NEW YORK (AFP) – Carlos Campos arrived in the United States alone at age 13 and without papers, after nine months of walking and hitchhiking across three countries.
Three decades later, Campos – a fashion designer known for his elegant, perfectly tailored menswear – is living the American dream, proudly showing off his latest collection at New York Fashion Week.
The 45-year-old Honduran-born American is far removed from the image President Donald Trump paints of immigrants from Central America, whom he has regularly linked to crime and the violent MS-13 gang.
Although he arrived with nothing, Campos founded his first company at 19 years old.
At 22, having graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology, one of the most prestigious fashion schools in the world, he opened his atelier, which employs seven people.
Justin Timberlake, Ethan Hawke and Ricky Martin are just some of the celebrities he has dressed.
“I am the perfect example of the American dream,” he says. “I am a dreamer and I will continue to be,” he adds before his runway show at men’s fashion week, where his collection was inspired by the late Mexican singer Juan Gabriel.
Campos is not a “dreamer” in the current political sense – he was not part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals programme, which the Trump administration scrapped last year, leaving 690,000 so-called “Dreamer” immigrants under its protection at risk deportation as early as March if Congress fails to act. He has legalised his status in the United States.
“I sympathise with them because I lived this situation for many years,” he says of the Dreamers. “It’s very sad to see them in that situation – we all deserve an opportunity.”
As a child, he dreamed of heading to Rio de Janeiro, because he loved Brazilian football.
But in the end, he chose the US, where he arrived after a difficult journey through Guatemala and Mexico – a time when his parents thought he was dead.
When he arrived, he was arrested but escaped to Miami and then New York, where he was dazzled.
The son of a tailor and low-income dressmaker, he found work in a Brooklyn tailor shop at age 15, finished high school at night – and then set out to succeed.
Along the way, there were ups and downs, such as the September 11, 2001 attacks – the very day of his planned fashion week debut.
“It was horrible – we had to cancel everything. It was my first collection and all my savings were wrapped up in it,” he said.
Fashion week was scrapped as the emergency response took centre stage.
As a child, Campos’ parents could not afford to give him money to buy food at school. But his mother always sent him off in a well-ironed shirt, telling him: “Look how handsome you are.”
“That gave me a certain self-esteem,” he says.
“I felt special and now I’m not obese,” he joked about the missed snacks at school.
Inspired by his mother, Campos set up the “1 White Shirt For Honduras” programme, which this year donated 3,300 white shirts to school children in his birth country.
Just over a year ago, he inaugurated the country’s first fashion university, named after him.
It already has 97 students and the designer is convinced that Honduras – despite poverty, violence and corruption – “can have a fashion industry”.