In an industry that likely patented rejection, power designing duo Angela Brantley and Rhea Fernandez are jumping right in and not looking back. Bold, sexy and comfortable, their clothing brand, HERO/BLACK, is everything we love and more. The rising entrepreneurs met us for happy hour to share some highlights of their journey thus far and what it has been like to launch a collection from scratch.
HERO/BLACK is a luxury streetwear brand with a message to be unapologetic and unafraid of whoever you want to be. Did you always have a strong sense of self?
Angela: I think it’s a process. I still feel like I’m figuring myself out every day. Every year I feel like I’m coming a little bit closer. I never want to stop growing or evolving. That feeling is so motivating for us— constantly thinking about how we want to grow as individuals and collectively. That’s how the brand message came to be, it’s actually how we feel every day. That process of discovery and becoming the person you’re supposed to be is so important. Clothing is a part of that, so it all ties together.
Rhea: You always get thrown wrenches, so it’s constantly changing. You may think you know who you are right now, but then something happens and you have to reevaluate.
Who are some women who have motivated you along the way?
Rhea: We have so many female muses because that is what our brand is built on. Yesterday we were watching videos and interviews of Zoe Saldana. She is so strong, centered and confident. She knows who she is. She doesn’t make apologies. That is the type of woman I want to be and we admire.
Angela: She is so opinionated. We try to create clothing for that image. In the beginning we referenced Bianca Jagger and Grace Jones a lot. They were the two we kept going back to and had so many pictures of.
How did you two meet?
Angela: We met modeling here in Chicago. We are with the same agency. So we met at a runway show.
Rhea: We would get booked together and we both kind of liked each other, but didn’t want to be the first one [to say, “Hello”].
Angela: I’m more of the creep in the relationship. I immediately sat next to her and was like, “Hi!” This was five years ago. We showed up wearing the same coat. Some random BCBG coat. We were bonding over fashion right from the beginning. We have really similar tastes. We just had drinks one day [and that was it].
Did you study fashion design?
Rhea: I have an undergrad in finance and then my masters was in interior design. Very different.
Angela: Undergrad in communications.
What was the first step you took when you decided to start the clothing company?
Angela: We made a mood board.
Rhea: A physical mood board, not like Pinterest. We both always wanted to have our own line, but it just seemed like something so unattainable and then the more that we were talking and wanting to do something together it just seemed natural. When you’re passionate about something and you just work really hard at it [you can do it].
Angela: I had a huge cork board and Rhea brought photos, images and inspirational quotes. I had a whole archive too, so we were literally just corking things on the board trying to make it make sense. We weren’t even sure in the beginning what the focus was going to be. We started from scratch. It happened really quickly after that … It’s important to not get discouraged. We were so overwhelmed because neither one of us came from a fashion background [other than modeling]. We didn’t even know what steps to take. It was all trial and error and bouncing ideas off of each other and reaching out to people who had done it before. It was overwhelming at first, but the nice thing was we always had each other. Whenever one of us felt discouraged or needed a little pep talk, the other one picked up the slack.
What was the first moment you celebrated together?
Angela: We didn’t really tell that many people what we were doing because we felt so protective over it and we weren’t confident in it yet. So I think the very first moment that I personally felt like, “We are really doing this,” was when we had a little preview at Public Hotel. We invited our friends and random people and no one really knew what we were doing but a lot of people came. We sold everything and everyone was so welcoming, warm and positive about it. We were on a high.
Rhea: Our first collection was these little burlap bags. We screen printed words on them and looking back on that we’re like, “Oh that’s cute… we made little bags.”
Angela: We were serious about it! We were like, “This is the most amazing thing.”
First hurdle along the way?
Rhea: Everything business related! Trademarking, incorporation, all of the legal stuff was very daunting.
Angela: Especially starting out. We didn’t have anyone funding us. Lawyers are really expensive! I remember when we met with one and he said, “Okay, to keep me on retainer you have to pay me this much…” We both thought, “We don’t have any money!” We did everything on our own.
How do you stay centered?
Rhea: I work out.
Angela: She works out and I use her. I unload and talk to Rhea.
What’s your workout routine?
Rhea: Usually I’ll do 30 minutes of cardio, 30 minutes with weights. We try to take pilates twice a week.
Angela: You’ve never said this to me, but I know she hates working out with me because she is trying to really huff it and I’ll start tapping her on the shoulder. I don’t like working out. She has to work out everyday or she feels sick. I’m the opposite.
How would you describe your work partnership?
Rhea: We still do pretty much everything creative together and then we split up the business side of it to make things go smoother. It depends though, it’s not always [clear-cut].
Angela: That has gotten easier over time. In the beginning we felt like we had to do every little single thing together. You get half as much done when you do that. Now we feel comfortable and confident in each other that we can take on certain responsibilities, but then the creative part we do absolutely everything together. It’s not like one person is in the design process and then the other one is taking a backseat. We have to talk everything through, which is nice.
