Minimalism is not an excuse to be boring. We don’t make the rules. Antonio “Tony” Soto does.
Soto’s interest in fashion began with the Style Network, a joint TV channel founded in the ‘90s by Hearst Magazines and NBCUniversal. There, he watched Tim Blanks’ dispatches from behind the scenes of the hottest runway shows on “Fashion File,” and Jeanne Beker’s analysis of design on “FashionTelevision.” But it was a cartoon that pushed Soto to start experimenting with his looks as a teen: “Radio Bart,” Season 4, Episode 13 of "The Simpsons," in which Bart is stuck in a well.
“They can't get him out of the well, so Homer throws a huge sweater in. The way that it looked, this super oversized sweater on Bart, I was like, ‘Oh my God, I gotta try that tomorrow,’” Soto says. “And I went and got one of my dad's huge sweaters and put that on.”
Though he has a penchant for oversized silhouettes, Soto’s clothes never wear him and he ensures the same for his clients at Sharpe Suiting, a gender-neutral bespoke suiting atelier, where he now serves as the chief designer. The key: a good tailor. Coming from a working-class family, Soto developed an early curiosity with tailored suits, as they allowed him to imagine himself as a successful businessman. These moments of dressing up, of pretending he was a businessman, was his way of “using fashion to dream.”
Styling, for Soto, is a vehicle for manifestation. Humbly, he mentions being a part of a larger wardrobe and styling team for Beyoncé’s record-breaking, fashion extravaganza Renaissance World Tour, for which he assisted with her custom Loewe crystalline bodysuit and gown and cut-out pointed toe pumps. In addition to the “incredible experience” of working with Queen Bey herself and the tour’s lead stylist Shiona Turini, Soto found himself honored just to be around such fine garments.
“I think about myself at 15, looking at these fashion shows … clothing and certain brands are like celebrities to me,” he said.
But where you really see Soto’s hand is in the more minimal looks for clients like "Abbott Elementary’s" Lisa Ann Walter and Chris Perfetti, subtle pieces that play with proportions, colors and patterns. Because doing the most with what’s at hand has always been Soto’s MO: He continuously challenges himself to do more with less. His ability to remix and rematch pieces adds depth to his closet, precluding the need for a bigger one. Through his fits, Soto maps out a world of possibilities that can be found in just a few pieces.
Astrid Kayembe: How would you describe your personal style?
Tony Soto: I love black. That’s my favorite color to wear. It’s so graphic. The way I think about fashion is that it’s this equalizer. With so much fast fashion, you could look like a million dollars for nothing. Now, my challenge is doing that in a much more sustainable way, so I pretty much only shop thrift vintage shops. I love Wasteland, Crossroads, anything like that.
It's almost how I also like cooking. Sometimes I'll go in the refrigerator and see what I have, and then try to make a meal out of that. My style has become much more minimal. In my day to day, I'll wear a tank top and some jeans or a black T-shirt and some jeans, but when I go out, it becomes a black suit, a black tuxedo.
AK: Your personal looks usually come with a playful twist, be it a low neckline or shoes with a funky pattern. What are your keys to leveling up a suit or a monochromatic set?
TS: It really is about the accessories. I have very personal jewelry. I love wearing things that I don't want to take off anymore. I always have this Vivienne Westwood ring that was given to me years ago; a ring on my thumb that has my name on it, which you can't even see anymore because it's so scratched up; this necklace, which is a regular, thin necklace, but you can tighten it or lengthen it because it has this ball, so I started wearing it forward, like a little drop. My sense of style is always creating something different from not necessarily the mundane, but something you might already have or seeing it with a different eye.
Shoes are very important, especially for somebody that wears all black. You want to have those statement pieces that punctuate the look. I don't like to call a lot of attention. I like it to be very intentional and small.
AK: What are some of those small details that you obsess over? Whether you're styling yourself or other people?
TS: It's all about fit and proportion. Is the sleeve length hitting right?
Suiting and tailoring has always been the big through line in my fashion since I was a little kid. [I like] being very intentional about certain details: a beautiful button-up sleeve and having the hem be correct. As far as shoes, right now I'm referring to either a really chunky, Doc Martens platform, which looks great when you're wearing big proportions because it balances it out, or a very sleek Chelsea boot for different looks.
AK: Finish the following sentences. The most important part of an outfit is …
TS: The top. It's the most in your face. A great bottom is amazing, but having an amazing shirt, jacket top — that's where your eye is drawn first. It balances out the rest of your outfit.
AK: An L.A. brand I’m loving right now is …
TS: I'm always gonna root for my friends. So it’s Equihua. I genuinely love [Brenda Equihua’s] brand because of the thought process that goes behind it. But also, it's incredibly wearable. Not just wearable, but almost like heirlooms. Her taste level is really high and also her attention to detail and craft is important. As the clothing market gets more and more saturated, what people are going to resonate with is a story, and she's a brilliant storyteller. Another friend whose clothes I love is Hologram City. [Hoza Rodriguez] makes a lot of masterpieces. He has a store downtown called Planeta. What he's doing, upcycling and reworking pieces, is actually the future.
