When Mikell Antonio returns home from classes, he steps into a room filled with studio lights, backdrops pushed against burnt orange walls and UPS packages filled with hoodies and shirts, ready to be shipped out to customers.
Antonio, a sophomore majoring in aerospace engineering, created his own “luxury streetwear” clothing line during Spring of his freshman year. What started off as a sketch of a shirt evolved into Étoile — a brand selling clothing and accessories that encourage people to be “entirely [themselves],” fearlessly explore their individuality and let that “individuality become a reality,” according to the clothing brand’s website. Antonio said the brand is planning on branching out from men’s streetwear to womenswear and business casual clothing in the future.
“I just want people to love what they’re wearing, [and] love who they are outside of the clothes,” Antonio said.
Having been into fashion since he was young, Antonio remembers selling homemade bow ties at 12 years old and watching “Project Runway,” a fashion design reality show, with his older sister. Antonio began considering pursuing fashion as a career when he started sketching shirt designs in his Trojan Hall dorm room last year.
“In that moment, I was like, ‘I’m going to make clothing and I’m going to start a company,’” Antonio said.
When Antonio first approached his mother Arkima McGhee about his idea for Étoile, McGhee said she was thrilled to see her son’s passion but anxious to see if people would buy his clothing.
“As [parents], we want our children to succeed, and so for me, [Étoile] was big,” McGhee said. “He showed so much passion for it, so I was excited for him to step out there on faith not knowing if someone outside of his family would purchase anything.”
To ensure Antonio was committed to his business venture, Antonio’s parents requested a business plan before his father invested money. Antonio started the business plan the same week, spending days working out numbers for each shirt’s cost, price and profit and researching manufacturers and printmakers he could work with.
After his parents approved his business plan, Antonio made an initial order of 80 shirts and began selling to friends, family and students at USC and his Baltimore hometown through hand-to-hand interactions and Instagram.
To streamline clothing sales and further promote the line, Antonio decided to use a two-week trial to launch a website during mid-April of last year, resulting in larger success. After the website’s creation, Antonio said Étoile’s exposure to 200 online visitors per day increased.
Cameron Green, a friend of Antonio who met him while they were both living in Trojan Hall, witnessed Étoile’s development into the brand it is now.
“When I first met [Antonio], every time I came into his room, he’d be on his iPad doing designs or designing things for t-shirts,” said Green, a sophomore majoring in computer science and business administration. “I remember when he first told me about the website … and now a year later, the website is up.”
Translating to “star” in French, “Étoile” is more than just a clothing brand to Antonio.
“The stars are the perfect description of my life,” Antonio said. “From aerospace to looking at the stars to the fixation I have with space … it all kind of came together for me thinking about how stars are something we all have different meanings for.”
As a clothing line creator and aerospace engineering major, Antonio uses fashion design as a way to balance his artistic and academic engagements.
“Yes, I’m an engineer and yes, I think like an engineer, but I’m also a creative and am always looking to change things, which makes me an innovator,” Antonio said.
The French name was also deliberate, as Antonio related the “foreign, but familiar” language to the concept of individuality, a central theme of Étoile.
“The brand is about exploring who you are completely and being an individual,” Antonio said. “[Individuality] is something we have a concept of, but we don’t fully embrace it or understand it, so it’s foreign to us. Foreign, but familiar, [like French].”
Due to the clothing line’s growth, Antonio has begun to work with a small team to brainstorm marketing and photography ideas. Even as Étoile expands, he continues to remain involved with every part of the business: Before every order is shipped to its customer, Antonio ensures the product’s quality and fit are up to par. Antonio also frequently reviews his site to see which products are popular and then makes improvements accordingly, whether it’s adjusting the graphics of a shirt or shipping costs.
With the success he’s had so far, Antonio said he intends on giving back to his Baltimore hometown by hosting a shoe drive at his high school, Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, in March and a coat drive during the upcoming summer.
Antonio said Étoile strives to represent the rawest form of individuality and to help people celebrate all the facets that make them who they are.
“Being entirely you represents everything that encompasses a person,” Antonio said. “It’s the person who they are and not who they project. It’s the rawest form of you. It’s a true self. The you that you’d be if no one was watching as well as the you that you are because people are watching.”