In The American Spirit

In the realm of perfume, as in other aspects of the art of living, France, the French, or, at least, Frenchness, has held sway. In her book, Le Sillage des Elegantes, the story of scent in the last century, Marylene Delbourg-Delphis, a writer from – guess where? – France, makes passing reference to a Guerlain creation called United States, but this case stands as singular against a slew of fragrances that have ridden on the romantic reputation of Paris alone. To name but some, there have been: Saint Laurent’s Paris since 1983; Coty’s Paris in 1922; Gai Paris in 1913; Champs- Elysees in 1914; and (who could forget?) 1929’s Evening in Paris.

As redress,¬†Perry Ellis¬†has chosen to launch fragrances for men and women (his first) conceived, and to be celebrated, as being “in the American spirit.” In Toronto last week to mark the fragrances’ introduction to Canada, Ellis himself was a walking manifestation of that casual spirit. After lunch, his first concern was to loosen his tie, which, polka-dotted, was perhaps the most formal element in an ensemble that also included a blue oxford shirt, khaki twill trouses, white ribbed socks, and shoes, of brown buck, made by Church’s of England but representative of his just completed first line of men’sfootwear.

In recent years, Ellis’s expansion into furs, scarves, towels, shoes, moderate-price sportswear (for Levi Strauss) has seemed to overshadow the imaginative talent announced by the designer’s widely hailed arrival in the mid-seventies. However, with his signature line of fragrant products (ranging from perfume to soothing after shave), he again makes clear that his taste is as good and as thorough as any on the international fashion scene.

As guarantee of getting the best, Ellis had the bottles done in France. Serge Mansau, who has also created containers for L’Infini by Caron, Mystere by Rochas, Vivre by Molyneux, has designed bottles, for women, topped by cabochon-shaped stones (malachite, amethyst, jasper, hematite) and, for men, sleek, notched ovals capped in tones of onyx and bone.

But, the Springsteen of scent, Ellis has had them filled with fragrances born in the U.S.A. Though its poignantly floral top note might remind some of Saint Laurent’s Paris, the women’s dries down to evoke honeysuckle and magnolia that Ellis remembers from his Virginia upbringing. The men’s, a blend of cedar, pepper, carnation and leather, starts out on quite a peppery note but settles as a warmer, subtler, still spicy scent.

Conscious of the risk of jingoism, Ellis explains that the American identity of his products has as much to do with Whitman as it does with Reagan, that he simply wanted to emphasize a mood of freedom and opportunity. “Like Canada, the United States is a country where everything really is possible,” he says, “And it’s that that I think about, not the political aspects.” As for politics of a sexual sort, Ellis believes that women are now more likely to go for cross-scenting. Both men’s and women’s fragrances will be sold at women’s counters; only men’s will be at the men’s.

In Ellis’s personal bank of olfactory memories, most are of women. He recalls an aunt who wore lavender; no matter where he encounters it, Givenchy’s Le De “is always mother.” He remembers his father wearing nothing in particular, and he himself wore nothing until his own which he applies to his wrists, sometimes to the nape of his neck.

Also indicative of changes in the lives of men, Ellis points out that, clothing-wise, men’s wear now accounts for 50 per cent of his company’s business. Upcoming is a line of men’s underwear – “I want to break just a bit away from the solid jersey, and I want to do some ribs; I want to work on the elastic a bit; also, I love boxer shorts.” In the fall line of men’s wear he will present in New York on May 3, news will come in the form of knit pants. For women, he will be showing skirts worn above the knee over thigh- high boots. “Like Chaka Khan’s on the Grammy show?” “Exactly,” he declares.

Such boots might be taken as a sign that Ellis is returning to a kind of playfulness evident in his early work but less so in recent collections. This, in conjunction with the finesse of his new fragrances, stands to reactivate his renown as an adventurous designer.

However, perhaps nothing declares Ellis’s adventurous spirit more innovatively than the fact that last November he became the father of a daughter, Tyler Alexandra Gallagher Ellis, born to his friend of 15 years, Barbara Gallagher. He and Gallagher, a television writer/producer who was a co- producer of the original Saturday Night Live, had discussed the possibility for years. Having turned 40, Gallagher decided it was then or never. The baby, called Tyler because it was an old family name on her father’s side and because of a couple of her mother’s close friends, Mary Tyler Moore being one of them, will divide her time between California with Gallagher and Manhattan with Ellis. For now, she is teething, has a button nose, her father’s cheekbones, and is “precious . . . lovely . . .as sweet as she can be.”

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