Woman's Sweater Vest by Perry Ellis

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Subject

Clothing and Dress

Title

Woman's Sweater Vest by Perry Ellis

Date

ca. 1980

Format

It measures 36” at the bust, 29 1⁄2” at the waist, and is 17 5⁄8” long, cropped to end at the natural waist.

Description

This sweater vest is royal blue and features a narrow cable down the short center front. The vest is cropped to end at the natural waist. It has a fairly high and wide square neck opening. The tag at the back of the neck identifies the designer as Perry Ellis, that it is hand-knitted, and that it is a size P. The tag in the side seams states that it is Style 5044, is 100% cotton, and is dry clean only.

The sweater vest is undoubtedly an authentic Perry Ellis piece. In 1978, for his first collection under his own name, Ellis used American-made, hand-knit sweaters and in 1979 he debuted his signature single-cable sweater. (1) There were three Perry Ellis lines for three different price levels: Collection, which was designer/couture, Portfolio, which was a lower-priced mass market version of Collection, and Perry Ellis America. Perry Ellis America was a mass market collaboration with Levi Strauss & Company, but set at designer prices. (2) This label appears to be from the Collection line.

During his lifetime, Ellis’s design style was described as inventive and unique, young and modern but also sophisticated, whimsical, playful of proportion, and wholly American. He was even compared to the legendary Claire McCardell. Within the context of its origins, the sweater vest studied embodies these traits with its cropped length and single-cable. A traditional sweater would feature all-over cabling. The single-cable is the perfect example of Ellis’s modus operandi: slight subversion of classic dress. At the time the single-cable was “a minimalist touch that somehow made a sweater look cool, modern, and equally good on women and men.” (3)

There was a philosophical depth to his choice of hand knits over machine knits. Ellis felt that there was an authenticity to more natural yarns and localized production. Furthermore, he believed that “There is a lot of love in a hand-knit sweater that a machine can’t fake.” This in turn mirrored his personal philosophies, “Fashion is low on my list of priorities-first comes love, then family and friends,” and “I don’t make fashion; I make clothes.” The remembrances by his friends and colleagues of his generous spirit and caring nature consistently emphasize that he cared deeply for everyone with whom he interacted, and that he did not allow his work in fashion to alter his ethics and standards. When fans who could not afford his sweaters requested patterns, Ellis gladly complied, licensing patterns with Woman’s Day and Vogue. He then went a step further and licensed with Burren International to create kits of his sweaters for home knitters, complete with beautiful wooden needles and a Perry Ellis label. He knew they would not be significantly profitable, rather it was meant as a gesture of goodwill to his fans, and so they did not water down or alter the designs in the kits from those he showed on the runway. (4)

Attempts to contact the donor have so far been unsuccessful, so unfortunately her perspective was not able to be included in this analysis. One can, however, speculate on her relationship to the piece. Katherine Persky is a strategic planning consultant who lives in New York City and has worked with fashion and cosmetics companies. She attended Princeton from 1975 to 1979 and received a B.A. in Classics. Possibly she was one of the Princeton cheerleaders who graced Ellis’s first runway show in 1978, or perhaps she knew one of them and was introduced to Ellis’s work that way. Regardless of how she came to find the world of Perry Ellis, given the quantity of his work that she invested in and has subsequently donated to institutions, (The Rhode Island School of Design and the Met Costume Institute being two) it is assumed that she loved his styles. Demographically, she was the ideal Perry Ellis customer. Ellis garnered a cult-like following early on, which expanded to include women of all ages, despite his reputation for youthful designs. He claimed to design for women who didn’t spend much time thinking about fashion, but who still wanted to look good while feeling comfortable. By designing collections that built on each other, he supported as well as encouraged his customers to mix pieces to express their individual style. Perhaps most importantly, his clothes did not objectify women or overshadow them. (5) In wearing his clothes, Persky probably felt confident, comfortable, young, and individualistic, but still respectably dressed for an intelligent career woman.

