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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.
You’ve got Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan, Keith Richards (always), even Jimi Hendrix, all dripping in the sueded spirit of Clint Eastwood Spaghetti Westerns, marching down the runway at Saint Laurent. And so Hedi Slimane’s categorical survey of rock and roll iconography and symbolism presses into the late 1960s; an era of rugged romance, drug-induced dandyism, and the rock star as shaman. The veracity of Slimane’s historicist stagings is challenged only by Ralph Lauren whose own attention to detail and ability to realize such romantic fantasies, beyond even the limits of camp, are unparalleled. There is no information left out as Slimane lavishes over his rock god lust. Nothing is left to the imagination. With the extraordinary set design, outrageously specific casting and the harrowing music you can only be in awe of Slimane’s commitment and talent when it comes to telling a story through clothes.
Slimane and Lauren share more in common than one might think. Both are designers who formalized their deepest aspirations and installed them into a brand that could translate it into an arsenal of luxury merchandise. Just as Lauren co-opted the American dream and claimed it for himself Slimane has ensnared rock and roll, weaving its mythology into Saint Laurent’s, extracting its codes and selling them as the classics they have become. This indulgence of rock and roll and the play off its ubiquity is not without precedent. It’s a world John Varvatos has mined and at one point inelegantly bought when he installed a retail location at the former site of CBGB (one wonders if Saint Laurent would have known better). It’s also very much the world of Anna Sui who is perhaps the godmother to Slimane’s rock redux, her signatures were unmistakable in the women’s looks Slimane showed alongside the men’s. Rock and roll is not the most original point of departure but for a brand like Saint Laurent it does make an interesting focus.
Yves Saint Laurent was a great provocateur of the bourgeoisie, an interest nurtured by a love for Schiaparelli. He stayed one step ahead of the status quo, pushing their limits of taste and respectability. At Dior he shocked his employers by designing around beatniks. In 1971 he caused a scandal for glamorizing 1940s prostitutes. He challenged comfort zones just enough to provoke and inspire and move things along. That Slimane has conquered rock and roll under the banner of the esteemed French house is notable. Rock and roll stands for subversion of mainstream Western patriarchal culture, born from the expressions of African Americans treated as second class citizens, as “others,” it has since expanded into countless genres each offering their own contrary view to the conventions of established society. It’s the natural go-to for instant cool. But with this new Saint Laurent collection, and perhaps a few others in the past, a problematic paradox has emerged. As Slimane assimilates rock’s mythology into Saint Laurent’s he has turned it into that very thing which rock chic stood in opposition against: the uniform of the haute bourgeoisie. It is the very thing which wealthy consumers, still invested in conventions of appropriateness, adopt to play the role of rebel without having to actually be one. The rock looks Slimane exploits are no more rebellious than a banker-striped suit or an embroidered polo.
What is the significance of rock and roll in fashion today? Do the youth who Slimane seems to worship with intense devotion still care about it or has it become yet another used-up cliche? Most young kids these days are listening to rap and hip hop. From Shayne Oliver to Riccardo Tisci to Rick Owens, rap and hip hop have become the leading catalyst for subversion in contemporary men’s fashion. Not unlike rock and roll, it was born from the black experience and the hardship of being dejected by society. It implies a sense of strength and resilience and as its own ecology changes (becoming significantly less homophobic and perhaps less misogynistic) it has come to represent a progressive attitude as well. Turned in on itself, subverted in the manner that Shayne Oliver and Rick Owens have carefully mastered, it goes where rock and roll cannot; tackling race, gender and class in a way that speaks to the issues of today. One wonders if Kanye West had it right when he so brashly proclaimed in a tirade against Slimane that “we culture. Rap is the new rock and roll. We the rock stars.” Perhaps rock and roll is still relevant, a number of established and promising contemporary musicians would certainly argue that it is. But if Slimane is to ever make a compelling go of it he’ll have to let go of his historicist antics and theatrical costumes and give it a more vital context. Rock is diverse and there surely are other iterations that might have a bit more urgency. It would behoove Slimane to explore them.
One wondered what the future had in store for Adam Lippes after he narrowly escaped fashion purgatory and bought back his name from Kellwood two years ago. Since then he’s retooled his design manifesto and company culture, abandoning corporate ambition and distancing his clothes from a cannibalizing contemporary market. Today he runs a smaller and more familial operation, the kind required nowadays if a designer is to truly engage luxury clothing in a sound and sustainable manner. It’s certainly no easy feat but going by the clothes Lippes’s efforts have certainly been worthwhile.
Over the last several seasons he has distilled a design vernacular built on the tenets of the best of American fashion: ease, sportswear, classicism, timelessness. For many designers working in New York these tenets can become tenuous, reduced to corrupted clichés haphazardly spat out to journalists, conflating the words “classic” and “uninspired.” Should you ever forget what it means for a garment to be timeless, for it to truly evoke that rare sensation of imperishability, Adam Lippes serves as a refreshing reminder. The new resort collection reads like a “best of” of American fashion in the 1970s when its designers, armed with a minimalist rigor, soft fabrics, sportswear separates and a fashionably fluid line, championed a new modern woman. That those ideas, updated with a thoughtful and utterly contemporary sensibility, that they can look so new and bold today as they surely did then is a testament to their infinite appeal and Lippes’s adept ability in handling them. The spirits of Zoran and Halston are present in the floor-length monastic dresses, coats and square cut tops. Fabricated in the most luxurious silks and cashmeres they are no less minimal or exquisite than what those minimalist masters managed in their prime. The flirty but pragmatic appeal of a paper bag-waist in a striped cotton pajama pant and in a leather skirt echo Donna Karan and Louis Dell’Olio’s seductively sensible efforts for Anne Klein. The trapunto stitching used on collars, waistbands, and belts throughout the collection, notable on a v-neck Korean do bok top (rendered in fine silk and chambray) brought to mind the worldly explorations of Bonnie Cashin, a designer who never shied away from adapting an idea from the other side of the globe if it could coax a modern innovation.
To mention that the clothes Adam Lippes designs are impeccably crafted and finished is redundant as quality workmanship is necessity when addressing simplicity and minimalism. But, from design to construction, Lippes’s clothes are beautifully thought out. Every line, stitch and fold is crafted and considered. And whether it be silk, cashmere coating or humble cotton poplin, each fabric represents the most refined of their genre. It stands to be reiterated: the clothes are impeccable. And they must be, the customer Lippes addresses is a discerning one. She is a woman who demands the best and is to willing to pay for it. She can’t be bothered with trends or fashion shenanigans, she is too sure of herself for those. She expects her clothes, like all the best clothes do, to enhance her own natural appeal, not obscure it, and to grant her ease and therefore elegance as she gets on with her life. One could say after such a bold move to relaunch his name and under such risky auspices that Adam Lippes has come out a winner. Working out of an enchanted townhouse in the West Village, a real modern maison, he has escaped fashion’s distracting din, enabled to toil on his beautiful clothes with integrity. Indeed, Lippes champions forward, but the real winners are the women who get to wear his clothes and live in them.