Antonio Lopez, Willi Smith and Patrick Kelly


antonio lopez gold

The 1980’s, in the fashion world, being of color and gay was to be celebrated…today, in 2009, it seems that we have made both huge strides forward and vast puzzling backward steps at the same time.  Eighties icons of color in the fashion industry such as Antonio Lopez, illustrator and designers, Willi Smith and Patrick Kelly were Colorful Characters who delighted in their cultures and shared them liberally… distinctly moving the needle Beyond The Pale in a way not seen today.

As I write this post, I am aware of the huge sea-change in the presence and design output of designers of color.  Today the term “urban or street fashion” is the dominant mode of business and expression as designed by powerhouse names such as Kimora Lee, P.Diddy, Russell Simmons and Marc Ecko.  Embraced by all races, and notable for this reason and many others, however, there is a couture sensibility encapsulating a rich cultural history that seems to be missing in the industry.  A look at designers and illustrators from the 1980’s makes one wish for the sophisticated, elegant and playful references that were the language of color beyond the hip hop lifestyle confines that currently define urban fashion.  (Notable exceptions today include Rachel Roy, Tracy Reese, Patrick Robinson…more to come on them!)

Aren’t we all awaiting a young designer to take on the iconographic richness of African culture, build on what Patrick Kelly began to hint at… in the way a Lagerfeld took Chanel’s language of freedom and power…and change the game?

This is part of the dream for Fashion Beyond The Pale.

We seek to discover new luminaries while celebrating the powerful legacy of designers, models and visionaries of color.  Here are my LIGHTS that we honor from the Eighties…

Antonio Lopez  (1943 – 1987)

antonio sketch


“To Antonio, illustration was not merely a tool to sell high priced clothing to the upper class white woman, but to demonstrate that regardless of ethnicity, social class, gender or sexual orientation, any individual could evoke their own glamour and style.” Chou belle blog

Antonio Lopez was the crowning dessert of my diet of Kenneth Paul Block, Joe Eula and Mats Gustafson in art school as a Fashion Illustration Major. (Yes, that major actually existed during the art’s last hurrah in the 80’s.) A prodigy as an intern at WWD,Women’s Wear Daily,  Lopez’s style of illustration had all the detail and reverence of the Italian masters.  He was one of fashion’s shining stars who died too early at 44 from AIDS, yet interestingly, he was engaged to Jerry Hall.  Antonio’s illustrations enhanced the career of Jerry Hall and of all his “girls”, Grace Jones, Jessica Lange, Pat Cleveland among many.  They shine in the bible of his work,“Antonio’s Girls.”

antonio lopez and lagerfeld

antonio sketch 2antonio lopez in jardin de luxembourg

Two key factors emerge when looking at the inspiration and history of fashion genius among people of color, families who sewed or did tailoring and extended stays in Paris. For Lopez, growing up in NYC, his seamstress mother, would ask him to draw flowers for her embroideries. His father was a mannequin maker who had his son apply make-up to the forms and stitch their wigs. 

Metamorphosing pop-art and surrealism with tropical imagery and the glamour of the first Supermodels dancing on top of tables at Les Bains Douche, the famed nightclub in Paris, Lopez’s art created and celebrated an ideal of multi-ethnic girls whose representations had much to do with shaping the standards of late twentieth-century beauty…beyond the pale.

Willi Smith (1948 – 1987)  

Willi Smith


“I don’t make clothes for the Queen, but for the people on the street who wave as she passes.” Willi Smith

On the street in the Eighties, I very happily wore my olive green pleated Willi Smith skorts and the cherry red Indian cotton hammer pants with tops from Renaissance or white muscle tanks and 1950’s sparkly pumps.  I loved the sense of play and air embodied in them as I danced through several Summer evenings which turned into dawn street parties as we spilled out from the clubs at 6 am, dizzy, sweaty and blissed-out from hours of dancing.

Beyond my own memories, historically Willi Smith influenced Patrick Robinson, designer at The Gap into fashion, saving him from a medical school jaunt and gave Bethann Hardison her modeling career start upon a chance meeting in an elevator according to this great Bethann article on the fashion bomb blog.

With a business worth 25 million dollars at one point and prestigious industry awards, one could say that Willi Smith invented the idea of “street wear”. This excellent article on Willi Smith mentions his pioneering use of videos and the iconography of the street- brick walls, street signs and traffic lights in his showroom- to sell his concept, visual staples of urban style today.

Patrick Kelly (1954 – 1990)

“No other well-known fashion designer has been so inextricably linked to both his race and his culture. And no other designer was so purposeful in exploiting both”, wrote Robin Givhan in The Washington Post in a fascinating article.

Big color, big buttons and big smiling black faces.  Mississippi-born Patrick Kelly celebrated his culture and race in a fun and delightful way.  Like many creative Americans of color he moved to Paris, reflective of other pioneers of color such as Josephine Baker, James Baldwin and yes, Grace Jones.  Champions of Kelly’s work included Bette Davis, Isabella Rossellini and Cicely Tyson, whose patronage helped him to eventually secure backing from Warnaco, the industry giant.  Kelly was the first American admitted to the Chambre Syndicale, France’s prestigious organization of fashion designers.  Unfortunately, he too succumbed to AIDS at this height of his career and this bright star was lost.    

These images and a great homage can be found on Mr. Peacock’s blog.


Oliviero Toscani’s photo shows the Love.


PatrickKelly himself

The love for Patrick Kelly is enduring.

Mr. Peacock (one of my favorite blogs) pays homage to Patrick Kelly with this dress with a button heart, shown above.

The Brooklyn Museum Patrick Kelly: A Retrospective show, exactly five years ago, in 2004, was organized by guest curator Thelma Golden, Deputy Director for Exhibitions and Programs at The Studio Museum in Harlem.

Here is more insight from Robin Givhan’s excellent article.

“…Kelly’s legacy bears few indications of self-doubt, anger or hatred — self- or otherwise. Instead, it is relentlessly, ruthlessly joyful, a spirit that is captured in the exhibition. By embodying the stereotypes, Kelly sought to deflate them. He was a cheerful and charming radical who handed out his tiny black plastic baby dolls — their lips dyed bright red — to anyone he might meet.

“The most direct descendants of Kelly are the designers and entertainers who have sprung from hip-hop: men and women who use racial epithets as a synonym for “buddy,” who celebrate pickaninny braids and nappy roots, who model glamorous clothes after uniforms of defeat, desperation and poverty. That connection makes sense. Kelly wasn’t creating fashion as much as he was crafting a silk and satin portrait of his culture.”

“It may be that Kelly would only be disappointed that a decade after his death the images still have the power to outrage and embarrass.”

robin givhan, patrick kelly

Can you imagine this imagery today during our times of Obama, racist pool members and the Gates arrest?

Click here for the event “Fashion Beyond The Pale”

One Response to “Antonio Lopez, Willi Smith and Patrick Kelly”

  1. Hi,

    Thank you for the great quality of your blog, each time i come here, i’m amazed.

    black hattitude.

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