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fashion houses such as Chanel, Dior and Givenchy have thrived long after their founders passed away, but Perry Ellis nearly followed its founder to the grave.

In the 13 years since the designer's death, his company has endured ownership changes, a key licensee's bankruptcy and an even bigger anathema among the runway set: banality.

Today, under its latest owner, Perry Ellis is struggling to reclaim its lost cache.

In the 1980s, the name Perry Ellis stood for easy, All-American apparel style, and was favored by models and celebrities for clean lines and tailoring. After Mr. Ellis' death, several designers tried -- and failed -- to create a collection that carried on that tradition.

The last Perry Ellis women's collection -- a 1993 line inspired by Seattle grunge-rock style -- is still noted as a highlight in the history of fashion crime.


Perry Ellis International, the private holding company that held the rights to the designer's name, discontinued the women's line in 1993, then expanded the brand into fragrance, watches, luggage and home fashions. It also tried to create a more cohesive image for the brand, bringing licensees together for an annual conference to coordinate their products' looks and advertising.

But things were complicated last year when its key menswear licensee, Salant Corp., was forced into bankruptcy by a crushing bond debt. When Salant could not restructure its debt, it was forced to file for bankruptcy.

In January, Supreme International paid $75 million to buy Perry Ellis International from the trustees of the designer's estate. Five months later, Supreme changed its name to Perry Ellis International, in part to reflect a new focus.

The new owner has plans to add several lines eliminated during the lean years as well as bring out new ones. It already has announced new licensees to introduce jeans and active wear next fall under the Perry Ellis America brand.

The company has even signed a licensee to reintroduce women's sportswear next fall under the Perry Ellis and Perry Ellis Portfolio lines.

Allan Zwerner, president of licensing for Perry Ellis International, said the marketer is searching for more licensees to handle shoes, jewelry, intimate apparel, dresses and, eventually, a home line.

Yet, some question whether a fresh focus will be enough to raise eyebrows on Seventh Avenue. Others wonder if the brand has languished too long.

Licensees have done a good job of keeping the name alive, but not the spirit of the Perry Ellis brand, one industry insider said.

The executive, formerly with an apparel company, described the proliferation of Ellis lines as "fairly opportunistic" and risky to boot.

"I can't imagine that Perry Ellis would operate like that, but they [licensees] are," he said.


Financially, though, Perry Ellis International is in a strong position to continue its expansion, Mr. Zwerner said. It reported $4.5 million in net income for the six months ended July 31, 21.8% higher than the year before. Revenue rose 1.8%, to $113.8 million.

Mr. Zwerner said Ellis decided to keep the annual meeting of licensees in order to coordinate the various lines into a unified look.

Additionally, the company recently hired Kim Locatell as VP-design and merchandising to coordinate licensees' efforts.

Company executives say they want to transform Perry Ellis into a lifestyle brand to compete with Mr. Ellis' contemporaries, such as Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein.

Recently, it followed in Mr. Klein's controversial footsteps by creating print and outdoor advertising that was judged too risque for billboards in New York's Times Square.


"We're trying to push the brand to be trendier, more contemporary," said Mr. Zwerner. "I think the last [ad] campaign says something about changing the marketing strategy."

The campaign, from Shahid & Co., New York, features b&w photographs of nude models draped in men's shirts or strategically placed foliage.

The shots were suggestive enough that one outdoor company refused to post the ads.

Ellis plans to increase ad spending as the additional lines reach stores, Mr. Zwerner said. He declined to disclose current spending, but Competitive Media Reporting put expenditures in measured media for Perry Ellis lines at $4 million in 1998 and $1.5 during the first half of 1999.

That excludes the latest campaign, which broke in print in August.


Coverage of the rejection of that advertising in New York represents the most free media the brand had seen since Mr. Ellis was alive. And while his name lives on, the weightier question of whether the new company can resurrect the

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