ANTHONY MARK HANKINS’ Dallas office looks like a Toys ‘R’ Us. There are dolls, books by Dr. Seuss, videotapes of Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. Sometimes it even sounds like a Toys ‘R’ Us. Boisterous and gregarious, Hankins often yells to his two assistants from the top of the stairs, then breaks into furious laughter or, just as likely, bursts into song. Watching him is like channel surfing. “Who is that?” he says. “Anthony Mark Hankins? Would you please pass the jelly? Whoooo, ah, hoo, hoo, hoo! Rock the boat, don’t tip the boat over.”
Yet the playful exterior is deceiving. Underneath, Hankins is all business, calculating every move. In kindergarten he first decided to be a fashion designer, and today the 27-year-old runs Anthony Mark Hankins, Inc., a clothing company that has $40 million in annual sales. Dubbed the Calvin Klein of the cut-rate fashion set, he creates budget-priced collections—mix-and-match tops and bottoms in primary colors and loud prints in updated yet classic silhouettes—that can be found in 1,200 stores across the nation, including Target and Nordstrom, in the Spiegel catalog, and on the Home Shopping Network. “I know I’m not big-big, but give me two years and I’ll be bigger than Liz Claiborne,” he says. “You know how Bill Cosby eats the pudding and says, ‘Ummmm, this is goooood?’ We know this is good.”
The youngest of seven children growing up in a working-class neighborhood in Elizabeth, New Jersey, Hankins first learned about the fashion business at age five, when his twin sister, Angie, got him a book about designer Yves Saint Laurent off the Reading Is Fundamental truck. Two years later he sewed his first dress, a creamy, buttercup Charmeuse two-piece suit that his mother wore to a wedding, crooked seams and all. At thirteen he bought his first sewing machine with $100 saved from his job as an assistant to a county judge. By high school, he was designing uniforms for the marching band.
After attending Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute, he longed to go to Paris, the home of Saint Laurent. Not knowing how he was going to pay for the trip, he bugged a local newscaster until she agreed to do a story on him, hoping the publicity would inspire a wealthy donor to ride to the rescue. Then the Today show heard about him and aired its own story. Sure enough, the next day, Hankins received a ticket from an anonymous fan. He flew to France the following week and enrolled at Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne in Paris, again not knowing how he was going to pay for it. Then, on his fourth day, he got a call from the vice president of Yves Saint Laurent. Hankins’ idol wanted to pay his tuition, as he had done for other budding designers, and give him an internship in his Paris design house.
After two years, Hankins returned to New York and worked with Adrienne Vittadini. Then he heeded the advice of Bob Mackie (“Go to the mass market; that’s where the money is”) and accepted a job as a quality control inspector for J. C. Penney in Los Angeles. He visited factories on his lunch breaks and talked to the workers; when he called on vendors, he’d ask how they got started in business. It was all part of his grand plan. “From the day J. C. Penney hired me,” he says, “I knew I’d be a designer for them.”
A year and a half later, he was. On the strength of Hankins’ sketches, minority supplier development manager Bruce Ackerman helped to persuade top executives to hire him as J. C. Penney’s first-ever in-house designer. Based out of corporate headquarters in Dallas, Hankins responded by creating moderate-priced clothes that the company could market to African American women through its “Fashion Influences” catalog. His collection was so popular that it was eventually picked up by three hundred J. C. Penney stores, mostly in areas with a heavy concentration of African Americans. But Hankins didn’t want to be known only as an ethnic designer: “I’m often billed as a black designer for African American women. Is Donna Karan a designer for Jewish women?” He voiced his concern to J. C. Penney officials, he says, but they didn’t listen. Finally, in 1994, he quit and founded his own company. Ackerman came along with him and now serves as its president and chief executive officer.
Even after he left, Hankins retained J. C. Penney as a client, though he’s still not satisfied with how the company markets his collection. At the annual J. C. Penney stockholders meeting this spring, when chairman of the board W. R. Howell asked if there were any comments, Hankins stood up and enumerated his concerns about the lack of support for his label. Afterward, critics complained that his behavior was self-serving—but he couldn’t care less. “You know what? I felt great,” he says. “I felt like Barbra Streisand feels after she sings ‘On a Clear Day.’” He launches into his best Streisand impression, belting out, “On a cleeeaaarrr day…”
Then, just for a moment, he turns serious. “I fear nothing. It’s an old-boy network and it’s a little bit harder for me, but I’m not gonna shut my mouth.”