March 3, 1940 (
Portsmouth, Virginia, U.S.
Cause of death
College of William and MaryNew York University
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Perry Edwin Ellis (March 3, 1940 – May 30, 1986) was an American fashion designer who founded his eponymous sportswear house, in the mid-1970s. Ellis' influence on the fashion industry has been called "a huge turning point", because he introduced new patterns and proportions to a market which was dominated by more traditional men's clothing.
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- Early life
- Personal life
- Illness and death
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Ellis was born in Portsmouth, Virginia, on March 3, 1940, the only child of Edwin and Winifred Rountree Ellis. His father owned a coal and home heating oil company, which enabled the family to live a comfortable middle-class life. Perry graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School in Portsmouth, Virginia in 1957. He then studied at the College of William and Mary, in Williamsburg, Virginia, and graduated with a degree in business administration in 1961. To avoid the draft, Ellis enlisted in the United States Coast Guard Reserve with service that included six months of active duty with the Coast Guard. He graduated from New York University with a master's degree in retailing in 1963.
Ellis started out in department store retailing in the Richmond, Virginia area to gain experience in the fashion industry as a buyer and merchandiser at the department store Miller & Rhoads. While there, he was co-founder of Richmond retail shop A Sunny Day. He later joined the sportswear company John Meyer of Norwich in New York City. Eventually, in the mid-1970s, he was approached by his then employer, The Vera Companies, famous for their polyester double-knit pantsuits, to design a fashion collection for them. Soon after that, Ellis presented his first women's sportswear line, called Portfolio, in November 1976. Although he could not sketch, he knew exactly how the industry worked and proved a master of innovative ideas who created 'new classics' that American women longed for at the time.
Ellis, together with The Vera Companies' parent company, Manhattan Industries, founded his own fashion house, Perry Ellis International, in 1978. He opened his showroom on New York's Seventh Avenue. As the company's chairman and head designer he later developed Perry Ellis Menswear Collection – marked by "non-traditional, modern classics". Step by step, he added shoes, accessories, furs and perfume that all bear his name.
Throughout the 1980s the company continued to expand and include various labels such as Perry Ellis Collection and Perry Ellis Portfolio. By 1982, the company had more than 75 staff. In 1984, Perry Ellis America was created in cooperation with Levi Strauss. In 1985, he revived his lesser-priced Portfolio product line. In the early 1980s, wholesale revenues had figured at about $60 million. By 1986 that number had risen to about $260 million.
Highly praised professionally and personally, Ellis believed that "fashion dies when you take it too seriously." Of Perry Ellis' fashion design, Michael Bastian remarked that "no one did it better...He was able to be modern and yet not come off antiseptic," while Steven Kolb, CEO of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, described Ellis' fashion as "my way to step forward in fashion, but to still have a comfort level. It helped define my personality."
Ellis served as president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) from 1984 to 1986.
In 1981, Ellis began a relationship with attorney Laughlin Barker (1948 - January 2, 1986). Later that year, Ellis appointed Barker the President of the licensing division of Perry Ellis International. They remained together until Barker's death in January 1986.
In February 1984, Ellis and his long-time friend television producer and writer Barbara Gallagher conceived a child together via artificial insemination. Their daughter, Tyler Alexandra Gallagher Ellis, was born in November 1984. Ellis bought a home for Gallagher and their daughter in Brentwood, Los Angeles, and would visit frequently. In 2011, Tyler released her first line of handbags using the name Tyler Alexandra.
Illness and death
In October 1985, rumors that Ellis had contracted AIDS began to surface when he appeared on the runway at the end of his Fall fashion show. By that time, Ellis had lost a considerable amount of weight and looked much older. Around the same time, Ellis' partner Laughlin Barker was undergoing chemotherapy for Kaposi's sarcoma, an AIDS-related cancer which later metastasized to his lungs. Ellis continued to deny that he was sick, but rumors of his illness persisted after he passed out in the receiving line at a party at the Costume Institute in December 1985. On January 2, 1986, Barker died of lung cancer at the couple's home in Manhattan. After Barker's death, Ellis' health rapidly declined. By May 1986, Ellis had contracted viral encephalitis which caused paralysis on one side of his face. Despite his appearance, he insisted on appearing at his Fall fashion show held in New York City on May 8. At the end of the show, Ellis attempted to walk the runway for his final bow but was so weak, he had to be supported by two assistants. It was his final public appearance. Ellis was hospitalized soon after and slipped into a coma. He died of viral encephalitis on May 30, 1986. A spokesperson for Ellis' company would not comment on whether the designer's death was AIDS-related stating, "Those were Perry's wishes."
Most newspapers omitted the AIDS rumors from Ellis' obituary and simply attributed his death to encephalitis. In August 1986, New York magazine writer Patricia Morrisroe wrote a story about Ellis where she concluded that, "...many people believe Ellis had AIDS, and given the evidence, it seems likely." A 1993 article from the Associated Press included Ellis among its list of better known AIDS victims.
In 1986, the annual Perry Ellis Award—now known as the Swarovski Emerging Talent Award—was created to honor emerging talents in the world of men's and women's fashion designers. The first designer to receive it was David Cameron.
Though he worked as a designer for less than a decade, over 25 years after his death his work is “still seen as incredibly influential."
In 1999, Miami-based textile company Supreme International purchased the Perry Ellis brand from Salant, a licensee of Perry Ellis that acquired it from Manhattan Industries in 1986. Supreme renamed itself Perry Ellis International and the company became traded on the NASDAQ under PERY. Perry Ellis International also owns and licenses other notable fashion brands, such as Original Penguin by Munsingwear, Cubavera, C&C California, Rafaella, Laundry by Shelli Segal, Ben Hogan, Jantzen, Nike Swim and Callaway, among others.
Moving into the twenty-first century, the Perry Ellis name has continued to expand. Building upon styles set forth by Ellis, the brand has successfully continued to grow, collaborate with other designers, such as Duckie Brown, and hold critical acclaim.