Rhea: We’re always together so we’re always talking about work and everything so I think that helps. It’s so hard to find, so we feel lucky.
Angela: And it happens so organically, too. It felt so right and it was meant to be in the beginning. We knew each other and we were friendly, but when we started it wasn’t like we had this amazing bond and we were best friends. It was like, “We like each other, we know we have a connection.” We met up a few times and I think she texted me one day asking if I wanted to do something together. I said, “Do you want to do a clothing line?” Rhea said, “I’ve always wanted to do that.” It happened so seamlessly.
Did anyone give you advice along the way that really stuck with you?
Angela: I don’t know if I can pinpoint something specific that someone told me. The running theme for me has always been to never allow myself or anyone else to put me in a box. Never be afraid to experiment with yourself and to give yourself the freedom to figure out who you truly are, uninhibited by what anyone else thinks. That has been a big thing for me because growing up I always felt this pressure of being this person that my parents wanted me to be, my friends wanted me to be. I started modeling when I was 15 years old so I was stuck in that world for such a long time. Only as I get older am I breaking out of it. So I am constantly reminding myself to be free with the way I look at myself. You’ll notice a lot of people we reference live like that. Style is so much more than what you have on, it’s the energy you put out there, how you wear what you have on, your spirit and what comes from the inside.
Your pieces are wearable art. Where do you find yourself most creative?
Rhea: It’s a constant. We now have all of these Pinterest boards and every time we are out, trolling the internet or flipping through magazines we’ll take a picture and just add it to the board. Even if it doesn’t make sense at the time. [For example,] if we like the color of a jacket, but it’s a hideous jacket we’ll still add it. Then we go through it together.
Angela: Or the vibe, energy or spirit of a photo. I never thought about that, how when we first started we did our actual, physical mood boards and now we are still doing those things. We’re just more high-tech with it.
What do you do when you’re feeling uninspired or you’re in a creative rut?
Angela: We have that feeling all of the time! It’s usually after we finish a big collection that we’ve been working on for a long time. There’s a period of about 2-3 weeks where we both think, “I don’t even know where to go next! We just poured our heart and our soul into this collection.” We usually give ourself that time to recharge, get inspired and bounce ideas back and forth and try not to make it such a pressure-cooker, otherwise I feel like it’s even harder to get creative. Sometimes we’ll go to New York on buying trips, go to our favorite fabric stores and then it starts to get going and we’ll get excited again. We’ll take pictures of the fabric, get a bottle of wine and go back to the hotel.
What does a New York buying trip look like for you two?
Rhea: It’s hard work! We spend the first two days non-stop going to back-to-back fabric stores, hardware stores and not buying anything. We just catalogue everything and then after that we give ourselves a day to do everything fun. We eat where we want, go to museums and go to our favorite stores. We feel satisfied.
Favorite New York restaurant?
Angela: We both love Cafe Gitane. There are two locations. There is one inside The Jane Hotel and one on Mott Street. If you go in the summertime, there is this dish with ahi tuna and ceviche and it’s spicy. It’s so good. We learned they only have it in the summer. We like Miss Lily’s too.
Where will we find you eating and drinking in Chicago?
Rhea: Sushi Dokku has been our latest favorite sushi place.
Angela: And Booze Box underneath it for a drink. We spend a lot of time at Virgin Hotels. We know you do too!
If you could get on a plane and go anywhere right now, where would you go?
Rhea: I feel like our happy place is New York, which is lame! We just have so much fun when we are there. We even did it when Angela was pregnant with Hero.
Angela: I had swollen feet the entire time and we still did everything! I actually told you I was pregnant when we were in New York, too.
Do you see yourself staying in Chicago?
Angela: We’re pretty open. A part of us will always be here. Our families are here. I built my own family here. We both like the idea of being a little more free-flowing.
Why is Chicago a great creative community?
Rhea: I think there is a lot of underground talent here and then as soon as everybody starts to flourish everybody leaves, but it’s really great for fostering creativity and starting something, for sure.
Angela: And since the community is so small people are generally really supportive of one another and go to each other’s events and buy each other’s stuff and plug each other which is really nice.
If you could have a drink with anyone, who would it be?
Angela: We knew you were going to ask this question so we put some thought into this! You’ve already had a drink with mine. Erykah Badu gives me all of the life! I’m obsessed with her. I have so many questions I want to ask her. She is just the most spiritual, wise, naturally beautiful, ethereal creature. I want to be her.
Rhea: Michele Lamy. She is Rick Owens’ wife with the dyed hands. She is such a badass! We would love to dye our hands and we really tried. We had an alter ego party and we really wanted to dip our hands, but after reading a little bit about the dye… it can be permanent and it can burn your skin. She is just so free!
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CLOTHING – HERO/BLACK
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