Friday, March 6, 2009

A Button Homage to Patrick Kelly

Above: Mr. Peacock's stylized button tribute to the late fashion designer, Patrick Kelly.

Patrick Kelly was a talented American fashion designer who passed away, in 1990, at the peak of his fame. He was the first American to be allowed into the elite Parisian fashion designer's organization called Chambre Syndicale. His most memorable garments were embellished with masses of multicolored buttons.

Above: An iconic, Patrick Kelly, heart dress—made from masses of plastic buttons.

Mr. Kelly often lied about his age, but it’s assumed he was between 35 and 40 years old when he died from AIDS complications. He was born in Mississippi and taught himself how to sew at an early age. He left Mississippi to escape the oppressive racial tensions and to pursue a serious career in fashion; eventually ending up in Paris. The Brooklyn Museum had a Patrick Kelly Retrospective in 2004.


Bette Davis helped Patrick’s rise to fame when she announced on the The David Letterman Show in 1987, that Patrick Kelly designed her “heart” dress. On subsequent television appearances, Ms. Davis usually wore Patrick Kelly, and always gave him public praise (see video above).

Patrick Kelly was proud of his African American heritage and collected Black dolls and other Black memorabilia. He made lapel pins with Black baby doll faces, which generated some controversy and offended some African Americans at the time. These pins became his trademark (see shopping bags—above right) and he would give them away to everyone he met. This gentleman peacock always wore oversize overalls, t-shirts and bicycle caps emblazoned with Paris. Click here to watch an interesting interview with Patrick Kelly; it will give you an insight into his style and personality. Mr. Peacock salutes the talent and creativity of Mr. Patrick Kelly.

Here's instructions to make your own button embellished jacket or pillow:
This fairly simple project is an homage to Mr. Patrick Kelly and his imaginative use of the humble button. I’m sure you have, or know someone who has, a jar of buttons. If not, stop my your local thrift store—they usually have bags of mixed buttons for sale.

Above: Some of Mr. Peacock's button stash. I used to keep my buttons in a very large jar, but now I sort my buttons by color and keep them in zip lock bags for easy access.

Mr. Peacock has embellished a variety of items over the years with buttons: jackets, pillows and even curtains. I used a vintage Wrangler jacket for my stylized skull & crossbones (below).

If you’re going to embellish, or make a pillow, I recommend a sturdy, medium or heavy weight fabric. Make sure you prewash the fabric. You’ll need to select a needle and thread that’s appropriate for the weight of your fabric you choose—check with your fabric store.

1) Select your artwork
Simple iconic images work the best, like Mr. Kelly’s famous heart. A monogram is always nice too. You can draw your design directly onto your garment (or fabric) with a washable marker (available at fabric stores), or use a transfer pencil and trace your design from existing artwork.

2) Trace or draw artwork
I chose the letter ‘R’ and printed one out on an 8.5" x 11" piece of paper from my computer. You can draw your artwork with a washable marker, available at fabric store or trace it with a transfer pencil.

If you’re using a transfer pencil, you will need to trace the reverse image of your artwork (see photo above). I flipped the paper over, and placed a sheet of vellum paper (you can use tracing paper too) on top and taped them in a sunny window. Then I took my red transfer pencil and heavily traced the reverse image of my letter ‘R.’

Now you can position the vellum paper, with the drawn side down, on your garment or fabric and iron it with a hot iron. The pencil lines will transfer to the fabric. It’s not a perfect method for transferring your design, but it will give you a rough outline to follow as you sew your buttons.

3) Layout your "button map"
Gather the buttons you want to use. Mr. Peacock used all different tones, and sizes, of white buttons for the skull & crossbones, and chose a gold and brass tone palette for the embellished monogram pillow.

Lay your artwork on a flat surface and start playing with your button arrangement. I call this your “button map.” It will add more visual appeal if you mix different shaped and sized buttons.

4) Sew on the buttons
You can now start sewing the buttons on—one at a time. The process goes fairly quickly. Take a few buttons at a time from your "button map."

Make sure each button is sewn on well—I gave each button about 10 or 12 alternating stitches. I didn’t use any interfacing on the backside, but you can if you prefer (see photo above).

5) Voila!
Your button embellished pillow or jacket is now ready to use.

If you’re in New York City, be sure to stop by one of Mr. Peacock’s favorite little shops—Tender Buttons. This little basement shop (see photo below) on the Upper East Side is a treasure trove of rare and unusual buttons. They’re a bit pricey, but if you’re on the quest for a special or rare button you won't be disappointed.

Do you have a big jar of buttons stashed somewhere?

11 comments:

kelly jo said...

so great! thank you for another lesson in diy and great fashion history...

david john said...

yes thank you! since we are all sharing, i used to make cross, crucifixes out of buttons in my teenage years. they were very beautiful, and very folksy. if only i had pictures to show.

Cynthia J. said...

Thanks for this post - it cleaned out my soul. Patrick Kelly - gone too soon. I bought a ham can full of old buttons at a yard sale 5 years ago and use them for embellishment of clothes, pillows and quilts. Hope you're feeling better.

Paul Pincus said...

brilliant as always, mr. peacock!

patrick kelly ... wow, i remember seeing him often on fashion televsion in the late eighties ... so gifted and sweet. love your homage to mr. kelly! a close friend of mine has spent a small fortune at tender buttons!

have you seen ryan mcginness' piece made from a vintage chloé dress covered in buttons? it's kinda great.

btw, i think it's safe to say that your blog is incomparable!!!

Mr. Peacock said...

Happy Friday everyone...
and thanks for the nice comments!

A cross or crucifix sounds amazing in buttons!!

Hooray for buttons! And Tender Buttons!

I love Ryan McGinness's work,
but I haven't seen the piece
that you mentioned.
I'm gonna look for it right now!

Merci!!!!

Scott Fazzini said...

Mr. P. you never cease to amaze me. What a wickedly awesome jacket! And, the Bette Davis interview was SO spectacular that I watched it twice! Thanks for making the end of a grueling week much better!

Felix Orti said...

Bette Davis!!!
what a great woman.

Lisa Borgnes Giramonti said...

The next time I'm in SF, I will be searching the streets for that gorgeous skull button jacket! And oh, the Bette Davis clip...too, too much. Merci.

Doodle Whore said...

Yes, I do have a big jar of buttons and safety pins. Perhaps a Johnny Rotten flavored pillow is in the offing?

WendyB said...

Great work. I love Patrick Kelly.

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