By Bonnie Johnson
June 15, 1987 12:00 PM

Ask designer Patrick Kelly his age, and he’ll coyly say, “I’m old enough to be in bed without peeing.” Try to find out how many siblings he has, and his answer is, “Lots.”

Numbers may elude him, but figures do not, especially curvy ones. Best known for his eye-popping jersey dresses that are decorated with multicolored buttons and bows, the irreverent Kelly is Paris’ latest fashion upstart. His fall collection wowed fussy European critics, sales should top $5 million this year, his clothes are hotsellers in the U.S. and last month he opened his first Paris boutique.

He has even turned the head of that most professional of clotheshorses, Princess Diana. Recently spied shimmying into one of Kelly’s sequin-covered, leopard-print numbers at London’s Harvey Nichols, Diana asked her male bodyguard, “It’s too tight, isn’t it?” When he agreed, Diana replied, “I’ll take it.”

Not a bad sale for a farm kid who picked up his sense of style in hometown Vicksburg, Miss. (pop. 25,434). “There weren’t any fashion shows there, but there was fashion,” says Kelly, who landed in Paris in 1980 by way of New York and Atlanta. “At the black Baptist church on Sunday, the ladies are just as fierce as the ladies at Yves Saint Laurent haute couture shows.”

Kelly negotiated the cultural gap effortlessly. He didn’t have any money, didn’t know any French, and his Southern drawl didn’t exactly translate well, either. But “I never felt out of place,” he says. “I wanted to fit in so badly.” A consummate hustler who excels at ingratiating himself, his first words of French were, “Combien? Trop cher!” (Loose translation: “How much? Too much.”) Says acclaimed haute couture designer Christian Lacroix: “The French function according to love at first sight. If they fall in love with you, they accept you. And Patrick is very lovable. Everybody loves him.”

And how Kelly loves his women. “I design for fat women, skinny women, all kinds of women,” he says. “My message is, ‘You’re beautiful just the way you are.’ ” To prove his point, when he showed his fifth and most ambitious collection in March, one of his models was eight months pregnant.

The audience was entertained, but no one took his collection lightly. His clothes were spiked with humor: short black evening dresses with rows of gold buttons and tiered tulle overskirts; racing-striped, cashmere bicycle shorts topped with fake-fur pullovers; iridescent and marble-patterned siren dresses in a stretchy fabric.

But his clothes also showed a solid sense of what is “in” in Paris: miniskirts, hourglass silhouettes, tailored plaid suits with flared jackets and ruffles for evening. “Patrick Kelly has hit the big time this season,” raved Women’s Wear Daily afterward. The London Observer called Kelly “a master of simple, witty and sexy clothes.”

The tall and husky “master” prefers dressing down in his comfy uniform of oversized denim overalls (size 56), a white sweatshirt and yellow espadrille shoes. That only stokes his status as the savior of trend-hungry masses without money to burn. His dresses are priced from $200 for a knit dress to $1,500 for a hand-sewn wool dress adorned with 3,000 buttons. “You spend $500 on a sweater. How logical is that today? I’d rather spend $500 and get on a plane and go see something I’ve never seen before,” he has said. “I want my clothes worn by people.”

The people he understands best are women. When his father, Danie, an insurance agent, died in 1969, Patrick and his two brothers were raised in a house full of ladies: mom Letha, now 64 and a retired home economics teacher; his grandmother, Ethel Rainey, a caterer, and an aunt, Bernard. His “full-figured girls” as he playfully calls them, were true inspirations. He learned to draw from his mother but picked up sewing tips from a seamstress aunt in Louisiana. “My grandmother was the backbone of a lot of my tastes,” says Kelly. “She was always so pretty to me. I would go to church and look at her across from everybody else and she was a dream.”

