Tyler Ellis, the pretty, petite founder of the Tyler Alexandra handbag line, looks excited. In the moments before presenting her spring 2015 collection to friends, family, the press, and other designers, her enthusiasm is palpable. The designer’s full name, Tyler Alexandra Gallagher Ellis, is a handful, but it’s worth mentioning -- she is the daughter of fashion designer Perry Ellis and Barbara Gallagher, a television writer and producer who raised her. Yet the brand name Tyler Alexandra solidifies her own identity, something that gives her a genuine sense of pride. In the lobby of the Park Hyatt Hotel on West 57th Street, there are glass windows showcasing a few of her current and old campaigns, several dating back to the brand’s launch in late 2010. On the mezzanine, the latest spring offerings are on display. One look at the collection, and it’s clear to see that there is a definitive Tyler Alexandra aesthetic -- a noteworthy one, too.
In early 2011, Ellis told the New York Times that she expected her handbag line to turn a profit in five years. I ask her if she beat her target. "We’re at four years," she points out, "and I’m very happy with where I am today." Her website shows the designer’s large doctor bag on Reese Witherspoon’s arm, one of her clutches in the hands of Amy Adams. Matches Fashion, a luxury online retailer, currently offers her designs. So do Moda Operandi and the Editorialist. Then there are her brick-and-mortar retailers in Russia, Japan and the Middle East, a testament to the brand’s global presence. Here in New York, Five Story stocks Tyler Alexandra. Even Carolina Herrera’s boutiques in Manhattan, Los Angeles and Dallas carry the bags. “A friend of mine is a stylist over there, and they’ve been placing a bunch of bags on the celebrities,” she tells me. “Mrs. Herrera saw the bags and she became really interested. We launched there in August,” she notes.
Tyler Ellis may dream big, but miniature is actually an operative word for her. “My sketches are this [large],” she says, showing a one-inch gap between her index finger and her thumb, then pointing to a selection of her mini doctor bags on the table across from us. “[The drawings are] like, little little minis.” After she lays out her ideas on paper, a “technical drawer” translates her designs to scale. Then they go to the factory, where a basic model is produced. “It’s like a soft cardboard,” she notes. “You can draw on it, cut it, tape it.” This allows her to see and alter the handbag before it is made in, say, leather or python.
When I ask Ellis what stands out most for her in her collections, she answers immediately: “Exotics.” Within the first moments of our meeting, she’s showing off her skins — bags made of python, toad, even fish. “This little red guy here is ostrich leg,” she exclaims, highlighting the stick-thin pattern running down the length of a clutch from her recent spring 2015 collection. Her leather bags, she says, are mainly for the American market.
Like many fashion-loving Americans, Ellis finds encouragement in Paris, where she learned lessons from clothing designer Lars Nilsson. “There’s a confidence [Parisian women have that] American women can’t pull off. They just look so elegant, a little over-confident in a great way.” It’s exactly that kind of assertiveness that inspires her to think outside of the box, ditching the more traditional fur bags of her previous collections for atypical materials, like matte python, a sort of rubbery texture that can easily be dyed.
But for all of Ellis’ love of the exotic, it’s her most straightforward piece that offers the greatest appeal: the unmistakable Jamie doctor bag in grained leather. It’s available in three sizes — large, medium, and mini, the mini style being a favorite among women. They are offered in exotic materials as well. “I carry [the mini doctor] around and I get stalked. [All my bags] are named after friends and family. Everyone else has faded in and out. Jamie is here to stay.”
With staying power comes a vocabulary, an assertive brand language sure to be copied and mass-produced. One day, as she was walking up Madison Avenue, she was stunned. In the window of a mega-brand-name store, an identical version of her Bailey bag loomed over her. Was she upset? “It’s kind of a nod, I guess. It’s kind of cool, and then you’re like, ‘Whoa, that’s mine.’ I saw someone who had an Instagram with [a bag that looked like one of my designs] but I didn’t know who it was.”
Luckily, an authentic Tyler Alexandra bag is inimitable. “I have my signature color, that’s this blue violet — Thayer blue we call it. We do satin and suede on the inside of the larger bags. I’m not into labels. There’s not anything with my name of it, only on the inside.
Underneath the bags are four golden pinecones, little stoppers that “symbolize the highest power of positive energy,” she exclaims. Open up any of her handbags and you’ll find a golden plaque that reads: “Tyler Alexandra” in her father’s cursive. Clearly, she’s her father’s daughter, even though he died when she was only 18 months old. Tyler Ellis, at first, wanted to follow in her mother’s footsteps. But after reading a biography about her father, she realized they had much in common. “He didn’t want to be a designer. [He was] asked to design a collection. At first he said, no. Then he just tried it. I guess it was a fear of mine — Perry Ellis as your father — but then I just tried it. We’re doing alright.”
Before I leave, she wants to tell me one more thing. “He didn’t take fashion too seriously,” she says of her late father. “He wanted to have fun with it. If you’re not enjoying it...” she trails off, taking in her surroundings at the Park Hyatt New York’s mezzanine. One look around the room, filled with fans and playful bags from her most recent collection, and it’s easy to see that Tyler Ellis is having fun.