Designer Tyler Ellis: 'I want my bags to be passed down for generations'

The celebrity favourite talks about her famous father, her recent collaboration with Emirati designer Hamda Al Fahim and her LA-inspired approach to luxury

Tyler Ellis's handbags have become fixtures on the red carpet. Courtesy Tyler Ellis
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Tyler Ellis still gets excited when she sees one of her handbags on the red carpet. Even though her creations have been carried by Oprah Winfrey, Jennifer Lopez, Cate Blanchett, Helen Mirren and Emily Blunt, the thrill remains the same, she says. Particularly when it comes to Lopez. “She is such a powerhouse – an independent, self-made woman. I am in awe of her. She’s carried [my bags] multiple times and every time, I am blown away.”

Jennifer Lopez is such a powerhouse – an independent, self-made woman. I am in awe of her.
Tyler Ellis, designer

It is this mix of infectious enthusiasm and considered humility that makes Ellis such a likeable person to interview. She has set herself the Goliath task of building a young luxury heritage brand that prides itself on its craftsmanship and customer-centricity. But while Ellis has pin-point focus when it comes to quality and attention to detail, she also doesn’t seem to take herself too seriously, which can probably be attributed to her laid-back LA roots, and certainly manifests itself in her designs, which are timeless but also imbued with a tangible sense of playfulness.

Tyler Ellis works with a boutique factory in Italy to produce her exclusive handbags. Courtesy Tyler Ellis

Having fun with fashion

The Tyler Ellis spring/summer 2021 collection, in particular, offers an uplifting palette of neon brights – eye-catching shades of orange, pink, green and “golden leopard”, as well as transparent elements, elongated tassels, bold hardware, oversized stitching and clouds of ostrich feathers. “After the tough year that everyone has had, I wanted something positive. I like whimsical elements,” Ellis says.

But also, more broadly: “It should be fun. Sometimes you see these models walking down the runway and it’s all so serious. I want people to use their bags. Even if they are expensive, they are durable and meant to be used. Take them out, have fun with them and enjoy them.”

Bags from Tyler Ellis's autumn/winter 2020 collection. Courtesy Tyler Ellis

Ellis’s love of handbags blossomed during a trip to Paris that she took with a friend when she was 16. “That’s really where I fell in love with the luxury side of things,” she says. “I’m born and raised in LA, which is a very casual city – my wardrobe is super-low-key; jeans and a T-shirt. And then you go over to Paris and it’s so elegant; the people-watching is to die for.”

She went into a Dior store because she had her heart set on one of the brand’s Saddle bags. But when she found the piece she wanted and pointed it out to the sales assistant, her request was denied. “She said: ‘No, you can’t buy it. We don’t have any more.’ So I went over to my friend’s mother and said, they are out. My friend’s mother walked over to the desk, put the Birkin she was carrying on the counter, and they brought the Saddle bag right out to her. It was hilarious.”

Ellis says she was intrigued by the “aloofness” that she experienced on that shopping trip, but it is perhaps no coincidence that her own brand represents the polar opposite. “I feel we are very approachable. That aloofness, it works and some people love it, but I want you to have access.”

Her bags are all crafted in Italy, in a boutique, father-and-son-run factory that it took her three years to find. They are designed to be intuitive, with strategically placed pockets, lightweight constructions and cross-body straps that ensure you can go hands-free whenever needed. Ellis is a fan of clean lines and sleek, simple designs, although a new collaboration with Emirati designer Hamda Al Fahim is introducing a whole new dimension to that signature aesthetic.

Partnering with Hamda Al Fahim

Ellis first became aware of Al Fahim’s work during a trip to the UAE a few years ago. “I thought her gowns were spectacular – the workmanship that goes into them is beyond. So immediately I knew we had the same aesthetic and view on luxury. Then I did a little research and realised we are almost exactly the same age, but born and raised on different sides of the world, and we are trying to do the same thing: build an independent luxury brand. So I thought the synergy was there.”

The spring / summer collection is brimming with uplifting hues. Courtesy Tyler Ellis

For the collection, which launched at the beginning of June, her silhouettes were combined with Al Fahim’s embroidery accents. It is a mark of Ellis’s fondness for the UAE, which she has visited several times. “I find there is a true appreciation for true luxury in the region. In America, a lot of people just don’t get it.”

There are no logos or branding on the outside of Ellis’s bags. Her signatures are more subtle – like little secrets for those in the know. The insides come in a trademark shade of Thayer blue, named after the LA street where she spent her early years, while zippers, feet and fasteners take the shape of miniature pine cones, “which signifies the third eye and the highest form of spiritual awakening”, she explains.

Earning her surname

Ellis is the daughter of television producer Barbara Gallagher and influential American fashion designer Perry Ellis, who is credited with reshaping menswear in the 1980s. Forward-thinking and innovative, Perry designed clothing that was meant to be worn, and famously said that “fashion dies when you take it too seriously”, an ethos that his daughter has embraced.

Perry died in 1986 at the age of 46, but I wonder whether having such a famous father adds an extra layer of pressure to Ellis’s design aspirations. When she first started creating handbags in 2011, she did so under the brand name Tyler Alexandra, believing that the Ellis name was something she needed to earn, rather than capitalise on. It was not until 2017, after she had spent six years honing her craft, that she released a collection under the Tyler Ellis brand.

A bag from Tayler Ellis's spring/summer 2021 collection. Courtesy Tyler Ellis

“He passed away when I was 18 months old and I don’t have any memories of him,” Ellis says. “My mum raised me in LA. He was living in New York and was part of that fashion scene, and my mum was really not in the fashion world, so she wanted to give me a private childhood, away from that.

"Growing up, I didn’t have much access to the fashion world. I don’t have many friends or contacts in that world. I’ve kind of done that on my own and I guess internally, that’s how I wanted to do it. I didn’t use my last name because it’s such an iconic last name and I felt like I had to earn it, and that just using it wasn’t appropriate. But his handwriting is my logo, so he is a part of everything I do and that makes me really proud and happy.”

Lessons from Michael Kors

Ellis’s inauguration into the world of fashion ultimately occurred thanks to another household name. After studying communications at Boston University, she moved to New York and ended up working as an intern for Michael Kors and his partner, Lance LePere, and it was there that she learnt about the importance of details. “That was an incredible experience,” she says.

“We would be working behind the scenes of his New York Fashion Week show and basically you’d have the model and the looks there, but then they would add a cinch belt, just to make it perfect. There were all these tiny little details that would make or break an outfit, that would really take it to the next level.”

Ellis is committed to using that same attention to detail to create coveted, unique pieces. Her clients already have their Hermes, Chanel and Dior bags – they come to her for something different.

It is telling that her most prized possession is a charm bracelet given to her by her paternal grandmother, which she has since turned into a necklace and wears every day. It is beautiful, timeless and a one-of-a-kind, she explains. Something entirely in line with her definition of luxury. “I want my bags to be passed down for generations and to remain relevant,” Ellis says. “I’m not of the moment, I’m looking for the long-term approach.”

Updated: July 01, 2021, 3:50 AM