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Moment 63: Community in Crisis

By the time "AIDS" entered the lexicon, the fashion world was already fighting against the disease. Here, Perry Ellis, whose death was a call to action.

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Perry Ellis and models fall 1981

Perry Ellis and models, fall 1981.

Photo By Dustin Pittman/WWD Archive

By 1983, when the term "AIDS" entered the lexicon, along with its oppressive stigma, the fashion community was already on the front line of the fight against the disease, if not completely public about it. Reputations, as well as lives, were at stake. After Calvin Klein was hospitalized for viral meningitis in 1981, so many stories—of blood transfusions in Switzerland, of treatment at a Swedish sanatorium, that he had died—swirled that Klein sat down with WWD on June 10, 1983, specifically to refute the rumors. He even put his physician, Dr. Kevin Cahill, on the record: "Calvin Klein has been a patient of mine for years, and there is no evidence that he is suffering from AIDS or any other serious disease," Cahill told WWD. "He's a healthy young man." It became nearly impossible for young male designers to secure financial backing, as investors ran scared, and group health insurance policies were compromised.

When Perry Ellis died in 1986 at age 46, four months after the firm's president and Ellis' partner, Laughlin Barker, died from AIDS, the official cause of death was said to be viral encephalitis. The house left reports that the real cause was AIDS unconfirmed, even though its customers were "upscale, fairly intelligent people with sophisticated backgrounds who know that AIDS has nothing to do with the construction of clothes," as one licensee told WWD at the time. Still, Ellis' death was a call to action.

The following year, the CFDA formed an AIDS committee, chaired by Bill Blass and Donna Karan, dedicated to raising funds for research as the disease metastasized through the industry. The death toll was felt from the back of the house to the front, including hairstylists, visual merchandisers, models and designers. Among the lives lost were Rory Cameron (1985), Gia Carangi (1986), Willi Smith (1987), Angel Estrada (1989), Patrick Kelly (1990), Roger Forsythe (1991), Tina Chow (1992)—one of the first high-profile heterosexual women to succumb to the disease—and Franco Moschino (1994). On a sweltering day in July 1990, just a few months after Halston died from AIDS-related complications, 110 designers, including Ralph Lauren, Arnold Scaasi and Marc Jacobs, congregated outside 550 Seventh Avenue for a group shot by Patrick Demarchelier to promote 7th on Sale, the first edition of CFDA's legendary AIDS benefit. And it's impossible to talk about fashion and AIDS without including amFAR in the conversation. A fashion favorite from the beginning, amFAR, under the chairmanship of Kenneth Cole and his creative ad campaigns, has become the leading industry voice for global AIDS awareness.