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Ellis, Perry

international women’s lines design

B. 1940

D. May 1986

Birthplace: Portsmouth, Virginia

Awards: Neiman Marcus Award, 1979
         Winnie, Coty, 1979
         Women’s Apparel, Coty, 1981, 1983, 1984
         Menswear, Coty, 1983
         Coty Hall of Fame, 1984
         MAGIC Menswear Hall of Fame, 1993

Perry Ellis received his bachelor’s degree in business administration from the College of William and Mary in 1961, after which he enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard and served in President John F. Kennedy’s White House honor guard. When Ellis completed his term of service, he enrolled at the New York University School of Retailing and earned his master’s degree. In 1963 Ellis returned to Virginia to work as a buyer at Miller and Rhodes. Rarely satisfied with the apparel available at market, Ellis felt the designs did not meet the needs of the Miller and Rhodes customer. Ellis frequently sketched out ideas for redesigning the apparel, and he returned to the showrooms with directions for the designers to modify their original designs. Ellis left Miller and Rhodes to become design director for John Meyer in Norwich, New York, in 1968. Six years later, Ellis accepted a position which, one day, would allow him to revolutionize casual clothing for men and women.

In 1974 Ellis became the vice president of merchandising for the Vera Companies, a division of Manhattan Industries, where, in 1976, he traded in his administrative office for a design studio and created his first women’s collection under the Portfolio label. The line was a huge success and Ellis was given his own label, Perry Ellis Sportswear, by Manhattan Industries in 1978. The demand for Ellis’s name led him to found Perry Ellis International in 1978 as a vehicle for licensing his name to produce other product lines in addition to those for Manhattan Industries.

Ellis’s designs were youthful and fresh. He wanted to design clothing which was “friendly,” such as comfortable shirts, oversized sweaters, unconstructed knitwear, and baggy trousers. Many of his designs contained masculine lines which were gracefully adapted for a woman’s figure. Ellis became known for classic American sportswear designs which combined unusual proportions, unique textures, unconventional colors, and distinct patterns. His designs were both sophisticated and fun at the same time. In 1980 Ellis applied his unique approach to sportswear design to menswear, and he virtually revolutionized the industry overnight. Ellis was the first designer to create truly casual clothing for men, long before the popularity of casual Fridays or business casual. The sportswear Ellis created for men bridged the gap between business suits and blue jeans.

Perry Ellis died from AIDS-related illnesses in 1986. At the time of his death, Ellis had been designing for four labels in each of the men’s and women’s divisions: Perry Ellis Signature Collection, Perry Ellis Portfolio, Perry Ellis Sportswear, and Perry Ellis America. After Ellis’s death, his longtime companion and business partner, Robert L. McDonald, continued to run Perry Ellis International until he also died from AIDS-related illnesses in 1990. Under McDonald’s direction, Brian Bubb was appointed the menswear designer and Patricia Pastor the women’s wear designer; however, the collections floundered, with no real sense of design direction. In 1988 McDonald replaced both Bubb and Pastor with Roger Forsythe and Marc Jacobs, respectively. Jacobs was able to generate excitement in the women’s collections by bringing notoriety to the company and returning a sense of fun to the line. However, in 1993, Jacobs went too far. His now infamous grunge collection resulted in his dismissal from Ellis. The collection, a complete departure from the classic Ellis look, was canceled before it went into production. In 1991 Forsythe too died from AIDS-related illnesses, and he was replaced by his assistant, Andrew Corrigan.

The design direction at Perry Ellis International had been highly unstable since Ellis’s death, especially in the women’s lines. The lack of a unifying design direction resulted in the canceling and relaunching of the women’s lines. In 1988 the Salant Corporation acquired Perry Ellis licenses through its takeover of Manhattan Industries. In 1989 Salant returned its license for the women’s designer collection to Perry Ellis International and discontinued the Portfolio collection. By 1992 Salant had returned all its women’s licenses to Perry Ellis International. However, Salant retained its licenses for all the Perry Ellis menswear labels including the Perry Ellis Signature Collection, the Perry Ellis Sportswear Collection, the Perry Ellis boys’ collection, and Perry Ellis sport shirts, neckwear, belts, and suspenders. Perry Ellis International wanted to continue the women’s lines to provide a prestigious profile for the house which would support its other licensing initiatives. In 1991 Perry Ellis International reinstated the Portfolio collection and continued to revamp the Perry Ellis America collection, redefining its image and relaunching it (again) in 1992.

Claudia Thomas, a longtime friend of Ellis and McDonald, who was appointed chief executive officer of Perry Ellis International in 1990, was faced with several difficult questions: How do you reconcile fashion and business? How do you merge designer prestige with mass marketing? How do you provide one design direction to over twenty different licensees in over thirty different product categories? Thomas was accountable for the financial success of the company to the Perry Ellis trust, which was created for Ellis’s young daughter when he died, and to the Salant Corporation.

