Designer Anthony Thomas Melillo is an industry veteran who has long been devoted to perfecting luxury casual sportswear. The former Style Director of Esquire magazine first sought to fill the void in the ’90s with the launch of NOVA USA, and continued his quest in 2003 by resurrecting sportswear brand Generra as Creative Director. In 2012, he launched ATM by Anthony Thomas Melillo, a line of luxe tees made from the Peru’s finest fabrics. Since its exclusive launch through Barneys New York just last year, the “perfect t-shirt line” has now evolved into a full lifestyle collection for men and women available in over forty specialty stores, including Kirna Zabete and Confederacy.
How did you discover ATM’s signature blend of fabrics?
It was quite a process and it took about 9 months to create our first exclusive tee shirt cottons. The process involved a lot of back and forth with the mills in Peru to get the perfect weight and hand. It’s really all about feel, so I just kept saying too heavy, too light, too rough, until it was perfect.
Why did you choose Peru for production?
It all comes down to the quality of cotton and Peru grows some of the finest cottons.
Do you act as stylist for your lookbooks or did you bring someone in?
I styled the lookbooks myself, but I would like to start working with a stylist. It’s great to see other people’s vision of the collection and then I can edit to something closer to the brand identity.
Can you tell us a bit about different roles you’ve had over the years?
I started as the lowliest assistant to a pretty tough stylist in the late ’80s who worked at Vogue. I wanted to become an editor, so I moved to Italy and forced myself into Italian Condé Nast. Every day, I would go to the offices and try to get an appointment with the editor of a magazine called ‘Vanity,’ and finally I did and got hired as a stylist with them. From there, I stayed in magazines for 10 years, spending the last five as Esquire’s Style Director.
Then, I decided to launch NOVA USA, which was all about making the perfect basics—at the time that did not exist. After a CFDA nomination, I began consulting and I re-launched Generra, a signature men’s brand, right before the market crash in 2008. Then, I was given an opportunity to form a company that creates and owns lifestyle brands for celebrities to sell to the mass market. These celebrity brands are still sold at Kmart and are a huge success in the mass world. This was an amazing business opportunity, but I missed the creative world I came from, so I decided to create a collection that was truly something I believed in and wanted my friends and I to wear. The idea started with t-shirts and I focused on making the best ones out there. ATM has been very successful so far and we are now a full lifestyle brand in the casual world.
As Style Director at Esquire in the ’90s, what would you say were the defining trends of the ’90s? What do you think they are now?
Well, I focused on shooting real people in real-life environments. That was the only trend I think I followed. To this day I try and stay away from trends because they don’t last. Updated beauty does last, so I try to make beautiful, updated clothing.
What about NOVA USA—does this brand still exist?
No, this brand does not exist. I loved NOVA, and if I had been a better businessperson, I’m sure it would be very successful. It’s hard to find someone who is both business-minded and creative. I have learned that if I am going to launch a business, that I am great with the creative side, but I need to have a partner who is business-minded. That is what I have done in my two current businesses.
Have all these experiences been an obvious prelude to developing ATM? Will you continue to develop new projects in the future?
I love developing new projects, so yes, I think I will always have that itch to keep trying new things. I guess it’s a character trait!
What made you decide to launch this collection with your initials? What do you feel is the key to successful branding?
It seemed like a no brainer. They are cool initials that happen to belong to me, so I thought this would be the best name. Branding is key and with ATM I have created the black box in my showroom that alludes to the ATM machine. We also have the initials under the tee shirt’s arm, which looks like a replica of my little tattoo under my arm.
How do you see the line evolving working with high-end retailers such as Barneys and Kirna Zabete? Is there room for different price points? Is there life after t-shirts?
We have life after tees already. The world has all sorts of categories: tees, sweats, sweaters, dresses, woven pants, dress shirts; and all these categories exist at ATM now and they all feel very ATM. That is the key: Stick with a DNA and brand vibe and do as many things as I want as long as when I look at the garment I can still to say “that looks and feels like ATM.”