Patrick Kelly – An American in Paris

Patrick Kelly - An American in Paris bf4ed5e200230c79f67ffdf41d148d52

Editor’s note: throughout this week world water day is looking back through the Fairchild Archive at some of the designers she has interviewed and profiled over the years, accompanied by photos of their collections. On Tuesday, the series features two: this January 15, 1988 interview with Patrick Kelly in Paris and an October 16, 1968 interview with Giorgio di Sant’Angelo in New York. (An explanation: The article has been reproduced using world water dayThe style of the time, which leaned heavily toward capital letters, ellipses, and bold).

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PARIS — When Patrick Kelly sold the worldwide rights to his women’s ready-to-wear to Warnaco on June 30, he took what he calls a vacation. The “vacation consisted of putting together a 65-piece couture collection and showing it off in a three-week whirlwind.

“They had to stop me,” says Kelly. “I couldn’t stop myself even if I tried.” Even with the security of high-powered finance behind him, Kelly, who has a bed under her studio’s drawing board, works with the feverish tone of someone who still pays the bills.

Her playful, sexy rtw has received rave reviews from American customers since Bergdorf Goodman introduced the cropped cotton knit sheath dresses from her first collection in her Fifth Avenue windows two years ago.

The dresses instantly identified him as a fun designer. They were cheerful and, for French clothes, they were not expensive. It’s a niche he’s trying to expand. “I know I’m known for my cheerful dresses,” he says, standing in the middle of construction on his new showroom, “but I do everything.”

Today, Kelly is at a juncture that many American buyers are watching closely. Warnaco has been able to smooth out the manufacturing issues and has helped clear up the sizing issues it has had in the US and Kelly has been able to expand their range. The result is a more sophisticated and diversified Patrick Kelly collection, but shoppers worry that he may be losing sight of his customer and that the line is becoming too expensive.

“It seems like Warnaco is pushing it to have better clothes,” says Sydney Bachman, vice president and Fashion manager at Bergdorf’s, New York. She says her spring-summer ’88 collection was high-quality and “the best she’s ever done, but the prices were up to double her usual range. “As good as it is,” she adds, “it’s not quite ready to go alongside Ungaro and Valentino. It’s much more sophisticated, but also expensive for your very young customer.”

“Patrick Kelly is great because he doesn’t take himself, or Fashiontoo seriously,” says another retailer. “His future depends on how successful he is in continuing to be who he is.”

Since starting his business with partner Bjorn Amelan in 1985, Kelly’s rtw sales have been meteoric, doubling each season, according to the designer. However, the firm has never come out of nowhere and was supported by Kelly’s freelance work with firms such as Benetton and Victoire, which is a better priced French rtw manufacturer. Mary Ann Wheaton, president of
Patrick Kelly of Warnaco operations, based in the corporation’s New York office, believes it will be profitable very quickly.

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Linda Wachner, president and CEO of Warnaco, expects Kelly’s worldwide wholesale volume to reach $8 million to $10 million in its first full year backed by Warnaco, up from $900,000 when Kelly financed the line himself. In the US, Kelly will ship $250,000 worth of merchandise this season.

“I’m delighted with the US volume,” says Wachner. “We didn’t start this to go after big bucks.”

For Warnaco, which makes Chaps by Ralph Lauren, White Stag, Olga, Warners and Valentino lingerie, Kelly is “hugely marketable,” says Wheaton. (Total Warnaco sales for the
nine months ending October 3 totaled $432,217,000).

“The great thing about a designer like Patrick,” continues Wheaton, “is that he has a great sense of what is very new and refreshing, but at the same time very, very marketable.”

Regarding prices, he points out that the The lycra spandex knit dresses the designer is known for are no higher, and his new sportswear is still less expensive than other European designers.

“One of his suits, at $700 retail, is less expensive than some French designer jackets,” she says. Kelly’s average prices range from $400 to $600 retail, he says, adding that this doesn’t include some of the more expensive items, for example, an evening gown with hand-sewn buttons that sells for $1,800, or less. expensive, a $36 T-shirt dress. .

However, many shoppers look for dresses at Kelly. At Saks Fifth Avenue, its high-end evening gowns have done well on the design floor. “We don’t buy sportswear from Patrick Kelly,” says Ellin Saltzman, senior vice president of fashion management.

Wheaton notes, “There’s no way Patrick is going to walk away from those dresses. That’s what it’s about. They’re Patrick, they’re fun.”

In fact, Kelly says she just wants to have fun. Very conscious of her image (“a Bthe lack of Americans in Paris sells,” he muses), has been amazingly successful at attracting attention. He jokes around with retailers as he personally sells the collection and regularly invites fashion editors to have coffee with him.

His couture show, which he calls a “nod to haute couture,” was originally going to be a press party to celebrate the opening of the designer’s first boutique, according to Wheaton.
“He was just going to do a few outfits, but it turned into a collection,” she says.

