Fashion Designer Perry Ellis, 46, Dies of Viral Encephalitis

Times Fashion Editor

Perry Ellis, who built a fashion empire based on contemporary sportswear that had a uniquely American flavor, died early Friday morning of viral encephalitis at New York Hospital in Manhattan. He was 46.

Hospital spokesman Spencer Vibbert said that Ellis “died peacefully in his sleep.” He had been in a coma for several days from the effects of the disease, which causes an inflammation of the brain.

Ellis--winner of eight Coty fashion awards, a member of the Coty Hall of Fame and president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America at the time of his death--checked into the hospital soon after his fall-winter collection was shown to buyers and members of the press early last month.

He did not walk down the runway after the show, as was his custom, and those who caught a glimpse of him behind the scenes said they were shocked by his frail appearance. It was common knowledge in the fashion industry that Ellis’ health had been declining for some time.

His business associate and friend, Laughlin M. Barker, 37, president of Perry Ellis International, died after a long illness in January.


Ellis quickly rose to prominence with clothes that were young and upbeat, yet inspired by classic American style. His designs were comfortable to wear.

In a 1978 interview, he said: “I don’t like clothes that look new and dominate (the person who wears them). My clothes are friendly--like people you’ve known for a long time, but who continue to surprise you.”

At the time of his death, there were 16 Perry Ellis licensees, including women’s furs, men’s and women’s shoes and gloves, men’s suits and underwear, men’s and women’s fragrances, men’s and women’s hosiery, sheets, towels, linens and the Perry Ellis America collection for Levi Strauss. According to an April 9 article in Women’s Wear Daily, all the licensees together were expected to generate a wholesale volume of nearly $260 million for 1986.

Ellis was remembered Friday by industry leaders for his youthful flair and impact on the world of style.

“Perry Ellis was a man with infinite charm and great talent,” said fellow designer Bill Blass. “It is a tragedy that he died so young.”

Calvin Klein called Ellis “a great designer” who “made an enormous contribution to American fashion. He will be missed by our industry and I will miss him as a friend.”

“His designs portrayed his own individual charm,” Ralph Lauren said. “He was a real gentleman with great integrity.”

Ellis, who for a long time sported a pony tail, was “a very private man,” said Amanda Manogue, Ellis’ spokeswoman. He frequently designed from his Victorian brownstone on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

Ellis was born March 3, 1940, in Portsmouth, Va. He received a bachelor of arts degree from the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., and a master of arts degree in retailing from New York University.

After jobs as a buyer for Miller and Rhoads department store in Richmond, Va., and as designer for John Meyer of Norwich, a New York women’s sportswear firm, he joined Vera Cos. in New York as a sportswear designer.

In 1975, Manhattan Industries, the Vera parent organization, offered Ellis his own women’s line under the Portfolio label. In the fall of 1978, he became head of his own company, Perry Ellis Sportswear Inc. He began designing for men as well as women in 1980.

His sense of design matured as he did, yet even his most recent collections retained their exuberance. His final collection, for example, included bright pastel pinks and blues for fall, whereas most other designers showed subdued colors.

Lawrence Leeds Jr., chairman of Manhattan Industries, which includes Perry Ellis sportswear, issued a statement saying that the firm will “keep the name of Perry Ellis in the forefront of American fashion and . . . keep alive his memory by continuing the growth and development of the company that bears his name.” Ellis leaves a 1-year-old daughter, Tyler Alexandra Ellis, who lives in Los Angeles with her mother, writer-producer Barbara Gallagher, and his mother, Winifred Waldbauer of Virginia.

A private funeral will be held in Virginia and a memorial service will be held at noon June 12 at the Ethical Culture Society in Manhattan.