the fashion industry.

That same year, Kelly followed his friend's advice, moved to New York, and enrolled in the prestigious Parsons School of Design. He struggled financially, however, he was not able to find a steady job and he supported himself with sporadic work, including a part-time job working at Baskin Robbins and selling his dresses to the New York models. Then his friend Pat Cleveland suggested that he move again, this time to Paris. Kelly laughed at the idea because he knew he could not afford the trip. However, when a one-way ticket to Paris was mailed to Kelly anonymously in 1979, he seized the opportunity and moved to the fashion capital of the world. Looking back on this important move, Kelly told Time magazine in 1986, "I can't say I wouldn't have made it in New York because I didn't stay to find out." Kelly had much better luck in Paris than he did in New York. He was quickly hired as a costume designer for a nightclub called Le Palace and continued to sell his own creations on the street. He even sold homemade fried chicken dinners to make ends meet. His hard work and perseverance paid off for him. People began to recognize Kelly's designs and soon there they were in demand.

In 1984 an exclusive Paris boutique called Victoire hired Kelly and gave him a workshop and a showroom. Only a year later Kelly went into business for himself. He and his friend, photographer Bjorn Amelan, joined together to create Patrick Kelly Paris. Soon they were making outfits for Benetton and an upscale Right Bank boutique. Kelly quickly established his reputation as a designer and his business blossomed. In 1987 he was interviewed by Gloria Steinem for NBC's Today Show. Steinem then introduced Kelly to Linda Wachner, the CEO of Warnaco, an apparel manufacturer. Kelly signed a five million dollar contract to create a line of clothing for Warnaco, which gave him international recognition. Soon afterwards he also signed two licensing deals with Vogue Patterns and Streamline Industries for his famous big buttons. After making these deals Kelly's business revenue increased from less than one million dollars a year to more than seven million dollars a year.

Kelly's popularity stemmed from his fun, colorful, and exotic style. As the Washington Post described him in 1988, "Patrick Kelly has a witty way with fashion." Kelly's earliest influence was his grandmother. Since she had limited resources, she would replace lost buttons on his clothing with whatever she could find and she would often add her own touch to spruce up the clothing a bit. Large, colorful buttons later became a trademark of Kelly's designs, but his creativity did not stop there. He decorated dresses with colorful bows, embroidered lips and hearts, and even billiard balls.

In 1986 Time magazine described his clothes as "fitted, funny, and a little goofy." Price was an important factor for Kelly's designs and he stressed the importance of differentiating between cheap and affordable. Contemporary Fashion described Kelly's designs as "unpretentious yet sexy, affordable while glamorous." He strove for the latter in order to distinguish himself from other Parisian designers whose clothes came with a hefty price tag. In a 1986 Time magazine article Kelly declared, "I'm the hero of people who just don't want to spend a lot of money on clothes."Kelly's designs also carried a Southern flavor. He was proud of his heritage and his upbringing as a black child in Mississippi was reflected in his work. For example, he was known for his watermelon brooches, dresses decorated with gardenias, and polka-dotted bandannas. He also made Billie Holliday and Michael Jackson earrings and used Josephine Baker memorabilia to decorate his showroom. Kelly's use of African American culture in his art even generated some controversy. He created lapel pins featuring black babydoll faces that some thought were offensive to African Americans. Kelly defended the image as a part of Black history. In fact he had a collection of over 6,000 Black dolls from various eras of American history that he hoped to house in a museum. Nonetheless, the pins were more popular in Europe than America because some Americans were afraid the image would be misinterpreted.

In an interview with Essence magazine, Kelly noted his surprise regarding the controversy. He said, "Recently somebody Black told me they were harassed about wearing the Black baby-doll pin. And I thought, you can wear a machine gun or a camouflage war outfit and people think it's so chic, but you put a little Back baby pin on and people attack you." These pins became a trademark for Kelly and he gave them away to everyone he met. It was estimated that he gave away 800-1,000 pins a month.

Kelly's carefree style and southern heritage were apparent in his own image as well. He was most often seen dressed in a pair of oversized denim overalls. He often sported a baseball cap and his favorite means of transportation was a skateboard. He had a fun-loving and extroverted personality. For example, he would start his fashion shows by entering the stage dressed in his overalls and spray-painting a large read heart on the backdrop of the runway. Parisians loved Kelly's persona as much as they loved his designs. Despite his humble beginnings and simple personal style, Kelly was a sharp businessman and a skilled marketer. He understood the importance of publicity in the fashion industry.

Kelly's designs never became a household name, but his clientele included many famous people, such as Bette Davis, Grace Jones, Jessye Norman, Isabella Rossellini, and Jane Seymour. In 1988 Kelly was voted in as a member of the Chambre Syndicale, an elite organization of designers based in Paris. Kelly was the first American to join the ranks of famous designers such as Saint Laurent, Lagerfeld, and Lacroix. One privilege of being a member of this elite group was the opportunity to have a show at the Louvre Palace. True to Kelly's fun style, his first show was a spoof on the Mona Lisa.

Unfortunately, Kelly's career ended soon after he became famous. Kelly died on January 1, 1990. While the official cause of death was listed as bone marrow disease, many suspect he died of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) like several other young prominent figures in the fashion industry who had died in the 1980s, including Perry Ellis and Willi Smith. By the early 1990s the fashion industry had suffered huge losses, both personal and financial, due to the epidemic. A 1990 article in Time magazine declared that "The industry's creative energy is being dissipated - and diminished - by AIDS."Kelly's rather sudden death left a lot of unfinished business. He was negotiating licenses for his designs for furs, sunglasses, and jewelry.

1 comment:

Bernie said...

Thanks for this trip down memory lane, Richard. I remember them both well. We've lost so many talented people like them.




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