Perry Ellis born 3 March 1940 (d. 1986)
Perry Ellis was an American fashion designer.
Perry Edwin Ellis was born in Virginia. His father owned a fuel company, which enabled the family to live a comfortable middle-class life. Perry studied at the College of William and Mary, in Williamsburg, Virginia, and graduated with a degree in business administration in 1961. He enlisted in the United States Coast Guard reserve to avoid the military draft and after six months he enrolled at New York University, from which he graduated with a master's degree in retailing in 1963.
He then started out in department store retailing in the Richmond, Virginia area to gain experience in the fashion industry as a buyer and merchandiser. He later joined the sportswear company John Meyer in New York. In the mid-1970s, eventually, he was approached by his then employer, The Vera Companies 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.
Praised by critics as the ideal American sportswear designer of the time and loved by female consumers for his clean-cut yet casual style, Ellis, together with The Vera Companies' parent company, 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 — widely successful, and marked by 'non-traditional, modern classics'. Step by step, he added shoes, accessories, furs and perfume that all bore his name. It became his trademark to skip down the runway at the end of his fashion shows.
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 the early 1980s, wholesale revenues had figured at about $60 million. By 1986 that number had risen to about $250 million.
In November 1984, Barbara Gallagher, a Hollywood screenwriter and long-time Ellis friend, gave birth to Ellis' daughter Tyler Alexandra Gallagher Ellis.
Ellis' long-time partner Laughlin Barker since 1980, an attorney, became president and legal counsel for Perry Ellis International in 1981. Barker's health deteriorated seriously in the early 1980s and when he died on January 2, 1986, aged 37, it was said in a whisper that he had suffered from HIV and AIDS although officially only lung cancer was mentioned. 'It's been a difficult time for me', said Ellis of Barker's death in 1986: 'Laughlin was an extraordinary man, and I loved him. We worked together 24 hours a day, and he brought genius and humor to this business. We were together five years, and there was never an argument or a disagreement.'
Perry Ellis fell seriously ill during the mid-1980s. Initially, it was not said what he was suffering from although he had been treated for hepatitis in a previous year. At the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) annual awards ceremony in January of 1986 he had to be accompanied to the podium by an aide to receive his award.
On 8 May of that year, Ellis was not able to perform his traditional skip down the runway anymore and, looking shockingly gaunt and frail, had to be supported by two of his employees when he briefly appeared at the end of the runway. It was to be his last fashion show and he received standing ovations for it. Immediately after the show, he was admitted to New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center where he fell into a coma and died two weeks later of viral encephalitis, an AIDS-related disease, on 30 May 1986. A memorial was held at the New York Ethical Culture Society on 12 June. Perry Ellis was dead at 46 and one of the first prominent American figures to succumb to AIDS.
In early 1986, Robert L. McDonald, a former film producer and close friend of Ellis, succeeded Barker as president of Perry Ellis International. After Ellis' death in May 1986, McDonald announced that under the terms of Ellis' will he had full control of the company in trust for Ellis' heirs. McDonald successfully guided the company through setbacks and challenges in the years to come. Recommended to McDonald by the fashion director of Bloomingdale's at that time, the young designer Marc Jacobs, who would start his own label in 1993 and become head designer of Louis Vuitton in Paris in 1997, designed for the house of Perry Ellis from 1988 to 1993. Isaac Mizrahi and Tom Ford both also worked for Perry Ellis early in their careers.
Since then, the company has changed hands several times but the Perry Ellis name survives and is now one of the top menswear brands in the US.
Robert McDonald died of AIDS in 1990 at the age of 45.
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