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Ellis, Perry (1940-1986)  
 
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Some of the hallmarks of Ellis's work were present from the beginning. He favored a clean-cut but casual look, made with natural fabrics. At the same time he liked a touch of whimsy. "My clothes are friendly--like people you've known for a long time but who continue to surprise you," he commented.

The surprises might include an absence of buttons or a closure that hid them, an interesting cable detail on a hand-knit sweater, or a "dimple" (a forward-oriented pleat) to soften the broad shoulder of a jacket. Because of Ellis's original touches, his clothes were often praised for being fresh, lighthearted, and gently irreverent.

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As accolades and award nominations came Ellis's way, he negotiated a complex deal with Manhattan Industries, the parent company of Vera, that gave him his own division within the corporation, Perry Ellis Sportswear, Inc., and also created Ellis's own company, Perry Ellis International. The agreement was signed in August 1978. The arrangement would allow Ellis to branch out, eventually adding lines of men's sportswear, evening clothes, shoes, furs, fragrances, and linens.

In the midst of the negotiations Ellis presented his fall collection in April 1978. The fashion press was highly interested in the up-and-coming designer who had already been nominated for an American Critics Award for Fashion (usually called a Coty, after the sponsor) and who seemed poised for spectacular success.

Ellis demonstrated his flair for showmanship by opening the event with a dance number by the Princeton University cheerleaders, after which the comely captain of the football team raced down the runway. To close the show Ellis playfully skipped down the runway himself, a move that would become his trademark.

In between, Ellis presented a collection that showed creative use of fabric and color and won enthusiastic praise from the critics.

The show was the first to feature Ellis's men's wear designs. The first model to wear them on the runway was Robert "Beau" Tropper, who had recently become Ellis's lover. Although Ellis was not out publicly as a gay or bisexual man, the nature of his relationship with Tropper, some sixteen years his junior, was an open secret in the fashion world.

Under the business arrangement with Manhattan Industries, Ellis's fashion empire burgeoned. Ellis, who had a reputation as a perfectionist, was deeply concerned with the minutiae of all phases of the operation. He was generous, though, in recognizing the contributions of others. At the end of his shows, for example, he typically brought his design assistants to the stage for a bow.

A key player in the expansion of Ellis's enterprises--and in his personal life--was Laughlin Barker. The two met in 1980 and immediately fell in love. Shortly thereafter Ellis retained the law firm for which Barker worked as corporate counsel for Perry Ellis International. In June 1982 Barker began working directly for the company as its president and legal counsel, a position created especially for him by Ellis, who held the title of chairman.

Barker proved to be an astute businessman. When he came on board, Perry Ellis International had wholesale revenues of about sixty million dollars per year from sixteen licensees. By the beginning of 1986 the number of licensees had risen to twenty-three and sales were up to approximately a quarter of a billion dollars.

None of this success would have been possible without a good product, and Ellis's collections pleased consumers and critics alike. Among other honors, Ellis won eight Coty Awards between 1979 and 1984, the last year that they were given.

Not every Ellis collection gained spectacular reviews, however. His women's sportswear line for fall 1982 was among his least successful because it was too trendy and different from his previous looks. Generally, though, Ellis showed a genius for understanding what customers wanted and for updating his collections subtly and incrementally with the times.

Ellis was briefly hospitalized with hepatitis in early 1981 shortly after he and Barker returned from a trip to Africa. Ellis recovered, but following the episode both he and Barker started showing more concern about their health.

Within a few years the two men began to decline visibly, Barker in particular. Although they kept up the demanding task of guiding Ellis's fashion empire, they spent more and more of their time running it from Ellis's luxurious beach house at Water Island, a tiny and isolated community on Fire Island.

Ellis and Barker nevertheless continued to travel frequently. They made several trips to Paris in connection with the development of Ellis's fragrance line, but according to close friends they were also going to the Pasteur Institute, a leader in AIDS research, where patients (including actor Rock Hudson) were able to obtain experimental drug treatments unavailable elsewhere.

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