New York — As designers go, Perry Ellis is something of an anomaly.After all, how often do we hear a star of the fashion world or "Clothes come pretty far down on my list of priorities."
Yet with all his frank talk, Ellis is immensely successful -- in terms of both sales and industry recognition. His company grosses an estimated $10 million annually. He has been honored with both the Neiman-Marcus and Coty awards.
The clothes Ellis makes -- sweaters, coats, and separate tops and bottoms, chiefly -- are also very highly rated on the international fashion scale. His lively designs are prized for their spirited originality in Tokyo, London, and Munich, as well as the United States. They rank among the most desirable -- and most modern -- clothes now being produced in America. Women admire them as much for a light-heartedness of styling that makes them a delight to wear as for their unusual textures and colorings.
A new voice in American fashion, Ellis is often called the "American Kenzo" after the innovative Japanese designer who works in Paris. But what is strikingly new about Perry Ellis is not just the kind of clothes he creates. It is his almost total lack of conformity to the familiar norms.
Ellis does not think, speak, look, act, work, or live like everybody's idea of a fashion designer.
The difference becomes apparent when he is asked his views on dress. Instead of trotting out shopworn words like "elegance" and "chic," he will level his clear hazel eyes at his questioner and reply, "Casualness, wit, and humor, and those things attached to clothes, rather than the pretentiousness attached to fashion."
Ellis says he has made a point of stripping his life of excess baggage: "I've reduced it to such simple things that I keep on all the time that there's no need to look after much. I only own two jackets."
Wearing his slightly gray hair shoulder-length is one of his few affectations. His working garb is basic, consisting of chino pants, docksiders with white socks, and a blue oxford-cloth shirt of his own design. He usually wears the small round collar open.
His "less is more" philosophy of functional order is reflected in his 7th Avenue showroom. The floor is bare. The vast high-ceilinged space is broken only by structural columns and movable bentwood partitions that house samples from his current lines of women's and men's wear. The furnishing are minimal: tubular metal and English sycamore tables with chrome and leather chairs.
There is no room for extraneous clutter in either his business or his private existence. Like his mode of life, his fashion outlook is concentrated on the essential best. "With Perry's clothes you don't need much else," says Nina Santisi, his press director. "I never wear jewelry."
His handknit short-cropped and long-tunic Shetland and mohair sweaters with such details as single cable and raised popcorn stitchings are exceptionally handsome. He helped start the current sweater boom in fashion and has been copied far and wide. His colors (often derived from nature -- the sky, birds' plumage, the earth, spices) are tones that are seldom used commercially. The handknits, the sweeping woolen capes, tweed spencers, mohair skaters' skirts, and culottes for fall combine two or more colors with painterly skill.
Not inexpensive, his clothes nonetheless cost less than comparable designer fashions. Sweaters for fall will retail at $170 to $240. The least costly Ellis fashion is a $50 cotton shirt; the most costly, his long mohair cape with triple capelet collar. To some reporters at his opening, the cape -- like the skaters' skirts -- conveyed a Currier and Ives Americana feeling.
While aesthetically pleasing, Perry Ellis fashions are neither universally becoming nor easily classifiable into such categories as "day" and "evening." To him, contemporary "dressing up" tends to entail a change of jacket and the addition of a crochet mohair tie for a man, a bare-shouldered fuzzy sweater and long swirling skirt for a woman.
If his clothes do not, as they say, "do something" for everyone -- which they don't, especially for the amply proportioned -- Ellis does not feel he can help. "It's always up to the woman. She makes the clothes," he states. "You can take the same dress, put it on five different women, and have five different attitudes, five different expressions."
The designer's approach comes from his practical education: business courses at William and Mary College followed by a master's degree in retailing from New York University, then a stint as sportswear buyer for Miller & Rhoads in Richmond, Va.
In time, John Meyer (of the John Meyer of Norwich classics separates firm) hired Ellis as his designer. Far from undervaluing this schooling in standardized sportswear, Ellis looks back on it as "six great years of training and preparation."
"Any time a designer works for a company that's not his own, he's restricted to that image and to working within that. But one must look at things at times as a great learning experience," he says. "I still love Shetlands and poplins and I see my history repeating itself."
Ellis left Meyer to join the Vera Company. Soon Manhattan Industries, Vera's parent organization, asked him to design for Portfolio, a new division. He was then able to express his own ideas freely and his inventiveness quickly attracted the attention of influential buyers and editors. By the time the conglomerate gave him his own Perry Ellis-label company a year and a half ago, he was off and running, revising the fashion status quo.
Some of the things Ellis says could curl a retailer's hair. His impatience wth the people he calls "the fashion victims of life" is, for instance, a recurrent theme in his conversation.
"I think it's terribly sad if the next purchase is all they have going in ther life," Ellis says. "It's an empty sort of existence just living off clothes and for clothes."
May be a man like Ellis -- so in tune with the times -- knows the moment is right for home truths from a fashion designer.