Backstage at Skylight Clarkson Studios in the New York City neighborhood known as West Chelsea, just moments before the lights go down, the thump-thump-thump of the music blares, and another New York Fashion Week men’s show begins.
The show’s producer offers some last-minute guidance to the dozen or so young men who will wear Carlos Campos’ creations on the runway. “Walk! Stop! Smile!” he exclaims. “Let them take your picture!”
The designer appears perfectly calm as he describes, for about the 10th time that day, his inspiration. “I spent some time in Honduras, where I come from,” he says. “I spent time in the coffee fields, and I thought, ‘Oh, my God, this is great.’ I saw how they make coffee, and I had this idea that I want to use the colors that are in the coffee fields and put them into my collections.”
“When you’re a kid, you know, you’re afraid,” he says. “I was afraid my mom was going to be upset with me. Of course, they were not upset. They were desperate trying to find me. They were heartbroken.” But he stayed in New York, living mostly on the streets until — thanks in part to the parents he left behind, both master tailors who taught their children their trade — he found a job and discovered what would become his destiny.
“I went to a store here in Manhattan and told them, ‘Look, I know how to tailor,’” he says. “They needed someone to do alterations, but they didn’t really trust me because I was a kid.” The shop allowed him to fix one pair of pants. His work was so good, he got the job, and the owner offered him a room above the shop. He was just 15 years old.
He worked all day and went to school at night, earning his high school diploma and developing his dream. By the time he was 22, he had his own small factory in New York’s garment district, where he made ties and scarves. “After that, things went wrong, and I was very upset again,” he says. “I said, ‘This happened because I was not very well prepared.’ So I went to school. I went to the Fashion Institute of Technology to better myself and also because I decided that I can take this to another level, and not only be a tailor but be a designer. I think that’s my calling in life.”
And that calling has led him to moments like this. Now one of menswear’s most respected designers, showing twice a year during New York’s Fashion Week, selling his line in local boutiques and major department stores, creating bespoke suits for clients and costumes for Broadway.
He is dedicated to helping the children of Honduras live their dreams. He has been appointed a brand ambassador for the country, where the long-struggling economy is beginning to make a comeback. He is part of Honduran Global, made up of Honduran expats who return to offer workshops to young people and entrepreneurs, designed to teach and inspire.
Perhaps the charity closest to his heart is one inspired by his parents, with whom he, thankfully, made peace before his father and mother died 15 and three years ago, respectively. He is opening small stands in malls in Honduras, selling shirts. He says, “For every shirt you buy, we’ll donate one to a kid in need. We already have donated 3,000 of them, and we are so proud of them.”
It’s a simple idea that he believes will have far-reaching benefits. “I come from a very, very poor family. But the only thing was we always looked good. My mom and dad were tailors, so we had the best outfit all the time. I remember there were times my mom said, ‘Look, we have no money to give you so you can have lunch.’ So she said, ‘I’m going to pack up your lunch,’ and I would have that sad face, and she would say, ‘Yes, but look how great you look in this shirt.’ I can do that for thousands of kids, make them feel special because they have an outfit they can wear. I’m sure it will change their lives because my mom changed my life that way.” He is involved in building the first Honduran fashion college, hoping to break ground by the end of the year.
His recent successes are set against a political backdrop in which immigration has become a major issue, especially among Republican presidential candidates. Real estate mogul Donald Trump, the GOP front-runner, has controversially called for building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and labeled immigrants rapists and drug dealers.
Campos believes the best way to fight that sort of sentiment is by bettering oneself. “We are a small company,” he says, “but we employ seven people in NYC. They get a salary. They get health insurance.” But more important, he says, is something you can’t touch. “Whether I’m black, Latino, short, fat, ugly, I’m going to make the best of myself, and I’m going to make my parents proud after the pain that they went through because they thought I was dead. So when I hear someone like Donald Trump, what I try to do is I try to encourage other Latinos or immigrants to just better yourself and you can prove these people wrong.”