Perry Ellis Biography

Fashion Designer (1940–1986)
Fashion designer Perry Ellis launched a new wave of fashion that was defined by his signature baggy look. His clothes were lauded as both classic and adventurous.


An innovative fashion designer, Perry Ellis was born in Portsmouth, Virginia, on March 3, 1940. Ellis began his career in 1963 as a sportswear buyer for an upscale store in Richmond, Virginia. Later he moved to New York, where he eventually launched his own company, Perry Ellis Sportswear and he quickly became a star. He passed away on May 30, 1986, from complications associated with the AIDS virus.

Early Life

Fashion designer. Born Perry Edwin Ellis on March 3, 1940, on Portsmouth, Virginia, to parents Winifred and Edwin Ellis. The couple's only child, Ellis lived with his parents, for the first nine years of his life, with his grandmother in a grand old home. that was stuffed with vintage clothing that his aunts had collected. Ellis would later credit this setting and those years as having a profound impact on his career and tastes.

Following high school, Ellis enrolled at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, where he majored in business. After college, he moved north to New York City to New York University, earning a master's degree in retailing.

Career Beginnings

Perry Ellis' first stint in New York ended after his graduation from NYU. In 1963 he returned to Virginia and took a job as a sportswear buyer for an upscale department store, Miller & Rhodes, in Richmond, Virginia.

Quickly, Ellis's fashion instincts made a name for himself and in 1967 the store promoted him to be a merchandiser and returned him to New York City. After moving on to a different store in 1974, Ellis launched his own line of clothes for the shop. The response was so positive that in 1978, Ellis broke off and formed the Perry Ellis Sportswear company.

At the heart of Ellis' look was a style not shaped by convention. His clothes were eclectic, often oversize, with a touch of whimsy that reflected the soft, gentle personality of their creator. Along with contemporaries like Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, and Anne Klein, he showed that not all innovative fashion had to come from Paris.

"I think fashion dies when it is taken too seriously," he once said. "There is more to life than buying a new bag or a new dress. I really try to put clothes in the proper perspective."

By 1982, Perry Ellis employed some 75 people and had earned international prestige. A few years later, the newly renamed Perry Ellis International had sales in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Declining Health

Just as his company started to boom, however, Ellis' health began to decline. Quietly, there had been talk that Ellis had contracted AIDS, a relatively new virus that invoked a host of irrational fears among the general American public.

By early 1986 Ellis's health had deteriorated rapidly. His partner, Laughlin Barker, the president of Perry Ellis International passed away of what was described in the press as unspecified illness in January of that year.

Four months later, Ellis made an appeared briefly at a fashion show in New York to preview his latest line. Too weak to even walk, Ellis remained in the doorway of the showroom. Just several hours later, he collapsed and was rushed to the hospital, eventually slipping into a coma. He passed away on May 30, 1986.

Lasting Legacy

Today, Perry Ellis' designs continue to be a part of the fashion landscape, while his company continues to live on as well.

Then there's the matter of his family. Before his death, Ellis and a friend, Barbara Gallagher, a television writer and producer, decided to have a child together. Their daughter, Tyler Alexandra Gallagher Ellis was born in 1984, just 18 months before her father's death.

In May 2011 in Los Angeles, Tyler showed the world she is indeed her father's daughter when she unveiled a collection of 13 handmade fashion handbags.

“He was about work, and a perfectionist, and I feel I know him,” she said.

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