When he was 6, Grandma showed him a fashion magazine she brought “from a white lady’s house.” He noticed there were no pictures of black women. “Nobody has time to design for them,” she told him. Young Patrick vowed that he would, and later expanded his dream to the entire female gender. But he kept his passion to himself. “In Mississippi you had to be a boy,” he says. “A boy sewing a dress? Oooo-EEEE!” His practical-minded mother had hoped he would become a doctor. “I told him, ‘Michelangelo was dead and gone before he was famous,’ ” says Letha.

Nevertheless, in 1972 Kelly accepted an art scholarship to Jackson State University but left after 18 months and moved to Atlanta. By day he sold clothes that he made and others that he recycled with his own flourishes in an upscale beauty parlor; by night he slept in booths in all-night bars for several months, until he could afford decent digs. Word of mouth spread, and Kelly was soon staging fashion shows. At one of them he met stunning model Pat Cleveland, who started buying his clothes. She suggested he head to New York. He did, but couldn’t whip up a stitch of interest and wound up in a series of gofer jobs on Seventh Avenue. “They say the French are snobs,” says Kelly. “Try getting in to see a New York designer.”

Kelly grew frustrated, and one day his pal Cleveland took him aside and urged him to relocate to Europe. Later that night he found a one-way ticket to Paris waiting for him. “I still don’t know where it came from,” he insists. When he departed the next morning, it was with mixed feelings. “I had family and friends and that’s a lot,” he says, “but for my work, I wasn’t leaving nothing.”

Almost immediately, Kelly found a job designing costumes for dancers at the Le Palace nightspot. With a Singer sewing machine, American pal Liz Goodrum (now his creative assistant) and a 6’2″ model named Kim at his side, he churned out up to 1,000 costumes a week in a tiny hotel room across the street from the club. “We worked at night,” says Kelly. “If we sewed during the day we’d blow out the electricity and they knew it was us.”

When the Le Palace job ended in 1982, Kelly began scouting out the fashion scene. He took his clothes into the streets, peddling them in front of the chic Kashiyama France boutique (it now stocks his designs) and at a flea market. It was there that Kelly spied a roll of cotton tube jersey. Voila! His tube dress—a hemless, seamless cylinder of jersey with just holes for arms—was born. He decorated the dresses with cheap, colorful buttons, an idea he got from his grandmother. To detract from having to use mismatched buttons on his shirts, she started sewing them everywhere. The dresses caught on and through pal Björn Amelan, a photographer’s representative and now Kelly’s partner, the designer met Françoise Chassagnac, owner of Paris’ trendsetting Victoire boutiques. Kelly became the first American designer whose clothes she agreed to sell. “Patrick was charismatic, and his dresses were elegant, colorful, funny and unpretentious,” she remembers. “I was bowled over.” So was Nicole Crassat, then fashion editor of French Elle. After the magazine’s six-page story on him ran in the February 1985 issue, orders began to pour in.

Now, in addition to his own collection, he juggles 17 free-lance designing jobs, including a special line for Victoire and another for Benetton. He and his staff of eight recently moved into a spacious ground-floor atelier in the Marais, one of the oldest parts of Paris, where he puts in 12-hour days. Future plans call for a line of lingerie and perfume, as well as a men’s collection. “All the money I make goes back into the company,” says Kelly, who hasn’t taken a vacation in two years, or a salary in three.

There is symmetry to Kelly’s success. In his comfortable three-bedroom apartment in a working class section of town, signs of the Deep South are everywhere. Aunt Jemima pancake mix, grits and cornbread, which he imports from the U.S., line his shelves. Then there is his collection of 3,000 black dolls. “I don’t know if the NAACP would like my dolls,” he says, smiling. “But they give me pleasure.” Nor has he forgotten the full-figured girls back home who started it all for him. For Christmas, he shipped his once-doubting mother three suits he made especially for her. Last month, she wore one of them—a three-piece, blue-and-black imported silk ensemble—to a local fashion show. “My friends knew it came from Paris,” says Letha, proudly. “Because they sure hadn’t seen anything like that in Vicksburg.”