We made up our games on the farm, and we loved being outdoors. I started dressing my Persian cats when I was four or five years old. I’d have fashion shows, and the cats would have to march around. Mother had bolts and bolts of fabric and Alencon lace. I’d run florist wire through the top and make a skirt, then I’d put the skirt around the cat. The cats I thought did the best got a little bowl of milk — or I’d put the milk in a baby bottle, lie them on their backs with all four paws up, and feed them out of the bottle.
And I loved paper dolls, designed paper dolls. In Savannah, there were no fashion stores, just general stores with fabrics. They had pattern books — primarily Simplicity and McCall’s. The McCall’s paper dolls were way too juvenile looking for me! I wanted the glamour, the Vogue patterns! When they were in Memphis or Nashville, Mother and Daddy would buy me the out-of-date Vogue books. I cut my paper dolls out of them and made 3-D clothing for the dolls.
My great-aunt was a fabulous seamstress. I stayed with her when Mom and Dad went out. She lived nearby — well, Savannah is so tiny that everyone lived nearby! We would always pull out of this bottom drawer of fabrics and make things while Mother was away. I would have a new outfit for school the next day.
I didn’t realize until later that Mother was buying all those fabrics — acres of fabrics — for my great-aunt to keep in that drawer for me to design with. We’d lay these fabrics out on the table and anchor them with big case knives. We did not pin anything, and we had no patterns! It was all freehand.
I don’t recall anyone I grew up around not having bolts and bolts of cloth, ribbons, and lace. I never thought it was unusual.
I had my own dressmaker from the time I was three years old. I never wanted to look like anyone else, never wanted to dress like anybody else. Mother said that if the skirts were being worn down to the ankles in style, I’d want mine up around my hips. I always wanted to be different.
I studied oil painting for an hour each afternoon with an elderly lady. I’d paint canvases, figurines, plates. The paintings were very much about family and love. Farm scenes. One is a mother duck with her wings spread out around her ducklings. Another is a mother cow kissing her newborn calf.
Mom started me in dancing school in Memphis, and I won some competitions. I loved tap dancing, baton twirling — I loved competition. But Mom wasn’t pushy. It was always, "Just do your best and have a great time!" And I carried that attitude with me later when I started the Little Miss Universe, Miss Teen Universe, and Junior Miss Universe pageants.
Anything that had to do with church, home, or school, you could count on our family being there and participating. I enjoyed being a cheerleader, majorette, and representing the school at various events. I was honored to receive the school’s "Most Likely to Succeed" designation, which, interestingly, my mother had won years before and my younger sister later won! We were never ones to sit on the sidelines.
So I grew up in that atmosphere, surrounded by the security of competing and creating. I don’t ever remember Mother saying no to me about any creative idea I ever had. That gave me the confidence and freedom to create and the freedom to be fearless of failure. I think a lot of people don’t do things they might like to because they are so afraid of failure. You have to fail in something to get where you’re going.
That’s the kind of home I grew up in.
So I’ve designed all my life. I grew up doing it, and I just evolved into it. I never thought about what I wanted to be when I grew up. I never aspired to a particular thing, never had any real goals. I was just always a very happy and happy-go-lucky child. My life just evolved in a very interesting manner. I just let life take me where it would.
I attended Memphis State and was a teen model at Lowenstein’s, Levy’s, Gerber’s, and Helen of Memphis. We had fashion shows three days a week. I was also teaching modeling at Patricia Stevens and doing the major conventions for Holiday Inn. I designed Holiday Inn’s first uniform. Kemmons Wilson wanted his guests to see a familiar look behind the check-in desk when they entered his Holiday Inns. I was a freshman or sophomore living with a Delta Air Lines stewardess, so I replicated that type of look, but in the Holiday Inn green.
I bought the Tennessee Miss Universe franchise when I was 20 or 21. I was younger than the other contestants, but I developed it into the third-largest competition in America. Ultimately, I ended up working with the Miss Universe pageant for 12 years.
That opened up an incredible world for me. As Miss Tennessee, I traveled with Miss USA and Miss Universe to the Orient for three months. We did enormous fashion and charity shows, and the extraordinary embroideries there fascinated me! I could appreciate the amount of time it took to produce those exquisite works of art on fabrics. Those were the early seeds that started my passion for collecting antique textiles and laces, not having any earthly idea then that I would have the museum-quality collection I have now.
In the late 1960s, I met Oleg Cassini. He was at the height of his career, designing for Jackie Kennedy. He asked me to come to New York to model, which I did. It was a wonderful experience, and he was such a talented gentleman. He then wanted me to go to Canada and launch a new line he was creating. I said, "But I’m still in college! I can’t do that!" So I returned to my college life, although I had fallen in love with New York the moment I saw it.
