When Perry Ellis debuted his inaugural men’s collection in 1980, he’d already established himself as a foremost interpreter of classic American sportswear. From the outset, Ellis’ clothes expanded on the aesthetic he honed as an emerging talent in the New York fashion scene. His peppy, sophisticated wares—done up in bright, vibrant colors and earthy, homespun textures—won plaudits in rapid succession. (In 1982, Ellis was named the CFDA’s Designer of the Year; he became the organization’s president two years after that.) When Ellis away in 1986, his contributions passed to the global design canon were secure. But today, it’s his short-lived foray into menswear that looks the most relevant.
Ellis’ vision of Americana was less rigorously stylized than Ralph Lauren’s, and less obviously sexy than Calvin Klein’s. (Like theirs, it was also overwhelmingly white.) His designs were governed by the philosophy that a garment’s primary purpose should be to set its wearer at ease. In the early ’80s, the brand’s advertisements functioned as earnest paeans to the type of casual elegance he helped pioneer. Revisiting them now, it’s easy to draw a throughline from Ellis’ trademarks—nubby topcoats, chunky hand-knit sweaters, roomy pleated trousers—to those popularized by the cohort of brands redefining the New American Sportswear today.
Ellis, wrote Holly Burbach in 1988, brought to casual clothes “a level of invention in the cut, a richness in the colors, and a complexity in the mixing of prints and textures which are usually reserved for more sumptuous fabrics and for statelier clothes—for haute couture.” Yet his menswear hasn’t enjoyed the same kind of widespread revival as that of his peers. The brand is hardly obscure—Marc Jacobs spent an infamous five-year stint scandalizing its executives in the early ’90s—but it doesn’t occupy the same realm in the popular imagination, or inspire the same prices on the aftermarket, as its most prominent contemporaries.
For Kathleen Sorbara, Ellis represents an eccentric voice in the American fashion chorus. Sorbara is the owner of Chickee’s Vintage, a small boutique in Williamsburg that specializes in unearthing hard-to-find gems from the likes of Armani and Tom Ford-era Gucci. Perry Ellis has always been on her radar (she modeled for the brand in the aughts and grew up in Florida, where the company is headquartered) but she started stocking its exuberant knits when she realized how effortlessly they mingled alongside picks from other designers in her remit. To Sorbara, Ellis’ ouvre skews startlingly modern, especially compared to output from the same era. But for now, Chickee’s remains an outlier.
A quick search on eBay yields thousands of results for, say, tenderly-worn Ralph Lauren designs, but plug in the same terms with “Perry Ellis” appended and the selection becomes noticeably scarce. Part of that has to do with the breadth and consistency of Lauren’s work, but the disparity reflects a wider trend in the way vintage obsessives rediscover brands online. “The vintage market in particular is very much an echo chamber,” Sorbara says. “Once one person taps into something you kind of start seeing it everywhere.” Trawling Depop often feels like a self-fulfilling feedback loop—is everyone really into archival J.Crew right now or does it just seem that way because I keep clicking on it?!—and the more online chatter a brand generates, the deeper coolhunters dig to keep pace with demand. Supply adjusts accordingly, the TikTok adjudicators move on, and the whole process starts again.
But in Ellis’s designs, Sorbara also sees a lasting counterpoint to the discrete form of luxury proposed by brands like The Row, which cater to an ardent group of deep-pocketed, in the know enthusiasts. Ellis, writes Burbach, had “no interest in turning out sartorial objects of art. He wanted to bridge the gap between fashion, which seemed aloof, meticulous, and forbidding, and the discombobulation of everyday life—between the frozen image and the body in motion.” What mattered to Ellis most wasn’t the clothes themselves: it was the way they could make people feel. What better ethos to orient your style around when good vibes are in perilously low supply, and dressing up at all can seem like an exercise in futility—or a plea for brighter horizons ahead?
The strongest testament to Ellis’ legacy as a menswear designer might be his influence on the American brands that emerged—or more firmly established themselves—in his absence. Look closely, and clothes indebted to his vision are hard to miss. Below, we’ve distilled the essence of his early-’80s aesthetic to four key components. Here’s where to start.