Ellis used American-made, hand-knit sweaters in his first collection in 1978, and this became an important distinguisher of his work because no one else was doing this at that time. In fact, he initially relied on the proprietor of a yarn store and her network of local knitters to produce them because the fashion industry lacked the infrastructure he required. Given that the label does not specify where it was made (others say China or British Crown Colony of Hong Kong), it is very likely that this was one of those early sweaters. Besides being credited with reviving the hand knitting industry in the United States of America, he also was credited with reviving an interest in hand knitting as a hobby. This ties the sweater vest to issues around current efforts to re-shore and localize apparel production again (not to mention yet another hand knitting revival), which is considered an important part of sustainability. Even Ellis was eventually forced to succumb to the capitalist economy, switching to larger production shops and offshore manufacturing. (6) Companies today can take his story as inspiration that change will not be easy, but hopefully well worth the effort.

Sadly, Ellis’s legacy is bound up in the legacy of the AIDS epidemic. The disease took him away in 1986, after only a decade of designing. Without Perry Ellis, his design philosophy, and his commitment to quality as a backdrop to the sweater vest, this humble garment falls flat to the contemporary audiences. After his death, his brand became exclusively mass market, losing its vibrancy, nuance, and cultural significance. When he is remembered, it is more for his influence on menswear, although in popular knowledge his legacy has been almost completely eclipsed by another icon of preppy design, Ralph Lauren. (7) If Ellis had lived, we can only guess at how he might have continued to change and inspire American fashion.

The author’s own experience in getting to know the brand exemplifies some of the issues of Ellis’s legacy. Her introduction to Perry Ellis around 2006 was dull, shapeless men’s basics sold inexpensively at TJ Maxx, including a pathetic version of his signature single-cable sweater. Ellis’s sweaters were now machine-made of synthetic fibers which formed thin, cheap fabrics and packed into the general racks, where they were often marked down to ridiculously low prices. These types of sweater vests were worn at the time by unfashionable, male grade school teachers. As a costume designer, the author often relied on such sweaters for dressing characters like stodgy fathers or nerds on a tight budget. The single cable was no longer a statement of modern whimsy and youth. The author had assumed it was simply a cheap way for the company to make a slightly different sweater without the expense of full cabling.

Now far out of their original context, even many of Ellis’s original designer pieces no longer feel understated, just underwhelming or perhaps odd. While it is unlikely that the brand itself will be fully restored, fashion heritage institutions can help educate the general public about Perry Ellis’s legacy. His designs were classic, well-made and long-lasting, and therefore quite sustainable. The silhouettes and colors he often used are even experiencing something of a renaissance, so perhaps the time is ripe for a new generation to appreciate his designs. If nothing else, the memories of Ellis as a shining exception to the otherwise cold, catty, and capitalist business of fashion deserve to be upheld as an ideal for all to transform the industry.

Footnotes

1) Jeffrey Banks, Erica Lennard, and Doria de la Chapelle, Perry Ellis: An American Original (New York: Rizzoli, 2013), 123, 155, 167.

2) Banks, Lennard, and de la Chapelle, Perry Ellis, 69-70.

3) Banks, Lennard, and de la Chapelle, Perry Ellis, 23-4, 42-5, 80, 114, 123-4.

4) Banks, Lennard, and de la Chapelle, Perry Ellis, Frontispiece, 94-96, 123-125; David Lipke, “Perry Ellis’ Rise to Stardo,” DNR, January 31, 2005, as cited in Banks, Lennard, and de la Chapelle, Perry Ellis, 123; Tuite, Seven Sisters Style, 115-116.

5) Katherine Persky, “Katherine Persky,” LinkedIn, accessed April 25, 2021, https://www.linkedin.com/in/katherinepersky/; Banks, Lennard, and de la Chapelle, Perry Ellis, 32, 44, 56 155; Tuite, Seven Sisters Style, 111-113.

