Mark Norklun photographed by Erica Lennard for Perry Ellis.
Issue 3 Out Now!
When Cristobal Balenciaga retired in 1968 he had already earned a reputation for being a bit stuffy and behind the times. While he dominated the 1950s the next decade saw a more spirited turn in fashion as ascending youth and street influences made his aristocratic posturing appear pompous and his stoic structures seem dowdy. A new generation of designers ventured where Balenciaga would not and the master lost his ground to the likes of Cardin, Saint Laurent and Courreges who were setting a new direction for fashion in the modern age. And when Balenciaga died in 1972 the house that beared his name, like many other great houses founded by brilliant dead designers, was chucked into fashion limbo.
Upon his death Balenciaga’s family sold the business to Hoescht AG, a German chemical company who presumably bought it for its fragrances. Under their management Balenciaga’s fashion prerogative diminished. Once a fashion leader it was licensed into an unremarkable purveyor of abutting double B monogrammed accessories and just-fashionable-enough bourgeois classics. By 1978 it was lost not only among new French names but formidable talents from Italy, The United States, and very quickly Japan. The glory days of Balenciaga were long past and wouldn’t return for another 20 years.
It would be very simple to dismiss the output of the house during this time as the runoff of a disinterested chemical company. You could very easily cite it as a classic case of fashion licensing gone awry. There is perhaps nothing here of value other than that the removal of Balenciaga from the fashion landscape as a major player enabled other talents to rise and fill the void. But then it would be a shame to overlook the curious anomaly that it presents. Balenciaga was a master tailor. His clothes were meticulous constructions built with the precision and consideration of a Corbusier. It was perhaps even his experimentation with structure and volume that launched the Space Age designers into their cosmic fantasies of form. But during the 1970s everything went soft, the line grew long and lean and here we see the codes of Balenciaga reinterpreted for a new time but, possibly because they had no such grand ambitions, without any overt affectation of its fashions. Balenciaga’s wide-cut a-line coats, an essential in his repertoire, is leaned out with long wide-leg pants. Present is his purist precision punctuated by a tasteful printed blouse and a conical Asian style bamboo hat — a nod to ’50s couture glamour. The modernist suggestion of a Balenciaga signature is given a truly modern ease revealing just how eternal his initial propositions could be provided they were adjusted appropriately. At the time such an update probably felt rehashed and probably like a chore, in hindsight it offers a rare and compelling interpretation of Balenciaga’s codes.
This 1978 update of course comes at the insistence of a new minimalist mood in the ’70s that was largely defined by Halston. That the Spanish legend and a good boy from the Midwest could at some point overlap is as much a fluke as it fate. Halston was a great admirer of Balenciaga and sought to instill the master’s purity and minimalist splendor into his own softer and more sensual designs sometimes seeing himself as Balenciaga’s spiritual heir. One could say that many of Halston’s innovations are indebted to Balenciaga, as much as Courreges’s or Ungaro’s in the ’60s. The implication here is powerful not because of what it meant for Halston but what it could mean for defining what a “modern” Balenciaga could be today, particularly now as designers like Pierpaolo Piccioli, Mara Grazia Chiuri, Christophe Lemaire, Veronique Branquinho and Nadege Vanhee-Cybulski set a new tone for fashionable luxury classics.
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.