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Well into awards season, we’ve spotted a new “It” handbag brand making repeat appearances on the red carpet. Standing out in the bag parade (amid go-to labels such as Edie Parker, Judith Leiber, Jimmy Choo and Roger Vivier) are the sleek envelope and frame clutches by Tyler Ellis, the only child of the late and legendary fashion designer Perry Ellis.
In an exclusive phone conversation, THR asked Ellis about her awards season highlights and she responded in one word: “Oprah.” The cultural icon (and would-be president to many) carried the label’s Lily clutch in black velvet to the Emmys and a black satin Perry clutch to the Golden Globes.
“I felt so honored to have her with my bag,” says Ellis. “And Salma Hayek was amazing because, as you know, her husband owns quite a few brands and she chose to carry mine,” she adds, referring to Francois Henri-Pinault, CEO of Gucci parent company Kering. “And then Allison Williams put a ‘Times Up’ pin on my bag at the SAG Awards. It was really cool to be a part of that, as well. As an independent brand, it really helps me with brand legitimization. That’s the biggest thing for me.”
Three times was a charm for Reese Witherspoon, who carried Tyler Ellis clutches to the Emmys, Golden Globes and SAG Awards. Ditto for Octavia Spencer, who accessorized with the bags du jour at the Critics’ Choice Awards, Golden Globes and Emmys. The bags have also been spied in the hands of Jane Fonda, Chrissy Teigen, Mandy Moore, Viola Davis, Sharon Stone, Meryl Streep, Elisabeth Moss, Allison Janney, Kate Bosworth, Jessica Biel, Michelle Pfeiffer, Laura Linney, Marisa Tomei, Heidi Klum and Diane Kruger.
Not too shabby for the 33-year-old designer’s first awards season since relocating the Tyler Ellis headquarters from New York to her home town of Los Angeles last June.
“I travel a lot and I found that I’d be in London or Jakarta or Singapore and the women were all carrying bags by the same top fashion house brands over and over, maybe in a different color. They’re great bags, but it gets boring. I was looking for something new. So I thought about a handbag line of the same quality, but more unique. I love details and quality, so that’s what I focus on. Functional luxury is my thing. I want you to use the bag and have fun with it.”
Her father passed away when she was just 18 months old of complications from AIDS, so Ellis was raised by her mother, Barbara Gallagher, a former television writer and producer who was a platonic friend of Perry Ellis. She grew up in the Palisades and attended Brentwood School before moving east to attend Boston University and subsequently landing in New York, where she interned for Michael Kors in 2008 and then worked at the Michael Kors Collection store on Madison Avenue before launching her business in 2011. During the first two years, while producing her bags in Paris, she worked closely with fashion designer Lars Nilsson, whom she refers to as her mentor.
“Lars introduced me to a lot of people in the fashion world,” said Ellis. “He taught me to pay attention to details and to find inspiration when I travel or when I’m people-watching; some little thing will spark my imagination, so I’ll jot it down and flesh out the idea later. He really encouraged me to open my eyes. I never went to school for design. I do these tiny sketches that aren’t technical, but my current factory in Florence is so amazing. Their eye for detail is impeccable. I do a lot of bespoke orders and we can turn them around in a week.”
Tyler Ellis bags range from $720 for a mini velvet clutch to $22,880 for an alligator shoulder bag. Ellis says that the most popular clutch bags on recent red carpets are the new Perry frame bag (with a shape inspired by the emerald-cut diamond on her engagement ring; she was married in 2014) and the Lee envelope bag. “The Lee is a more classic shape that lets your dress shine, whereas the Perry is a bolder statement that comes in velvet, metal or exotics,” she explained. “Both are lightweight, have detachable chains, and fit a phone.” She hints that she is working with a major celebrity on a new custom bag design for the Oscars, which is still in development.
“My dad was a perfectionist like me, and he wanted everything that he did to be the best,” says Ellis. “He went for the best fabrics, the best details, but he was also about functional luxury. He wanted women to look great but to be comfortable. Nowadays, everyone is, but back in the ‘70s it wasn’t like that. So he brought in the slouch look, and I love that he brought light and happiness to fashion, so that really inspires my designs.”
Although she never knew him, he left her a letter when he died. “I don’t have the letter, unfortunately, but I have this envelope that says, ‘To Ms. Tyler Alexandra Ellis’ that was sitting on my desk when I was thinking about what to call my company. His handwriting is so beautiful, so I decided to use it for my logo. It makes him a part of every piece I create, which is very special to me. It’s on every bag and dust bag. I called my company Tyler Alexandra for the first five years, until I felt truly ready to use my last name.”
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