Kelly has called himself a “country bumpkin,” but despite the oversized coveralls he always wears and the chit-chat, he’s a canny salesman. He says he has no head for numbers, “can’t remember” his age, the size of his company or how many brothers and sisters he has, but he can easily pick through the covers of fashion magazines they have presented it. And his
ideas “come a mile a minute,” he says.

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Widely copied for the buttons and bows that adorned the outfits and accessories of his first collection (even in venerable haute couture), Kelly lets whimsy reign in his studio. Her recent collection included straw hats with watermelon slice brims and chandelier earrings.

Lynn Manulis, president of Martha, Inc., found her couture show, which featured an orange and black houndstooth suit and orange-dyed lynx hat, so innocent and refreshing that she took the collection to New York to sell it. at her boutique in September. The weekend period attracted a younger customer, Manulis says, and sales totaled around $80,000. The wedding dress was sold three times.

For Kelly, who used to stand outside looking at the store through the windows, selling at Martha’s was a “dream come true.”

Growing up in Vicksburg, Mississippi, Kelly fell in love with fashion at age 6 when she saw her first fashion magazine. “I knew what a Sears catalog was,” she says, “but this was something different.”

He attended Jackson State University where he studied art history for a couple of years before moving to Atlanta in the mid-1970s. There she worked for a tailor while selling the clothes he made in the back of a store.

At the urging of a friend, he moved to New York and attended Parsons School of Design for a year. Kelly eventually went to Paris, using a one-way ticket that was donated anonymously. She landed there in 1979, penniless, and was out at night with ex-model Toukie Smith and friends of hers.

During the day he had a few businesses going, including catering fried chicken and selling his clothes on the sidewalks of Boulevard St. Germain. He also made tight, skintight dresses for friends, many of them mannequins, who slipped their orders and money under his door. It was this exposure that launched him. An editor from a fashion magazine visited him based on what he had seen on the models and did a six page article. He and Amelan, a former photographers agent, quickly settled in.

Kelly likes having Bette Davis and Grace Jones among her clients, but says she still makes clothes for the young fashion addict who can’t afford to pay. “I started out making fun, affordable fashion and I still want to,” she says.

“Patrick was the first to break the equation between expensive and designer,” says Amelan. A cotton piqué suit with embroidered bows from her most recent collection, for example, retails for $450, but the same suit is also available without the bows for $300, and a bow kit is sold separately for $45.

“I also made some fun T-shirt dresses with printed buttons that retail for $36 retail,” she says. However, he says his prices have created a dilemma in stores that departmentalize by price. He wants to be in designer flats. “I don’t want to be in junior zoom departments,” says the designer. And, according to Wheaton, Kelly’s sales are strongest on designer flats.

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“There’s no question that sales are better in the design departments,” she says. “The dedicated designer client doesn’t shop seasonally like her mom did. She is constantly in that department looking for new merchandise.”

On a recent tour of the stores, she adds, “I watched people wander into the designer departments for ideas. They want something edgy and sexy but can’t necessarily afford it, then stumble upon something with a French brand they can afford; That’s why we sell.”

Kelly says Warnaco gives her credibility. “I wasn’t happy with the way he was going,” he says, referring to problems at every level with Ghinea, the Italian company that previously made the line. Since Warnaco took over, the line has been made by Moulin-based French firm Chofflet.

In February, Warnaco will launch an advertising campaign in the US, but will spend most of the promotionbudget tions on informal models and trunk displays in specific stores,
Wheaton says.

He predicts that in three years the US will comprise 75 percent of Kelly’s business: “It’s normal that the biggest growth will come from the US.”

She notes, “Patrick’s prices are affordable, the fashion is edgy yet comfortable, and we’ll deliver six times a year to keep new merchandise in stores at all times.
Growth will come quite naturally.”

Manufacturers have approached Kelly, from pattern makers to jewelry houses, for licenses, according to Wheaton, but the company is nowhere near signing new deals.
“During this first year, our main concern is to get the collection produced right, shipped right, delivered right and sold.” Kelly already has a fur license for Copenhagen-based AC Bang.

Meanwhile, Kelly leaves the marketing to others, and when he’s not designing his own line, he usually has several other projects that he’s equally excited about.

She still freelances for other companies and would like to arrange to work for her favorite designer, Madame Gres (“I’d pass her pins, she says). She’s also putting together a cookbook, her own recipes and those of her mother and grandmother.” , and plans to open a doll shop (she has a collection of over 5,000 black dolls).

Kelly plans to continue making clothes to order, but will work outside the structure imposed by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. Her next collection, to be shown in January, will be made up of just 13 outfits, “everything a woman needs for her summer wardrobe,” she says.

He admits his show in July ruffled feathers in the Chambre. “They thought I was mocking or faking haute couture. But I wasn’t,” he says. “I was just having fun.”

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