AK: My favorite piece in my closet right now is …
TS: My oversized tuxedo jackets. The tuxedo jacket never goes out of style. It just comes in different iterations. In 2010, 2011, it was a very fitted skinny black tuxedo jacket with a T-shirt and jeans. That was such a big look. Now it’s with bigger proportions. Having that, you could wear it with a lot of things. People are like, “Why are you wearing a tuxedo jacket?” Why not?
AK: What would you say your clients come to you for? What's the Tony special?
TS: They're coming for a level of sleekness. When I dressed Lisa [Ann Walters] for one of the award shows, it was this really beautiful velvet. It fit her body amazingly; she felt amazing. I always want to impart, not just in my styling, but also in my suit business, a sense of confidence. Listening to the client and asking, “When you go out, what gives you that feeling of invincibility?” Clothing can be so transformational that getting dressed can change the way you feel about yourself for the rest of the day. I'm not that big on retail therapy, but I do believe if you look good, you feel good.
AK: Where do you find inspiration for your craft?
TS: Yohji Yamamoto, Rei Kawakubo — there's a shape, there's drape, which I think is important for minimalism. Since I discovered fashion at 15, I've been obsessed not so much with the brands and the names, but with the artistry.
I take a lot of inspiration there. Whatever resonates with me, I then try to mimic that look or feel, using either pieces I already have or going to vintage [stores] or finding designer pieces at Wasteland. Right now fashion is in a great moment because it’s going back to adult dressing, a certain "put together[ness]." I’ll take a look at something that I’m inspired by, but then I want to make sure that it’s a little f—ed up, so it doesn't look like you got it at the store — the great thing about shopping secondhand or vintage is that, for the most part, you're going to be the only person in your vicinity that's going to have that look. If you're styling it in a very personal way, it takes it that much further. High fashion is where I take all of my inspiration from because I love that world of art, but how can I apply it in my own way?
AK: You have a real knack for styling statement pieces. For example, you’ve worked with Brenda Equihua and her cobija jackets or that noted vintage orange hat on Chris Perfetti at the NAACP Image Awards. What is your approach to styling statement pieces like that?
TS: I'm not a very big color pattern person, but I do believe that a splash of color or a pattern here and there can brighten up an outfit. That's what I love about Brenda's cobija jackets. They're so colorful, they're such conversation pieces. That's always in the back of my head when choosing certain pieces. Are you going to get attention?
With the Chris Perfetti hat, I knew he wanted to wear a hat that day. I knew that I was gonna put him in all black, and we were looking for a pop of color, so that it could be an exclamation point. My style, and his style too, is that you still want to feel sexy and sleek and cool. How can we incorporate a hat in that way? When I saw that hat, I had to get it. After that, there were a lot of compliments and talk on Twitter and about the hat. I knew that it at least got some emotion out. The way that I look at red carpet fashion is I would prefer the actress or person that gets on the worst-dressed list, but it was a point of view.
Read more: Been about that bandanna print
AK: How does L.A. show up in your style?
TS: Growing up in Highland Park informed the way I dress now. Seeing how people used to dress when I was a kid — gangster or the cholo was a bad word. You never wanted to look like them. You stayed away from them. As I've gotten older, I've appreciated their sense of proportions. Having these enormous raw denim shorts, past your knee with white socks all the way up, so you don't see any skin, and a tank top. There's such a good eye. I don't even think they realize there's such a feminine-masculine play.
[I’m thinking of] Willy Chavarria. There's always that element with Brenda's work. It also has a sense of pride of where you came from. As I got older, [I became] more proud of my heritage and being different from others. Everyone's going to have their own point of view because everyone has a different upbringing or has a different taste level. It’s all very important, and it's up to us to put it in a way that people can absorb it.
AK: What would you say your fashion philosophy is?
TS: It all starts internally: choosing clothing that not only makes you feel confident and powerful, but also not afraid to take up space. People will second-guess themselves or change out of an outfit because they start thinking about how [they’re] going to look or what other people are going to think. Own it, if you're going to do it. If you have that sense of presence, they're not going to second-guess your look. That's why it's important, and especially being a minority and having friends that are minorities, to feel empowered and not dictated by what other people consider good taste.
AK: What does style mean to you?
TS: Style, by all means, is having a point of view. As I've gotten older, I've had to stop thinking so much about fashion rules or fashion in general, because if you have a sense of style, it doesn't matter what fashion is coming in, you're always going to look good or feel good because you have a sense of style. You can look at what's going on in culture and society and adapt in your very own way. Style is having a little cheat code to belong[ing]. Style, to me, has the ability to not only bring you confidence, [but] a sense of self.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.