First, to provide a unified direction for all the Perry Ellis licensees, Thomas created the Perry Ellis Design Studio in 1992. The studio consisted of a twelve-person design team headed by Julio Espada and Richard Haines. The design studio would be responsible for reviewing the designs of all licensees to ensure consistent direction and continuity. The design studio also coordinated product advertising. Second, Thomas made the controversial decision to discontinue the women’s business in 1993. Because the Perry Ellis women’s designer line posted large annual losses, Thomas opted to discontinue all the women’s lines, including Portfolio and America, and focus on the men’s lines and the licensing agreements.

Throughout the 1990s, Perry Ellis International became a licensing giant. The Perry Ellis name appears on sleepwear by Host, cuff links and studs by David Donahue, Inc., underwear by Jockey International and later by Ithaca Industries, socks by Trimfit and later by Gold Toe Hosiery, gloves and hats by the Glove Source, outwear by Europe Craft, loungewear and active wear by Davco Industries, small leather goods by Westport Corporation, tuxedos by Lord West Formalwear, belts by Aimee Lynn Accessories, belts by Gold Tone, scarves by V. Fraas, Inc., handbags by Premier Designer, loungewear by Aris, hats by Hat Source, footwear by Geoffrey Allen, watches and clocks by Genender International, and home furnishings by Crown Crafts, Inc. In the 1980s, the name Perry Ellis stood for comfortable, classic, American fashions; by the 1990s, the name stood for mass-produced products that had little to do with fashion trends.

Despite Thomas’s restructuring, Perry Ellis International still languished. In 1994 Thomas was replaced by Max Garelick. To restore prestige to the label, Garelick made reinstating the women’s lines his first priority and began looking for a licensee. The proliferation of product licenses had kept the Perry Ellis name alive; however, it remained to be seen if the once powerful fashion leader retained enough prestige to reenter the women’s market. The Perry Ellis fragrance line, originally licensed to Sanofi Beaute, Inc., but sold to Parlux Fragrances, Inc., in 1994, helped provide cachet to the ailing label. In addition to continuing the existing women’s scent 360 Degrees and Perry Ellis for Men, Parlux introduced Perry Ellis America, 360 Degrees for men, and Perry Ellis Reserve (a scent distributed solely to tuxedo shops)—all in 1996. In 1994 Perry Ellis International signed a licensing agreement with the upscale menswear company Hart, Schaffner & Marx to produce lines of tailored clothing under the Perry Ellis men’s labels.

By 1998 total retail sales for Perry Ellis were estimated at $900 million, which were generated by thirty-nine different product categories distributed in sixty different countries. As Perry Ellis International continued to search for a women’s wear licensee, Salant, who had filed for Chapter 11 in 1990, found itself filing for Chapter 11 again in 1998. This time, Salant’s debt could not be restructured, and the Perry Ellis men’s licenses changed hands for a third time. In 1999 Supreme International Corporation bought the Perry Ellis licenses from Salant and agreed to pay the estate of Perry Ellis $75 million for Perry Ellis International. Ultimately, this transaction provided the Perry Ellis labels with the capital they needed to mount a full-scale return to the fashion arena.

Supreme International, a company which has been publicly held since 1993, consists of the labels Natural Issue, Munsingwear, Ping, PNB Nation, Crossings, Penguin Sport, Pro Player, Andrew Fezza, and Grand Slam, as well as the Perry Ellis, John Henry, and Manhattan labels which were acquired from Salant. In 1999 Supreme International voted to change the corporation name to Perry Ellis International. Supreme International, now Perry Ellis International, installed Kristina Salminien as head designer for the women’s lines and Jerry Kaye as head designer for the men’s lines in 1999. Their first lines debuted to eagerly awaiting audiences in 2000. The initial response to the lines was strong; the designers had captured the “classics with a twist” style which had launched Perry Ellis over two decades ago. Over the next several years, Perry Ellis International plans to transform the Perry Ellis label into a lifestyle brand that will compete with Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein.

Perry Ellis had always envisioned his company becoming a licensing entity that provided well-designed, well-made products to a broad audience. Few companies survive the death of their founders. In the fourteen years since Ellis’s death, several designers and corporations have tried and failed to carry on the Ellis legacy. The challenge now remains with the newly formed Perry Ellis International to return honor to the labels created by the man celebrated as the quintessential American designer.

Elsasser, Walter Maurice [next] [back] Ellet, Elizabeth Fries (Lummis) (1812 or 1818–1877) - U.S. Women’s History

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