One of America's most popular designer of the 1980s, Perry Ellis brought a new look to American sportswear, elevating casual clothing to designer status. Inspired by the Ocean beaches he called home, Ellis made clothes that were relaxed and unpretentious, yet sophisticated and timeless. Often described as an innovator, Ellis once said: "I don't make fashion. I make clothes". His method, which has continued as his legacy, was to take traditional ideas and make them modern.
The Rise of Perry Ellis
Perry Edwin Ellis was born in Portsmouth, Virginia on March 3, 1940, as the only child of Edwin and Winifred Rountree Ellis. His father owned a Coal & 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. Perry then 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 at the department store Miller & Rhoads. While there, he was co-founder of a Richmond retail shop A Sunny Day. 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, 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.
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 fashionable 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 1985, he revived his lesser-priced Portfolio line. In the early 1980s, wholesale revenues had figured at about $60 million. By 1986 that number had risen to about $250 million.
Perry Ellis died in May 1986.