NEW YORK — Award-winning fashion designer Perry Ellis, whose quirky clothing shocked the fashion industry but later became basic to contemporary style, died early today of viral encephalitis, the disease known as sleeping sickness.
Ellis, 46, died peacefully at 1:30 a.m. after slipping into a coma several days ago, said a spokesman for New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center.
The native Virginian walked into the hospital May 8 hours after he shocked friends and associates with his frail appearance at the New York showing of his fall-winter line.
He did not take the customary walk down the runway with his models at the end of the show and made only a momentary appearance on stage supported by two aides.
In late April he had walked unaided at an AIDS benefit sponsored by the fashion industry. Many in attendance there were concerned by his appearance.
Ellis, who at one time sported a signature ponytail, was an eight-time Coty Award winner and member of the prestigious Coty Hall of Fame. His fashion collections combined slim suits and oversized coats in natural fabrics--silk, linen, wool and cotton.
Ellis lost his close companion and business associate, Laughlin Barker, in January to an illness that was never specified. The fashion industry generally attributed Barker's death to AIDS.
A spokeswoman for the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta said encephalitis, which causes an inflammation of the brain, is not one of the diseases that strikes people afflicted with AIDS.
Ellis was born March 3, 1940, to a wealthy family in Portsmouth, Va. He majored in business at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., and earned a master's degree in retailing from New York University.
As a buyer for a department store in Richmond, Va., he displayed a flair for designing that impressed manufacturers.
His first design job was with John Meyer of Norwich, a New York sportswear firm, in 1968. In 1975, while he was working for a Manhattan Industries subsidiary, the company offered Ellis his own line of clothes.
He started his fashion firm, Perry Ellis Sportswear, in 1978, designing first for women and later for men. His designs were noted for their elegance and wearability, fresh use of fabrics and a keen sense of color. He later branched out into furs, shoes, perfumes and a home furnishings line.
Ellis never married but had an 18-month-old daughter, Tyler Alexandra, with screenwriter Barbara Gallagher. The two were friends and both wanted to have a child, said Ellis' spokeswoman. Gallagher and Tyler live in Brentwood, Calif.