No placard encapsulating what lies ahead greets visitors at the entrance of “From Couture to da’ Streets,” a fashion exhibit at the Mississippi Arts and Entertainment Experience in Meridian. The grooving sounds of ’90s hip-hop and R&B welcome guests as they step through the door and observe the Black men and women modeling the multicolor Cross Colours urban wear.
The exhibit celebrates Patrick Kelly and TJ Walker, Black fashion designers from some of the most rural parts of Mississippi who honed their creativity to craft unique clothing lines despite challenges they faced in the field as African Americans.
Both gentlemen’s stories, incidentally, began with their grandmothers.
Vicksburg native Kelly, born in 1954, fell in love with fashion at age 6 after Ethel Rainey, his grandmother who worked as a maid, brought home a fashion magazine. The magazine’s cover showcased white models displaying the then-latest trends. When Kelly inquired why the pages did not feature women of color, she told him that fashion designers did not have time for Black people. This message lit a fire in Kelly, who determined to create a clothing line for all women.
A decade later, in rural Toomsuba, Miss., 14 miles east of Meridian, Walker would begin to fall in love with art, using bedroom walls and notebooks as his canvases. He considered his grandmother, Pearlie Ann Walker, to be his muse. As a seamstress, Pearlie Ann would sew clothes for people in the neighborhood. Inspired, TJ drew sketches of his community members adorned in his grandmother’s fashions and later on learned to sew and make clothes himself.
These women laid the groundwork for their grandsons to move beyond their small communities, although the two designers took their experiences from living in rural Mississippi and channeled that inspiration into their fashions.
‘Buttons, Sunday Mornings and Floral Patterns’
Patrick Kelly’s visage rests atop a yellow wall, a color that seems just as bountiful and bright as his personality in the photo. He’s holding a Black doll in one hand and white one in the other, his cap brim tilted high enough to show Paris written across it. His smile is wide, and his eyes are looking off to the side, either at the Black doll or someone off-screen.
From 1972 to 1974, Kelly majored in art history and African American history at Jackson State University, but racial tensions following the 1970 Gibbs-Green shooting during the period led him to withdraw after two years. He moved to Atlanta in 1974, where he worked odd jobs and made connections with people in the fashion industry.
After five years in Atlanta, Kelly moved to New York at the urging of friend and model Pat Cleveland. Kelly enrolled at the New School’s Parsons School of Design, but he dropped out after administrators revoked his scholarship as he could afford only one semester.
Unable to find any support in the nearby fashion industry, Kelly transplanted to France, in 1979 after receiving an anonymously mailed one-way ticket. During his early years in Paris, Kelly struggled to find his place, but he eventually met Bjorn Amelan, a photographer who became his business partner and lover, and they founded Patrick Kelly Paris, a fashion label.
Patrick Kelly aspired to make his brand representative of himself: southern, Black and creative. He designed clothes that were body conscious, bright in color, and with unique patterns that represented the sweet and sassy qualities found in the south.
He used bows, floral prints, buttons and stereotypical imagery like bananas, watermelon and the golliwog. The golliwog was a derogatory Black character from a children’s book in the late 19th century. Kelly’s goal was to repurpose these images from symbols of hate into symbols of love.
A dark, navy blue dress littered with stars and rounded blue, pink, and gold buttons in various patterns sits along the exhibit wall. Next to that one rests its sister, a black dress with gold, circular buttons in a horizontal pattern across the bottom of the dress.
Kelly’s affinity for buttons is an homage to grandmother, Ethel Rainey, who used to replace the buttons on his clothes with whatever she could find, regardless of shape, size or color. Sunday mornings also served as a source of inspiration for Kelly, who regularly attended church services with his grandmother, as he observed the fashions Black men and women would wear to look their best for praise and worship.
‘The MAX’ Celebrating Little-Known Mississippians
The Mississippi Arts and Entertainment Experience, or the MAX, is a museum that opened in April 2018 with the goal of educating people who may not be aware of the famous people who hail from Mississippi or their contributions to art and entertainment that combat the state’s often poor reputation.
“This is one way to kind of inspire the next generation of famous Mississippians to say, ‘Hey this person is from your town, or this person looks like you. You can do it, too, in whatever genre because literally Mississippians are in everything,’” Curator of Exhibitions Stacey Peralta told the Mississippi Free Press.