I graduated with a B.F.A. in drawing and painting from Memphis State, and I attended the Memphis Academy of Art. Because Tennessee didn’t offer a master’s degree program in the arts, I studied under Paul Penczner at his fine art studio for many years. I had a very full single life — modeling, designing, traveling, and handling pageant work.
John Burton Tigrett was from Jackson, Tennessee, so I knew him and we had met each other before. He was living in London. We met in May 1973, and he proposed three days after we met! I told him that I had an unusual hobby of collecting antique textiles. Later, he told me, "I thought that hobby would be rather harmless until you started walking into Christie’s and Sotheby’s in London and clearing the house out!"
We married six months after he proposed and were married almost 26 years until he died in 1999. We had the greatest journey together! He was the most fun guy — amusing, funny, kind, gentle. He gave me the world as a playground, and together, we collected the most interesting people from the most remarkable walks of life.
We lived in London for 20 years. It was a very "dressy," formal period — people dressed to go to dinner or dine at home. Inevitably, someone would look at my gown and ask me, "Whose is that?" And I’d say, "It’s mine."
I came back to Memphis for our son’s birth in 1977. I wanted Kerr to be born in Tennessee. He reminds me of John daily — always inquisitive, prepared, a kind heart, and creatively analytical. He has a voracious appetite for figuring things out. As a little boy, he loved puzzles. He and his wife, Melanie, have recently given me my first grandchild, Sloane Margaret, named after my mother. When I babysit, Sloane and I play — what else? — dress-up!
In 1980, John planned a business trip to Dallas, and Kerr and I were going with him. I thought, "Maybe I’ll just take some things to show Neiman Marcus." I called the merchandise manager and told him what I was bringing down. I took two or three trunks, and when we met, they bought every single thing I had. I didn’t even have a business; I was just going for a reaction! I was thinking, "Oh, my God!" but I was saying, "Yes!" to everything! So Neiman Marcus started my business and me 30 years ago this year.
Life has given me so many incredible experiences, and I feel so fortunate. Estee Lauder chose my gowns to launch their "Beautiful" perfume campaign, the first bridal perfume in the industry. I’m the only designer featured in a centerfold in the Tiffany Wedding Book. Jackie Kennedy, as an editor, chose four of my gowns and photographed them in Newport, Rhode Island.
Pat Kerr gowns have graced 11 covers of the main bridal books printed today. I’ve produced weddings around the world, from the Vatican to Monte Carlo, from Egypt to underwater! Pieces from my private collection have been shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and other museums. I was invited to Althorp, Princess Diana’s ancestral home in England, to commentate the Princess Diana collection in their family museum for English television. A book or two is in my future, as well as a serious collection that will travel. Like I said, I’ve been incredibly blessed.
But I never run out of ideas. It’s like I’ve found what I was supposed to become, and I’ve always just let life take me to whatever happens next — which keeps me happy, anticipating each day.
My company headquarters is wherever I am, really. My clients are all over the world, and I travel to them. They often come to me when I am showing at The Carlyle Hotel in New York.
My favorite type of clothing to design … ethereal, gossamer, and feminine, using antique laces and making my clients feel beautiful.
The most difficult thing in this business is deadlines.
Beauty pageants teach you an awful lot about life, because you are walking that runway in front of the most critical eyes, and you have to be able to accept it and not care, basically. I loved it! It also teaches you how to win and lose gracefully.
When we lit the Memphis "M" bridge I was the co-chairman of the bridge-lighting project, and I was facing the crowd to watch their reactions. We had given sparklers to everyone. Everybody was holding up their sparklers, and they’re watching the bridge lights come up behind me. I’m looking into their eyes and seeing the emotions, from tears to laughter. The bridge and the area had been so black. The only lights that had been on that bridge before we lit it were the headlights from Tennesseans returning from the West Memphis dog track!
The biggest misperception people have about designing clothes is maybe thinking you can put something together in two seconds.
My Pat Kerr Private Royal Collection included items from Princess Diana, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Queen Victoria, and King George III, among others.
When I first met Princess Diana I immediately thought, "How young! How young to be considering such an incredible, impossible responsibility as the future Queen of England." She was a lovely person with a keen sense of humor.
Spearheading so many big benefit parties makes me focus, focus, focus! I am a stickler for details, and I want to have everything finished before the party starts, because the moment the party starts, I am a guest. Always, I am a guest at my own parties.
Fashion bombs? I’m sure there have been, but I don’t recall them. Maybe they were so bad that I pushed them out of my mind!
