You may not know designer Tony Melillo, but you have certainly seen the efforts of his labour. In addition to designing a line of t-shirts that are sold at Barneys Co-op and loved by stars like Jennifer Aniston and Kirsten Dunst, Melillo is the man behind celebrity labels such as Selena Gomez's KMart line, Dream Out Loud. This mixture of high and low might not seem intuitive, but it works for Melillo, "I'm like a traveling salesman, or something," he explained, sitting in photographer (and Calvin Klein's ex) Kelly Klein's light-filled studio space that he uses to work on his line for Barneys called ATM. "It’s random. It’s kind of odd. I really am mobile. I've totally learned how to not have any paper."
Although Melillo currently goes back and forth between Miami and New York for work, the forty seven year old designer is originally from Pennsylvania. When Melillo was 19, he moved to New York for an internship at Willy Wear, and that's where he got his big break. "There was this editor that used to come in for appointments," he recalled, "she was working at American Vogue at the time, and needed an assistant, so I went to work for her." It wasn't exactly pleasant, however, "She was beautiful; she was an old Helmut Newton model. But, she was mean to me. She would just scare the hell out of me. We’d be on a shoot and she’d yell in public and in front of people. I just constantly felt, 'This is horrible.' It made me feel that I never want to work for someone like that."
This experience stuck with Melillo as he moved forward in his career, which included several years at Conde Nast in Italy and five years at Esquire in New York. "And then I started designing for [the brand] Nova USA," he explained, "that was my first sort of thing in the fashion business in terms of design." Although he didn't have any training as a fashion designer, Melillo's years in the industry dressing models, attending parties and meeting fashionable people allowed him to see the holes in the contemporary market. 15 years ago, "it was before people really had that kind of good-fitting fleece jackets, sweatpants or anything." It was also before the Lower East Side was the hipster-luxe spot it is today. Recalling one of his two stores which was on Stanton Street, Melillo recalls, "It was interesting. There was a hat lady and me. We used to always get vandalized, things like, 'Don’t destroy the neighborhood,' 'We don’t want you here,' whatever."
As lower Manhattan has changed, so has Melillo. Of his first venture in design, Melillo admitted, "I just didn’t know how to run the business." How things have changed. The designer, who started his line at Barneys this February, named the collection after the "ATM" tattoo he got at seventeen before the automated teller machine had been invented and the three characters were just his initials. Each t-shirts has a printed label that resembles his minimalist upper arm tattoo. "It was important to have those little extras that made it feel personal," Melillo said. The entire project is very personal, however, as Melillo is a straightforward jeans-and-tee guy himself. "I buy nice blazers, but I cannot get myself to wear dress shirts. I have a hard time; I just feel old. It’s the same with loafers. I don’t like loafers." Forever young.
Take a peek in our gallery below to see Melillo, his dog and his perfect t-shirts: