Anthony Thomas Melillo, Designer Interview
BY OBI ANYANWU
The difference between a ‘flash in a pan’ and a successful company is branding. Many fashion brands have faltered and fallen to the wayside because they’ve abandoned their DNA, chasing trends to stay relevant. Fashion companies that have operated for many decades remain relevant, because they never stray from their identity, and eventually they let their history and heritage sell products.
Anthony Thomas Melillo understands how important branding is to the success of a company. Melillo has experienced many facets of the fashion industry, and in turn developed a brilliant mind for branding. Having worked in publications for several years, he made the leap to fashion design after noticing what men’s market was missing.
His namesake label, Anthony Thomas Melillo, or ATM, is the embodiment of his casual elegant lifestyle. On any given t-shirt, you’ll find the brand’s ATM logo on the underarm of the right sleeve in the exact same place where Melillo tattooed his initials at 17. If you care more about the product than the person behind it, you’ll appreciate the hangtags that explain how and where the t-shirt’s cotton was sourced and produced in Peru.
When you buy an ATM t-shirt, you’re buying into Melillo himself, and when you visit the brand’s stores, it is like visiting the designer’s home. In fact, some furniture at the brand’s Bleecker Street store was designed by Melillo and shares many similarities with furniture he’s designed for his own home.
ATM began as a collection of t-shirts and has expanded to a full men’s and women’s lifestyle collection that has not strayed from its casual, elegant identity. The brand also operates freestanding store in New York City’s West Village, is opening a new East Hampton opening in May and is launching new product categories.
We sat down with Melillo at his Bleecker Street store to discuss his jump from print to clothing, how the ATM brand has grown, what we can expect from the East Hampton store and what new product categories he is adding to the ATM world.
Can you tell me about your time working with publications? What inspired you to leap into design?
I’ve spent twelve or thirteen years of my career in magazines. I was at Esquire for my last five years as Style Director working on the celebrity covers. I really learned a lot about what celebrities wanted to wear and what they felt comfortable in. They weren’t traditional models. They were very conscious of fits and that was more interesting to me than working with models.
I started to understand more on a designer level, more about fits and how to make things right for body types. A large percentage of the time, you had to make sure you had the right t-shirt, chinos, jacket or fleece zip-up. Those pieces in the 90s were very hard to come by, and that triggered something in my mind.
My learn from magazines at the last stage, in those last 5 years, is that if I could put together those pieces I think it would be successful.
And that led to Nova?
When I started Nova, it got a lot of press and hype. I opened a store in Miami, a store in the LES.
I learned that I needed all elements, and not only design and fashion. I needed production, manufacturing, the right sort of backing. The hype was great, but unless you can actually ship product you don’t have a business.
Luckily through the years I figured out the business, I have business partners, and I’ve stuck with them as I’ve evolved throughout the years from 2001 to now. I’ve made sure I was with the right partners for every venture.
How was your experience launching your namesake label?
2008 was a very rough year. Retail was not good, designers were dropping every day, and at that point I thought, “If I’m going to do something it has to make sense, it has to be business smart.”
I was with Mark Lee, who had just taken the job at Barneys, and he asked if I was going to continue doing the celebrity lines. Having lunch with Mark made me wonder if I should start another brand.
I threw out that I work with t-shirts every day, so why not do something with t-shirts? I’ve worked with Peruvian manufacturers in my past jobs, and I know they have great cotton so said I would get in touch. Mark said that if we do anything I have to show him first.
I started to develop t-shirts and I took 8 months. I went to Peru and developed three fabrics, four styles, three colors, and I had no rush. I was still doing a very lucrative business. I thought I’d see if this works.
Finally, I came up with a collection. Barneys came in, and in 15 minutes they made a big commitment. I presented the collection in a cement studio with a three-walled black box with the ATM logo.
That sounds cool, original. Why did you need a presentation?
I didn’t want to send the product to the store just to have them be thrown on the shelf like another t-shirt brand. My world comes from designer. I’ve been in that world, and I know that world. I want to make sure that the t-shirts feel like a brand even though they’re just t-shirts.
Mark said, “Yes, that’s great we’ll do that. We’ll present it like that for the first presentation for at least a month and a half.” Barneys set up 1,500 square feet of black boxes and they put in the men’s and women’s t-shirts. Black, white and grey tees in 5 styles and 3 fabrics. The presentation made ATM feel very high end and that was my point. I don’t want to do something that’s just going to get lost in the woodwork or get thrown on the shelf or become another brand that disappears.
I never thought in my head that I would make a full collection, but I did know if I do t-shirts they have to feel like a beautiful collection.
At what point did you decide to venture into a full collection?
The Barneys team said the t-shirts were great and suggested trying a cashmere sweater, a hoody, or sweatpants. For every delivery, I started doing a new body for them, like a lightweight cashmere sweater that was lighter than the typical sweater and felt like a t-shirt.
I said I would make sweaters if I can make them feel like the t-shirts. I’m going to do trousers if I can make them feel like the best trousers or the best or most cozy trousers. I’m going to do jackets, but I want them to be a throw on, like a bathrobe. We’ve consciously thought we’re going to do this but it has to be part of the brand’s DNA.
There is nothing that feels like we left where we started, and I don’t feel like bringing any categories into the world that will make ATM feel like a different brand. Stick to your DNA, and be very focused. Our design team is the same way; if it doesn’t feel good and if it doesn’t fit well then we drop it.
You’ve launched other brands in the past, but they never had your name attached to it. How does this brand relate to you?
ATM is my lifestyle. Even the women’s collection is my lifestyle translated to the female customer.
Can we talk about the East Hampton pop up? Was there another retail location before that store?
No, that was our first store. We opened it in 2 weeks. We got the lease on May 3 and we opened the store two weeks afterwards.
What did you learn about the customer’s response to the brand from the pop up experience compared to launching at Barneys?
The Hamptons customer is savvy, knows about fashion, but they’re also cool and not of any age. Mothers and daughters shop together, fathers and sons shop together. We have a unique thing with that too because we’re so universal. Our clothes are very non-age.
For us, the stores have been a big learn. As quick as they’ve come up, even the Hamptons one and now this, we learn what our customer is about. They don’t need to come in here and buy something fancy. They’re focused on this casual lifestyle and that is our business. It’s an insurance having your own store. You’re ensured that what you’re doing is right.
You’re doing something right if you’re opening a permanent store like this one on Bleecker Street. Did you approach opening this store any differently than the pop up?
Doing the Bleecker store is different because it’s permanent, but we made sure to get our elements in.
We want our customer to feel that this is the same brand every year. And we’re also very good about keeping things in the line that work. This t-shirt is not going anywhere; there’s three bodysuits and they’re not going anywhere. If you buy a t-shirt today, you don’t want to know that you won’t be able to get it tomorrow.
We kept our elements and made it look like a version of the pop up but here.
One thing I find unique about your Bleecker store is how you’ve designed the furniture. How long have you been designing furniture and do you approach designing furniture any similarly to designing clothing?
I’ve always loved furniture. My Miami home was a blank condo and I had the ability to actually develop it, because it was a blank slate. I realized I was able to build all of my furniture too.
I continued to develop furniture when we did our office space. I knew what I wanted and didn’t think I would need to hire an architect to do it. I just wanted a contractor.
When I built this recycled black denim sofa bed in this store for instance, I wanted a communal area, so we had to make sure the fabric couldn’t fall apart or get messy. I wanted a fabric that feels washed and in the world of what this is.
I love John Paulson and minimalism—certain things that are very much ATM.
What can we expect from your second retail location, the East Hampton store?
The store will have a different layout. In the Hamptons, we’re going to have one solid black wall that will be our t-shirt presentation. We’ll have a very big bed like the one in our Bleecker store, and I’m doing a huge presentation of mannequins down the middle.
We’re displaying busts for our customers to know what some of these t-shirts look like and fit like. We put them against a black wall to give it more of a sculptural feel.
East Hampton will have elements of our Bleecker store—a mural, natural wood floors, natural wood trim, and a shoe wall. We’re introducing shoes on Memorial Day weekend.
Can you tell us about the footwear, and are you adding any other new things to the ATM world?
The footwear is launching this Memorial Day weekend. There are two styles for men and women: a lace up and slip on in suede, denim, washed out denim, metallic gold, and snake skin.
We’re also introducing bags later this year. ATM needs travel bags and totes. We made a tote in destroyed wash metallic leather in 2 colors, and we have 3 nylon pieces. One is a very large knapsack that folds over and goes on your back, and there is a normal sized knapsack that folds over in the same style for every day.
ATM needs a store in LA too, and we’ve been looking for the past 3 months. We don’t feel the need to open stores everywhere but we feel the need to open stores in markets that are important for us.
Digital is also very important to us. We brought in a team last month, so our website will be redesigned come July. We’re going have a whole digital push, which should take about 6 months to see the results.
Finally, with the summer coming soon, do you have any vacation plans?
Vacation would be great. Personally, I’m building a house in the Hamptons, but it won’t be done for probably another 8 months. We’re going to be living in it this summer and that’s my fun for now. I have the place in Miami too if I want to get away for a few days, but I have no major plans.
A Look at ATM’s Past Collections: