Two years ago, Perry Ellis visited New York psychic Frank Andrews. "He didn't know who I was. He thought I might be a writer or a designer, maybe in fashion," Ellis recalls. Andres predicted success, as big as Halston's.
Ellis says he has no illusions about the comparison. But in his first year in business under his own label, Portfolio, he copped a Coty Award nomination, and lately his clothes have been selling out at Bloomingdale's, Neiman-Marcus and other stores. He'll receive a Young Designer Award from Hecht's on March 16.
This season's loose, unlined clothes, touted in magazines and now showing up in stores, are the kind of designs Ellis does better than most. So comfortable they even look rumpled, they're aimed at women who are in a no-stress, no-hassle frame of mind - a mood that Ellis and other designers are betting applies to most of the country.
In fact the name "slouch," which Ellis assigned to his too-long, narrow and deliberately wrinkled trousers, has become the buzz word for these oversized, relaxed clothes that are being appeal to some, but will be dismissed by others as "messy, unwearable and unflattering.
Perry Ellis, 37, drapes his arm across the back of the nubby white loveseat in his room at the One Washington Circle Hotel. His top shirt button is open, his tie loose, his jacket thrown over the back of a chair. He hasn't shaved in a couple of days. He is the slouch look.
He sounds a bit like a professor as he discusses fashion changes since the early '60s, something he does with ease because he was there when it all happened.
He grew up in Portsmouth, Va., and in good southern style was given his mother's maiden name, Perry, along with his father's last name. He stayed in the South for college at William and Mary, earned a graduate degree in business in New York, then returned south to work at Miller & Rhoads, the Richmond department store.
He was hugely successful, selling more of those super-classic John Meyer and Villager clothes in his departmenmt than almost any place in the country. Eventually he went to Connecticut to work for John Meyer. It was he who chose the prints for Peter Pan-collar shirts and decided if the grosgrain ribbon should be put inside or outside the Shetland sweater. All the customers had to do was add a circle pin.
"It was a time for virginal kinds of clothes, proper prints, simple silhouettes, dyed-to-match, and A-line, no-waistline skirts," Ellis says. "It was pretty and simple and cut through all patterns of age and attitude. It was universal."
He stayed with John Meyer through the country's upheaval in the late '60s. "We kept trying to make skirts short enough, and all those conservative people who were buying the clothes really didn't know what the hell to do," he recalls.
"The turmoil was a great thing for fashion because it brought on a great deal of freedom. We got away from uniform dressing into more creative and versatile expressions. Finally now, even the conservative women have gotten themselves together and decided it's okay to be conservative. Everyone has been made all right - whatever your approach is."
The turmoil was good for Ellis, too. He's wearing a tie now because it is his father's tie and he likes it. He had been through a long period of not wearing ties. "In fact, I was violent about being told I had to wear one," he says. "Now I feel ties are okay because I don't have to wear them."
The same is true about shaving, he says. "I shave when I feel like it, every three or four days."
Ellis says he could have stayed at John Meyer "the rest of his life," but left to assist Vera Neumann, creator of Vera accessories for home and clothes. After a year, he was asked by Manhattan Industries, Vera's parent company, to design his own line. This is his second year.
His current designs are rooted in his earlier traditional styles. The fabrics are entirely natural, his shapes classic.
"It's a far cry from the tailored, stiff clothes that used to push the body. Now we need some room to move around in life, room to think. These clothes give you room to think," he says.
Piece by piece, his clothes are not particularly revolutionary. "Individually, the pieces are pretty wearable by most everyone," he says. They are made more interesting by how they are combined, worn and accessorized - personal choices that the early '60s now seem to have lacked.
"It is really the woman, not the designs, that affect the way my clothes look," he says.
Prices in the current collection range from about $32 for shirts to $75 for a jacket, and pants and skirts cost about $50 each, a healthy peg below much of the designer sportswear on the racks.
Ellis says he doesn't think about price. "I choose 50-cent-a-yard cottons or $12-a-yard wools because I like them. I don't use a lot of details. There are no buttons on [my] jackets because people don't button jackets. Drawstrings close easily and even shape skirts and pants. Jackets have no linings because I don't like to wear them." He says he tries to make sure that what he makes reflects the functions and needs of the wearer.
His spring colors are natural tones of flax, linen and cotton, but there will be bright colors for accent in the fall there'll be a tapered silhouette that starts with padded shoulders and narrows to the hem.
He has just begun designing furs for Alexandre - "All sport furs, to go with my clothes. I could never design a serious mink, for example." And he has shoes, always flats, made especially to show with his clothes. For fall there will be several cowboy boot styles.
He has no plans for licensing. Although men pick up shirts to wear from his collection for women, he'll steer clear of menswear until he can control the manufacturing himself.
Two weeks ago, Ellis received a phone call from Andrews, the psychic, who by now is well acquainted with Ellis' clothes. Good news again. He foresees "a film, a wonderful actress and great clothes," Ellis says.
That hadn't occured to the designer before, but he's intrigued. Given the chance, he says he would choose Faye Dunaway. "Her clothes don't ever wear her. Her clothes are a supporting feature."
In other words, the essence of a Perry Ellis design.