6) Banks, Lennard, and de la Chapelle, Perry Ellis, 123-5; Tuite, Seven Sisters Style, 115-116; Emma Cosgrove, “Why Reshoring the Textile Supply Chain is Easier Said than Done,” Supply Chain Dive, July 13, 2020, https://www.supplychaindive.com/news/reshoring-textile-supply-chains/580928/.

7) Banks, Lennard, and de la Chapelle, Perry Ellis, 282-3; Bee-Shyuan Chang, “Perry Ellis Still Has Something to Say,” New York Times, April 11, 2012, https://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/12/fashion/a-designers-legacy-lives-on-in-mens-wear.html?_r=0.

References

Banks, Jeffrey, Erica Lennard, and Doria de la Chapelle. Perry Ellis: An American Original. New York: Rizzoli, 2013.

Chang, Bee-Shyuan. “Perry Ellis Still Has Something to Say.” New York Times, April 11, 2012. https://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/12/fashion/a-designers-legacy-lives-on-in-mens-wear. html?_r=0.

Cosgrove, Emma. “Why Reshoring the Textile Supply Chain is Easier Said than Done.” Supply Chain Dive. July 13, 2020. https://www.supplychaindive.com/news/reshoring-textile-supply-chains/580928/.

“Ensemble spring/summer 1982.” The Met. Accessed April 17, 2021.https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/95192.

Fleming, E. McClung. 1974. "Artifact Study: A Proposed Model." Winterthur Portfolio 9: 153-173.

grittscloset. “Vintage 80s 90s Perry Ellis Wool Cardigan Hand Knit.” Ebay. Accessed April 17, 2021, https://www.ebay.com/itm/Vintage-80s-90s-Perry-Ellis-Wool-Cardigan-Hand-Knit-/2650 69026146?hash=item3db7585b62%3Ag%3ANc0AAOSwK8dgOZ9N&nma=true&si=194VXbV4JVx5F4FWRbHeDfEfhQk%253D&orig_cvip=true&nordt=true&rt=nc&_trksid =p2047675.l2557.

“Perry Ellis, sweater, 1983.” RISD. Accessed April 17, 2021, https://risdmuseum.org/art-design/collection/sweater-2000116?return=%2Fart-design%2 Fcollection%3Fsearch_api_fulltext%3Dperry%2Bellis.

Persky, Katherine. “Katherine Persky.” LinkedIn. Accessed April 25, 2021. https://www.linkedin.com/in/katherinepersky/.

room6_vintage. “80s Perry Ellis Hand Knit 2tone Cable Sleeve Wool Turtleneck Cropped Sweater S.” Ebay. Accessed April 17, 2021, https://www.ebay.com/itm/80s-Perry-Ellis-Hand-Knit-2tone-Cable-Sleeve-Wool-Turtlene ck-Cropped-Sweater-S-/164631571422hash=item2654ce6bde%3Ag%3A6hAAAOSwH n1f939I&nma=true&si=194VXbV4JVx5F4FWRbHeDfEfhQk%253D&orig_cvip=true& nordt=true&rt=nc&_trksid=p2047675.l2557.

spring77575. “Vintage Perry Ellis Women's Sweater Vest, Silk/ Cotton Small Hand Knit 70's.” Ebay. Accessed April 17, 2021. https://www.ebay.com/itm/114319671890?hash=item1a9dfbc252:g:ml8AAOSw2VpfGm DM.

Tuite, Rebecca C. Seven Sisters Style. New York: Rizzoli, 2014.

Source

Donor: Katherine Persky

Identifier

URI 2000.02.01

Contributor

Alyssa C. Opishinski

Creator

Perry Ellis

Citation

Perry Ellis, “Woman's Sweater Vest by Perry Ellis,” Historic Textile and Costume Collection, accessed January 29, 2023, https://uritextilecollection.omeka.net/items/show/520.

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