The New Man of Perry Ellis



499 Seventh Ave. ny 10018

Neighborhood: Midtown

A few seasons back, Perry Ellis (the company) chose Patrick Robinson (the designer) to resurrect its iconic American style . This past September Robinson staged a renegade runway show where the spectators did the walking, parading past lines of models posing and preening in a cacophony of Spring 2004 style in muted pastels, creamy whites and quirky patterns, not a black item in sight–except for Robinson himself, a (muted) black man, which the oh-so color-blind fashion press rarely notes.

Among the looks: a bolero sweater paired with a ruffled silk top over a semi-ruched pencil skirt; a pleated skirt with an argyle vest worn with his signature satin high top sneakers; a girly silk tank and skirt with a mannish cotton utility jacket and towering stilettos. The designer described the collection as ‘eclectic randomness’. Whatever it’s called, it worked—garnering rave reviews from the Times, WWD and anyone else who matters, not to mention retailers—who really matter.

Hands-on, detail-oriented, obsessed with quality materials, Robinson has redefined the singular Ellis-esque look with an all-American attitude his very own. With a distinctive eye and a gutsy anti-intellectual sensibility, he’s come up with a look that’s playful and sophisticated. He’s created high fashion that’s low budget. The line is considered ‘better womenswear,’ which is priced below both designer and bridge (comparable to Banana Republic or the new cK line) to be sold at Bloomingdales, Bendels and Macys.

Robginson is not a member of the current cult of teen and twenty wunderkinds—although he too began designing and selling clothes during his teen years. After graduation from high school in Southern California— where he was voted ‘most likely to be Calvin Klein’—he moved to New York to attend Parsons and then proceeded to systematically attack the fashion capitals, moving to Paris where he assisted the brilliant American-born couturier Patrick Kelly, then on to Milan where he worked for Armani and then back to New York where he became design director at Anne Klein.

Robinson is a control freak (what good designer isn’t?). He launched his own line in 1996 to an enthusiastic press—in an unenthusiastic economic climate—followed by a lower-priced jean collection a few years later, which didn’t exactly hit pay dirt either. Since then let’s just say he’s been biding his time. In fact, Robinson was beginning to think he’d never design clothes again when approached by Public Clothing about the creative director gig. He spent five months convincing them that he was their man.

Robinson wasn’t interested in bringing back the past although he certainly checked out the archives and talked to everyone who knew Ellis. “Perry was the world’s best stylist; anything he saw, he put in the collection— as his life changed the collection changed,” he says, adding, “But it’s not about a Perry ‘dot’ or the pleat in the sleeve or ‘we always do this, we always do that’; I wanted to recapture the essence and soul of Perry Ellis but I also wanted it to be about the future.”

He didn’t want to do an editorial collection, he wanted to do original fashion at a great price for the ‘person on the street.’ He also didn’t want to do a runway show but since it was part of the deal, he did it his way without the typical color story or whatever. Instead he presented his vision of a tour though a chic woman’s closet, with a focus on both the individual pieces and the sum total of each look.

In the process of doing Perry Ellis his way, Robinson also managed to coin the key fashion spin phrase of the Spring 2004 season (of which there is always one or two, carefully chosen from a pre-existing approximately 20 word selection of fashion lingo recycled from season to season, often updated with an all-purpose ‘modern’ here, a ‘sexy’ there). “It’s all about optimism,” Robinson stated, “and charming is the new sexy.”

While fashion is not renowned for its terribly erudite practitioners, marketing is about words, and fashion, (like most creative enterprises) is first and foremost, about marketing: the key spin phrase carries weight, a lot of weight.

The words were hardly out of Robinson’s mouth, before everyone, from journalists to designers to retailers, began a Greek chorus with an emphasis on the ‘optimism’. (What optimism actually means in regard to fashion is beside the point.) It was good timing—September 2003—the economy was going nowhere, the war in Iraq going everywhere. Oops, guess that’s still the case—at least according to my (less optimistic) sources. Well, some things don’t change, do they. At any rate, it looks like optimistic fashion is also here to stay.

In a December article in The NY Times entitled ‘The Detailed Shape of Things to Come’ Cathy Horyn refers to the changes ahead in 2004 as a reflection of the sense of optimism in Robinson’s Perry Ellis collection (and in designer Peter Som’s) that answered ‘a pent-up demand for sensuality rather than roaring sex appeal.’

In the February issue of W magazine, there’s a piece on the designer of a new Gap designer sportswear collection, one of several new designers in the company that are, for the first time, ‘coming out of the closet’. The designer, Pina Ferlisi, is quoted as saying, “I came here because I liked what Gap represents, that it is very inclusive. I think it’s a feel-good brand. It’s optimistic; it’s real clothes that are accessible, and it’s friendly.”

Sounds familiar doesn’t it? (Even John Edwards, the presidential candidate, not a fashion designer—not yet anyway—made his way back into the Democratic presidential race via optimistic-infused rhetoric galore. Next thing you know Ralph Lauren will be leaping into the ring. He’s already got our beloved incumbent’s rough-and-ready Texan/sublimated East Coast WASP look down; (who says a fashion designer can’t be president?)

Fast-forward to pre-season Fall 2004: the word from Robinson is that ‘the new luxury is about not being expensive’. According to Robinson, “Americans are consumers: they either want a crazy 99 cent bargain or they want real design that’s reasonably priced. People rise up to a different level if presented with good design; they don’t like to be talked down to. Look, they’re buying Michael Graves at Target.”

The new inexpensive luxury appears to be riding its optimistic wave into the new year. In the February issue of Vogue there’s a piece on American designers, both old and new, photographed with their muses. Patrick Robinson and Calvin Klein’s Francisco Costa share a page with two models decked out in pink and dusky rose Perry and Calvin respectively. Robinson’s pick is a sassy silk be-ruffled number. While the Calvin ensemble—a sleek dress and simple sweater vest—is perhaps a bit more serious, both looks are equally ‘modern and sexy’, as they say, (rather as ‘we’ say—if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em). The Calvin dress goes for $2080., the sweater vest for $540. The Perry top is $78., the skirt is $138. Take a look—and do the math.

Maybe Patrick Robinson’s high school class was onto something there.

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