The Blues Ball has been extraordinary! When we started it16 years ago, nobody wanted Memphis musicians to play at anything. They were just so ostracized. Having lived in London, I saw how the English revered Memphis because of our music. I was determined to start something that would become "the musicians’ ball," never allowing anybody but Memphis musicians to play on stage. We have such a plethora of legends here! And we’re such a hotbed for training new sounds and new talent. And now the ball has grown to the largest annual ball in the nation, as we celebrate our 17th year this fall.
My favorite subject in school was art.
I have never had a cup of coffee in my life, or a beer.
My mother grew up an orphan. Her mother died giving birth to her. Her father was an alcoholic and committed suicide. Her Victorian grandparents raised her and just instilled those extraordinary Victorian values in her, which I am so pleased she passed along to us children.
The lesson I learned from my father is that in life, there are really no mistakes; there are only lessons.
When the first plane flew into the World Trade Center I was in a cab traveling over the Triborough Bridge on the way to the LaGuardia. I said to the driver, "What is that?" I couldn’t process it. We arrived at LaGuardia, and I’m checking in. I still didn’t have a clue what was going on — no one did. I was on the phone with a friend in Memphis, and he saw the second plane go in. He screamed at me, "Get out of that airport!" I jumped in a cab before they’d even closed the airport. We’re back on the Triborough Bridge when they closed both ends of the bridge. The only contact we had was the car radio telling us the bridges and tunnels might be the next to go! We ended up sitting for seven hours on the bridge, waiting to be blown up. So I watched the first tower collapse from the bridge, and I watched the second one collapse. It was life-changing. Finally, we were able to inch off the bridge. I found a hotel and stayed there for three days. I finally took a limousine back to Memphis. The next week, I was hosting the Blues Ball! My office said, "You can’t cancel the Blues Ball, Pat. We all need to be together." So we turned it into something highly patriotic and raised $60,000 for New York firemen.
Most people don’t know that I dated Jack Kelly, Princess Grace’s brother!
I learned my social graces from Mother and my great-aunt. Totally, 100 percent. I learned by watching them and how they treated others. Mother had me setting the table properly as soon as I was big enough to reach it! The napkins had to be folded just right or, dear God, you’d have to re-iron them!
I will never again not follow my heart.
I’m always mistrustful of jealous hearts, liars, gossips, cheaters, and thieves!
My first paying job was teaching at Patricia Stevens, a modeling and charm school, when I was a freshman in college. I also worked at Casual Corner — I just love fashion! Any time I could be around anything that was fashion or modeling, I loved it. It’s like I never worked in my life!
The values my parents instilled in me are what I cherish more than just about anything. They gave me the security to travel all over the world, take care of myself, not be intimidated by anyone, and not take advantage of anyone.
A big turning point for me came when I married John. A different country, a European lifestyle, a little baby, and I started my business.
My father was one of four boys. Very much committed to loving God, family, and the land. I was raised in a home where they stressed the importance of faith in God and the power of prayer. Those will get anybody through anything.
When I’m not dressed to the nines, I like to wear I’m always in tights or jeans. Always. They’re comfortable. I’m on the floor, on top of things, looking at designs. I work on tables some, but I can’t get on top to see structure, direction, and patterns. It’s so much easier for me to see the direction of lace patterns when I’m overlooking them — and wearing comfortable clothes!
I never thought I would … I don’t know. If I "think it," I do it! John used to say to me, "You never see a barrier; you always see a way of working around it or through it." He’s right!
If I could meet one person … I’m fascinated with Queen Victoria and that she, at such an early age, took on such incredible global responsibilities.
The time I was most afraid was when I had a gun put to my head. I was giving a birthday dinner for Fred Smith at a new Memphis restaurant. I stepped out of my car to go in and heard somebody behind me say, "Give me that purse!" I thought it was Fred teasing me. So I whiz around, and there’s a great big guy with a gun pointed at my temple. I threw my purse down, and when he reached down to pick it up, I could have won the Olympics running.
I’ll never forget the great loves of my life: past, present, and future.
I pay a personal price when I don’t listen to my inner self and push myself too hard physically. But my joy is in doing for others, so it’s hard.
I believe we are part of a bigger plan, and we each need to listen to our hearts and try to find the real reason for our being here.
Before I die, I … Philanthropically, I want to properly chronicle the efforts of the amazing volunteers who have surrounded me through many years of creating events together and making remarkable memories for Memphians, because many of the projects we’ve done are truly historic. Professionally, I would like to develop some items I’ve been working on for a long time; write my books; and have my private collection chronicled and in a museum. Personally, I want to watch my little granddaughter develop into a happy, accomplished young lady.
My final 2 cents