Photo: Nicolas J Harris / Courtesy of Romeo Hunte

Romeo Hunte’s journey since launching his namesake label in 2013 may have been impressively considered, but even he wasn’t prepared for the challenges that the current pandemic would bring. Speaking to him from his New York apartment (coincidentally on his birthday), it’s clear he’s feeling reflective. “There were a lot of ups and downs over the past few months,” Hunte explains. “My grandfather passed, and a few other members of the team had family members pass too. We just kind of huddled together, working from home, working very odd hours, and I think it built us up to be a stronger team—as a family, we understood everyone’s going through this, and were always checking in on each other.”

After all, if there’s one thing that defines Hunte’s ascent since launching his label in 2013—aside from his signature deconstructed outerwear—it’s the strong sense of community he’s developed. This doesn’t just include the illustrious list of celebrities, from Beyoncé to Zendaya, who have stepped out in his pieces, but the regular clients for whom he makes custom looks on a made to order basis. “We really don’t like to waste, so that on its own meant we weren’t sitting on stock,” he says. “We started asking, what does our customer actually want right now?” The natural answer, aside from the more flamboyant pieces still available on his website, was a range of face masks—a product that, for Hunte, fulfilled more than just a practical need. “The feedback from the masks has simply been that they’ve brightened up their day when they come in the mail, and I felt that’s the best thing I could do at this moment.”

As Hunte and his team began to plan their next steps post-lockdown, however, another national tragedy occurred; namely, the killing of George Floyd. Throughout the Black Lives Matter protests that followed, Hunte has been keenly observing the fashion industry’s reckoning with its historic underrepresentation of Black designers and creatives. “I think there’s a lot more work to be done,” Hunte says. “When I was a child, fashion was something that I always dreamed of doing, but it’s challenging to step into an industry and feel like there aren’t that many people that look like you, or share the same inspiration, to feel like you’ve been in the industry delivering each season and it’s overlooked. A lot of things are not so inclusive as they’re promoted, sometimes it feels like, as a designer, you only really get noticed during Black History Month on those things. It can be frustrating, but I think I’ve learned to try not to bring emotion into the business.

“I’m just hoping that it opens up doors for younger designers to feel like there’s a place for them,” Hunte continues. “Not just me, but the Kerbys, the LaQuans, the Victors, and the Telfars of the world. We can inspire a whole generation of designers to feel like: Wow, I could actually do it. When I was a young designer, I didn’t have that many designers to look up like to really inspire me.”

All of which leads to Hunte’s ongoing collaboration with Tommy Hilfiger—a designer he has always looked up to, and who has now become something of a mentor to Hunte. When we speak, the 4th of July weekend is swiftly approaching, and it feels like an apt moment to take stock of what it really means to be an American brand in the current political climate. How much cache does that descriptor hold? Is it even possible to feel proud of running an ‘American brand’ right now, given the ever-widening political divide where those working in fashion tend to fall firmly on one side of the fence? And where does a brand like Hunte’s, which straddles both the old world and the new, enter the equation?

For Hunte, the answers are more nuanced, and lie in reconciling the rich (if historically exclusive) heritage of a brand like Hilfiger’s with his future-facing priorities of inclusivity and sustainability. “Tommy has been more than a mentor to me, he’s like a godfather,” Hunte explains. “We relate to each other a lot, and I’m honored to be one of the first designers of color to work with his archives. When I first started designing as a little kid, I used to take my mother’s clothes and upcycle those pieces. I think it’s essential for fashion houses to take a more sustainable approach both physically and ethically.” It’s something Hunte is channeling in the collaboration, which has seen him given unprecedented access to the Hilfiger archives to create new pieces that marry the classic Americana of Tommy Hilfiger with Hunte’s looser, more playful design signatures.

“It’s really organic, and I haven’t ever really promoted or pushed it, but in a lot of my previous collections, there were great upcycled pieces that brought to life like the visions and ideas I had,” Hunte adds. “So when Tommy and I came together with this, I wanted to do something that upheld those values, but felt precious and limited. I think upcycling is the new luxury in my world.”

Indeed, the support of industry titans like Hilfiger toward emerging designers that could offer an alternative route for a brand like Hunte’s to widen their audience, outside of industry accolades and flashy prizes. For Hunte, however—as with so much of his approach—it seems the most important factor is simply about building that human connection. “Partnering with Tommy is just amazing, and he always tells me to dream big. Especially around this time, there have been days where it’s been very hectic and challenging, but he’s been a great support. Sometimes I totally forget some of the things that I’ve achieved, and I need that reminder to keep me going.”

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