Peralta moved to Meridian in 2017 to help get the museum off the ground. Originally from St. Rose, La., all she knew about Mississippi were the negatives circulating in the public eye and the facts that Oprah was from the state and that blues music originated here, which she learned from her grandfather, who is from Laurel, she said.
“It really changed my mindset because I was one of those people that said I would never move to Mississippi. And you know, God laughs at your plans. I’ve been here four years, (and) I like it,” Peralta said.
As curator, Peralta headed the design, research and writing for the “From Couture to da’ Streets” exhibit. Always on the hunt for diverse exhibit options, Peralta said she had wanted to host an exhibition on Patrick Kelly.
“I knew where his collection was, but I always try to have at least two artists in an exhibit because I can do about six a year, three in the downstairs exhibit space and three upstairs in that exhibit space,” she said. “It’s a way to kind of get more artists out there.”
While she was thinking of who else to include in the exhibit, TJ Walker stopped by the museum. He was home visiting his family, who told him about the MAX. Jerome Trahan, former director of marketing, gave Walker a tour of the facility when Peralta bumped into the pair, the Louisiana native said.
“(TJ) was letting me know about where he’s from (and that) he had an exhibit in California at the time,” she explained. “I said, ‘Well you can do one here,’ and he said, ‘OK.’”
She contacted Jackson State University, who had Patrick Kelly’s collection, and she worked with TJ Walker to get his artifacts and to help develop a story. “I really wanted to showcase these two men, where they’re from, the art that they curated through clothing, but I also wanted to go over the top,” she said.
The over-the-topness manifests in the clothes hanging from the ceiling and on the walls, in the R&B and rap music that reverberates throughout, and in the bright colors that permeate the space. Peralta said another challenge the museum has faced is getting the community to come and visit. Many have the idea that this place is not for them to enjoy, Peralta said, but she emphasized that the MAX was a space for Black people, especially since they make up 90% of those spotlighted in the exhibits.
“TJ was really adamant (that) this exhibit is free. If you want to see the rest of the museum, you have to pay, but this exhibit, you can come Tuesday through Saturday when we’re open, and you will not have to pay to come see this exhibit,” the curator said.
Peralta said they’ve seen an increase in Black patrons coming to view the exhibit, especially since the MAX has been hosting educational programs. The museum had a T-shirt workshop with TJ and local manhole cover artist Cary Haycox, which was well attended, and last month it hosted a fashion show that saw 200 people in attendance.
“We were looking for models, so we used people from the community who modeled the clothing and TJ, being the awesome some guy that he is, let all of the models keep one outfit,” Peralta said.
The museum will host one final event on Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022, with Chef Enrika Williams, who will be preparing a Cross Colours-inspired dinner. The dinner will wrap up the three-month long exhibition before all the items and artifacts return to where they call home.
“With this exhibit, because it ends in January, (TJ) was like, ‘I don’t want this to be the last time,’” Peralta recalled. “He wants to come. He wants to keep doing programming. He wants to be involved in the community where he’s from.”
Director of Communications and Programs Laura Hester said with every exhibit the museum does, it’s always their desire that any student that comes through sees the success of everyone represented.
“This one was really special because TJ took the time to talk to people; he really, really took the time to create local inspiration,” Hester said. “We want (visiting students) to see that this guy from Toomsuba, Miss., did this and look at what you could do.”
‘Clothing Without Prejudice’
Patrick Kelly met success with his women’s line in the years following his company’s launch, with actress Bette Davis wearing one of his creations on “The David Letterman Show” in 1987. Afterward, he signed a $5-million contract with a textile corporation that sold brands like Speedo and Calvin Klein.
In 1989, Kelly presented his final collection before dying from AIDS-derived complications on Jan. 1, 1990. He had been at the height of his career at the time, signing major deals and beginning the process of creating a men’s line.
Although Kelly ascended before his time, TJ Walker later picked up the proverbial torch, presenting his Cross Colours urban-wear line a month after Kelly’s passing. While Kelly had been putting his stamp on the fashion industry in Paris, Walker was building the foundation for his urban-wear line, Cross Colours.
From 1978 to 1983, Walker was rounding out his education, earning his Associate of Arts degree from Meridian Community College, his Bachelor of Fine Arts in commercial design from Delta State University, and his Master of Fine Arts in graphic design, fashion illustration and Printing from Louisiana Tech University.
