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Ellis, Perry (1940-1986)  
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Perry Ellis first made his name as the designer of a line of casual but stylish sportswear for women. His prestige grew rapidly, and so did his repertoire. He soon began designing men's wear as well, and eventually added collections of shoes, furs, linens, and fragrances. His successful career was cut short by his early death, rumored to have been the result of complications from AIDS.

Perry Edwin Ellis was the only child of Edwin Ellis, the owner of a fuel company, and Winifred Roundtree Ellis, a homemaker. He was born March 3, 1940 in Portsmouth, Virginia, and grew up in nearby Churchland, which has since become part of the larger city but was a rural area at the time.

The Ellis family was financially comfortable, and they were able to send their son to private primary schools. He continued his education at public Woodrow Wilson High School, one of the state's best secondary schools. After graduating in 1957 he enrolled at Old Dominion University and commuted to the campus in Norfolk.

Old Dominion was part of the system of the College of William and Mary, and after a year and a half Ellis transferred to the main campus in Williamsburg. He graduated with a degree in business administration in 1961.

Without any specific career plans but with a definite desire to avoid the military draft, Ellis enlisted in the Coast Guard reserve after his college graduation. In the required six months of active duty, Ellis was assigned various jobs from maintenance work to serving in the Presidential Honor Guard, but he never went to sea.

Once back in the civilian world Ellis enrolled at New York University, from which he earned a master's degree in retailing in 1963.

Ellis returned to his native state and accepted a job with the Miller & Rhoads department store in Richmond. He was appointed the buyer for women's sportswear and quickly turned the department into the most successful in the store. He had a flair for both fashion and marketing, a keen sense of what would appeal to customers and how to present it to best advantage.

Ellis developed a good relationship with the John Meyer company, whose sportswear line he promoted at Miller & Rhoads since he found that it sold particularly well. In 1967 Ellis left the department store to become a merchandiser for John Meyer.

During his seven years with Meyer, Ellis became well versed in many aspects of the fashion industry. He was advising rather than designing, but showed a sharp eye for what would sell. He accompanied buyers on trips and helped them select fabrics. He also learned about the production side of the business.

Ellis's experience in retailing stood him in good stead. He understood how to edit a collection, assembling attractive outfits from its elements and displaying them as ensembles, rather than simply presenting buyers with racks of garments.

Ellis also understood the importance of the press and began cultivating the acquaintance of prominent fashion editors. The relationship was symbiotic: editors were eager to have previews of upcoming lines, and John Meyer collections received increased coverage in magazines.

In New York Ellis began to explore the homosexual side of his nature. He had previously dated a few women but had never developed a serious relationship with any of them. He now also started having affairs with men, including one with Robert MacDonald, a young man then working in the film industry. Their romance faded after about six years, but MacDonald would remain one of Ellis's closest and most trusted friends for the rest of his life.

A turning point in Ellis's career came in 1973, when the John Meyer company was sold to a conglomerate and Ellis moved to The Vera Companies, which sold scarves and blouses featuring the floral and abstract motifs created by Vera Neumann.

Ellis's first post at Vera was vice-president and merchandise manager for the sportswear division, in which capacity he continued to do the sort of work that he had done at John Meyer. After about a year, however, the president of the division approached him about designing a line.

At first Ellis was hesitant since he lacked experience in that phase of the business, but he agreed to try. With the help of assistants who supplied the necessary expertise in such technical areas as pattern-making, Ellis began creating fashions. He was soon given his own line, called Portfolio.

His first spring collection was presented at a small show for fashion editors in November 1976. Ellis's work was well received. His comfortable, casual "slouch" look--with oversized jackets, baggy pants, and mohair sweaters--was a hit, and buyers from prestigious stores like Bonwit Teller sent in their orders for his collection.

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