Marilyn Monroe may have asserted that diamonds are a girl’s best friend, but most women will tell you that, as friends go, no sparkling stone rivals a truly great handbag. After all, a tennis bracelet can’t be trusted to ferry one’s precious cargo. A superlative purse, in which utility, practicality and good looks combine, can be a life-enhancing companion. This insight informs every piece in Tyler Ellis’s collection, from workhorse totes to streamlined clutches. Ellis’s pragmatic glamour — understated, elegant, functional — is more than just a savvy design signature; it’s an homage to her late father, the seminal fashion designer Perry Ellis.
“He wanted to make fashion fun but also comfortable,” Ellis says of her father, who died in 1986 when she was just a toddler. “He made beautiful clothes that made women feel comfortable, and that’s my view as well. I believe in functional luxury.”
If Ellis’s time with her father was brief, her brand has enabled her to commune with his legacy. Perry pioneered a distinctly American style, designing clothes that chicly served a woman’s everyday needs at a time when his European counterparts were proffering flash and frippery. Ellis is taking the same approach to what women carry. “It should be beautiful,” she says of her design MO, “but also practical for women who are running around.”
That translates to lightweight silhouettes, thoughtful details like abundant pockets, materials that seamlessly transition from day to night and a removable cross-body strap for every model. Since launching her brand, in 2011, Ellis’s clean, restrained designs have struck a chord with Hollywood’s elite. A regular fixture on the red carpet, Tyler Ellis clutches were sported at this year’s Academy Awards by Jennifer Lopez, Glenn Close, Lupita Nyong’o and Helen Mirren.
Although it may seem that Ellis was destined to design, that wasn’t always her plan. After growing up in Los Angeles with her mother, television writer and producer Barbara Gallagher, Ellis moved east to study communications at Boston University. Her creative impulses eventually led her to New York, where she began her career with Michael Kors. Working behind the scenes on runway shows as well as in Kors’s Madison Avenue flagship, Ellis was able to follow a collection from concept to sales floor. The experience not only honed her eye for style but educated her in the real-world needs of customers.
A self-proclaimed “accessories girl,” Ellis had always been been drawn more to bags, shoes and jewels than to clothing. “I’m a pretty conservative dresser,” she says. “Jeans, T-shirt — very L.A. But then, I’ll have a fun pop, some excitement with my bag.” So, when it came time to plot her next step, accessories design seemed a natural move. She’d been traveling the world and noticed that style-minded women from Singapore to San Francisco were all carrying the same few purses from the same ubiquitous brands. Each woman had her own unique look, but their handbags were far from original. And so the idea for Tyler Ellis began: handbags of impeccable quality equal to the heritage houses but with the indie charm of a niche maker.
From the get-go, Ellis zeroed in on timeless shapes rendered in sumptuous materials: canary-yellow lizard, lipstick-red alligator, bubblegum-pink satin, cobalt-blue calfskin. One of her first designs was a ladylike top-handle tote, refreshingly unadorned save for a gold-toned closure and feet sculpted to resemble pinecones (her one signature motif, chosen for its ancient association with the third eye). She continues to riff on this model season after season, trimmed with leather fringe or framed with whip-stitched edges. Ellis’s clutches — graphic envelope pochettes and hard-sided minaudières shaped like emerald-cut gems — quickly became perennial favorites among gala-going celebrities and socials.
When asked why her clutches have become the red-carpet accessory du jour, Ellis is characteristically thoughtful: “If you’re wearing a big, extravagant gown, you don’t want your bag to overpower it. You want something that’s clean, sleek, feels nice in the hand and fits all the essentials.” Although these purses are ideally suited to evening affairs, she’s adamant that they shouldn’t be reserved for after dark. “Even in crushed velvet or crystals, I’ll wear them to lunch with jeans. A lot of people feel they need to protect the bags, especially the exotics, but I work hard to make them durable. Take them out, have fun with them!”
Ellis’s core collection offers a wealth of choices, but her bespoke service enables those seeking a one-of-a-kind treasure to realize their dearest handbag dreams. “If you’re wearing a yellow gown and want to match it, I can take your satin swatch and source a yellow alligator to match it exactly,” she explains with glee. “We’re also getting into bridal, monogramming the back of the bag with Mrs. X or whatever your wedding hashtag is, just allowing people to put their own spin on the pieces.”
All Tyler Ellis bags are crafted by a father-son duo based in Florence, the mecca of haute leather goods. The factory’s intimate operation gives Ellis the freedom to produce one-off or complicated designs. “They love doing bespoke because it’s like art for them. They’ll come to me with ideas,” she says. “Working with them is really a collaboration.” Besides yielding superior wares, Ellis’s close relationship with her Italian manufacturer means that custom pieces can be turned around in one week — a time frame unheard of at larger brands.
A few of the bespoke designs have made their way into the brand’s permanent collection, including a decadent dog carrier and a wine bag. When I comment on their appealing irreverence, Ellis laughs: “I mean, it’s just my life — I have three puppies, I make bags, I should make some for my puppies. And then my husband said, ‘What about me?’ We enjoy wine and go to Napa a lot, so I was like, ‘Ah, ok!’ ” The pieces exemplify Ellis’s talent for elevating the pedestrian to lust-worthy heights.
Many more everyday objects are ripe for an Ellis upgrade. Her latest foray has been into homeware, as a result of her own home renovation. “I was looking at my counter,” she recalls, “and was like, I’ve never seen a really striking tissue holder. So, let’s make one! Now, I’m thinking a trash can.” Functional luxury, in the truest sense.