The following year, he returned to his hometown to work and save money so that he could go to Paris himself, like Patrick Kelly, but he never saved enough for the plane ticket. In 1985, he packed up and moved to Los Angeles to become a fashion illustrator. There, Walker met Carl Jones after answering an graphic-artist ad for Jones’ beachwear line, Surf Fetish.
Eventually, Walker and Jones set out on their own to create an urban-wear line during the latter half of the 1980s. They took multiple trips to Brooklyn, N.Y., and travelled across the city, observing what young people were wearing, such as oversized clothes, before doing so was a nationwide trend.
The duo flew back to Los Angeles and used the money Jones saved from Surf Fetish and other sources of income to buy the materials to start their line. They created clothes that were oversized, but still fit. They went to clubs and let models critique the details and try on outfits that were works-in-progress.
The younger generation continued to inspire the line with Walker and Jones letting young people come in and critique the line as well. The designers initially came up with the name Cross Culture, but after learning that it was already taken, they chose Cross Colours as the name of their line. Using the slogan “Clothing Without Prejudice,” the two finalized the line that aimed for all people to wear their creations, regardless of race or gang affiliation.
Afrocentrism inspired the colors, logos and designs for the line, which Walker sketched. Much like Kelly’s brand, Cross Colours used a variety of colors and quirky patterns. Early sketches of a black, red, green, white, and yellow Cross Colours hoodies and matching basketball shorts sit in a display case alongside jewelry that Patrick Kelly designed.
Across from them on a bright orange wall is an assortment of Cross Colour socks tacked to the wall while pairs of the brand’s shoes sit in a glass case in front. Nearby is a green and blue striped, long-sleeved shirt with matching shorts, while a blue dress with red, orange and lime green buttons across its front also is in sight.
In February 1990, the designers took the samples they made to Las Vegas’ MAGIC trade show, standing out among the crowd of designers who were using neutral colors like blue, black and navy. And though their booth was in the back, their designs stole the show as people stood in line for hours to place an order.
When it was time to head back to Los Angeles, Jones had to buy a suitcase to hold the $1 million worth of orders they had received.
For three years, Cross Colours became one of the top 10 African American-owned businesses in the nation. The brand sold in stores like Macy’s, Oaktree and Merry-Go-Round, their largest retailer at the time. Top entertainers wore their brand, including the staff of Keenen Ivory Wayans’ “In Living Color,” Will Smith while on the “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” and girl group TLC.
The brand lost some steam between 1993 and 1994 after their top retailer filed for bankruptcy. Cross Colours had to sell everything and close its doors, but the company’s legacy transcended decades and inspired urban-wear brands that followed such as Karl Kani, FUBU, Phat Farm, Sean John and Rocawear.
Cross Colours made a resurgence in 2014 when Urban Outfitters approached the brand to create a collection for their stores, and Zumiez began carrying the line soon after. In 2018, rapper Cardi B and singer Bruno Mars wore vintage Cross Colours pieces during their Grammy’s performance, which spread the word about the fashion line’s revival.
Cross Colours eventually sponsored Mars’ 24K Magic World Tour, selling its clothes at the concerts, and the brand is continuing to regain popularity, sold in stores like Nordstrom today.
The Controversial Golliwog
During a time where Black faces in the fashion industry were few and far between, Patrick Kelly, a gay, Black man from Mississippi, made a sizeable dent in the fashion industry and left behind a legacy that opened doors for a number of African American designers and models.
And despite what critics had to say about his appropriation of the golliwog image, Kelly stuck to his guns and never shied away from commenting on race in his designs. As a Black man from Mississippi, racism was not something he could turn from, so he didn’t allow his audiences to either.
This conviction is why he used the golliwog in some of his pieces and why he gave out Black doll pins at his fashion shows: He found healing in fashion and wanted to have those conversations through his fashion as well.
“White people are not offended by Mickey Mouse? Why should we be afraid of Aunt Jemima?” Kelly once said.
“From Couture to da’ Streets” will continue showing at the MAX until Jan. 8, 2022. To learn more about the exhibit and what else the MAX has to offer, visit their website here. Register here to attend “MAXEats: Cross Colours Dinner with Chef Enrika Williams” on Saturday, Jan. 8. The event is $35 for members and $40 for non-members and has limited capacity, but if seats are still available, tickets can be bought at the door.