Above: Bruce Weber for Perry Ellis America, 1984
In 1984 Perry Ellis was one of the biggest names in American fashion. He had risen to the ranks of Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren with his insightful, off-kilter, humorous and always elegant take on American sportswear. While Ralph Lauren worked to develop and at times fabricate an American heritage in clothes, Perry Ellis challenged it, confronted it with alternatives, poked fun at it and broke it down. What he broke it down into was his idealized American life: liberal-minded, cosmopolitan, steeped in history yet always curious about the future. If Ralph Lauren represented the haughty facade of old America, Perry Ellis was the crack in its surface.
He started his career as a designer overseeing the apparel for Vera Bradley, then owned and managed by Manhattan Industries. Impressed with his performance Manhattan offered Ellis his own project which gave birth to the Portfolio label. After that project’s success, and Ellis’s growing and glowing reputation, Manhattan and Ellis agreed it would be a good idea for a Perry Ellis label of his own.
From the late ’7os through the early ’80s Ellis gained praise for redefining American dress, playing its traditions and histories against each other, re-contextualizing them and in some cases replacing them altogether. Ellis had a privileged and typically Virginian upbringing steeped in pedigree and patrician ambition. He had no interest in dwelling over what appeared to be pointless traditions. He pursued a modern spirit and remodeled classic Americana to represent it. At any given season his collections had more in common with European designers than anything else on 7th Avenue. He pushed boundaries and laid the groundwork for future mutations of American sportswear.
As Perry Ellis proved successful the possibilities of expansion through licensing and diffusion lines grew too big to be ignored. Laughlin Barker, Perry’s partner in business and in life, began turning the inventive and spirited label into an apparel powerhouse. One of the best of the spin-off labels to come from this was Perry Ellis America, a joint operation with Levi Strauss. For Levi’s it was a chance to add more fashion clout and diversity to their business, for Ellis it was a means to address all of America and bring his vision beyond the limits of luxury.
The showroom for Perry Ellis America was opened in 1984 and the line featured a new campaign shot by Bruce Weber. It had all of Ellis’s favorite Americanisms enhanced with his own slouchy ease and modern romance. Made with high standards and a lot of know-how, the line was of excellent quality. Beautiful striped poplin shirts, crisp khakis and hefty indigo denims made for a range of American classics that were empowered by their symbolic meanings but oh so carefully tweaked to transcend them. It looked to be the beginning of an industry defining endeavor however 1984 was also the year that Ellis started getting sick.
By the early ’80s AIDS had already devastated the fashion industry and showed no signs of slowing down. Ellis would eventually be one of its first high-profile victims in fashion. Laughlin Barker, who had shown signs of illness before Ellis, died in 1985. Ellis passed the following year.
The America line never worked out quite as planned. It was priced too high for the younger demographic to afford and it was limited to stores that already had pre-existing accounts with Perry Ellis making it not only pricey but not all that easy to find. To make matters worse, a newly revamped Portfolio label was also launched within months of America and the sudden saturation confused and turned away consumers. In a moment of good health a worn down Ellis assured Levis CEO Robert Haas that he could turn the business around. The moment passed and Ellis eventually succumbed to the devastation of the disease. One month after Ellis’s death Levi’s gave up on their Perry Ellis America license and the label was given over to Manhattan Industries
Since the eventual transformation of the Perry Ellis label from high fashion sensation to generic purveyor of golf wear, the Perry Ellis America label has been downgraded to a mere shell of its former self. Having been reincarnated as an unremarkable fragrance in 1996 and an unrecognizable menswear line sold at Dillards it never became the cash cow which Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein and eventually Tommy Hilfiger would have for themselves. One of the earliest if not the first co-branded designer collaboration it was a missed opportunity and a lost expression of the legacy of a forgotten name. Perry Ellis America is important in that it helped set the stage for future designer collaborations and lower priced casual lines. But case study aside, it also lives on as a rather unique and beautiful facet of the elusive Perry Ellis universe, certainly worth a look at today.