Just hours before debuting his first collection for 4S Designs, the brand he built from scratch, Angelo Urrutia walked me through racks of clothing set up in a temporary Paris Fashion Week showroom and told me about everything that was wrong with them.
“This is not correct, it’s going to be tonal,” he said of a zip-up parka. “This sample, unfortunately, is not made correctly. This is meant to be an elastic,” he said about the waist on a trouser based on a Korean war jumpsuit. “The stitching here is not correct, it'll be better in production,” he said of a cotton and cashmere sweatshirt designed to look like the one Eddie Murphy wears in the 1992 film Boomerang. The mistakes seemed endless: The t-shirts were made with the wrong kind of collar stitch. A jacquard graphic on a merino wool sweater was in the wrong place. And so on.
This tendency, I learned over the course of about a year hanging out with Angelo, as he worked to perfect his vision of men’s fashion, was indicative of two things: How damn hard it is to start a brand from nothing and have things made exactly the way you want them to be, and how gloriously, stubbornly exacting his vision is. 4S Designs isn’t your typical streetwear upstart or some niche tailoring outfit—it’s a grand conceit interested in no less than building a new kind of style universe.
We were joined in the showroom by Angelo’s wife Lilly and their five-year-old daughter Ahmelia, and a team of Italian fashion production and sales experts Angelo hired to build 4S with him. None of them took any of this personally. Angelo wasn’t angry or even agitated, it seemed, by all of the flaws. He was simply very clear about how things were supposed to be, and all of the ways that they were not. Not yet.
The funny thing is, from the beginning, the clothes looked just about perfect to me. What Angelo is attempting to do with 4S is tricky. He’s making American sportswear of the sort that young people line up to buy on certain days of the week, only made using techniques and construction that you see on European runways. The clothes are cool in a way that I can only describe as pre-Internet. The approach is subtle—not quite calibrated for Instagram consumption, but more like something you’d see on the street or worn by a friend that would inspire you with great urgency to seek it out for yourself.
But Angelo apologized, nonetheless, not quite satisfied with what he’d done thus far in such a short time.
“Collection was done in two months,” he said.
That was January 2020. What a time to launch a new business! But 4S Designs is something special. Something totally new at the level of scale and ambition of 4S—a full collection with shoes made in-house and Italian-factory production and fabric development on par with any of the premiere European luxury houses—is practically unheard of. Especially from a US-based designer with a quiet social media presence and no apparent interest in chasing clout.
“There’s no elevator pitch for it,” Angelo said. “It’s not so simple. It’s very nuanced. It’s me. I’m a nut job.”
Like Hollywood, the fashion industry tends to revolve around a handful of established figures—like The Avengers, but for brands and designers instead of superheroes. Rather than betting big a few times a year on new ideas and unique voices, it constantly, relentlessly rearranges the same figures in different ways—churning out sequels and spin-offs to sell to eager fans in the form of collaborations, diffusion lines, and capsule collections. Angelo is proposing an alternative narrative, something entirely new that breaks from the usual formulas. It will come with greater challenges and great risk, but, helpfully, he has exactly the right background.
For nearly twenty years, before he started 4S at the end of 2019, Angelo worked for the New York brand Engineered Garments. There he did everything from sales to designing sneaker collaborations to casting and styling lookbook shoots. Working alongside EG’s famously meticulous designer Daiki Suzuki, and directly with the Garment District factories with whom EG shared an office building, Angelo helped develop one of the best American brands of the past twenty years. EG takes relatively straightforward concepts from classic American sportswear, militaria and uniforms, and retools them into something extraordinary. With 4S, Angelo is attempting a kind of inversion of that idea—he’s taking the relatively common aspects of European fashion and Americanizing them.
He came to America with his mother, uncle, and cousin as refugees from the Salvadoran Civil War when he was two. His mother carried him across the border with the help of a coyote, a smuggler who takes migrants across the border. His father was a desaparecido—one of many anonymous, “disappeared” casualties of the war—and the home where they lived was bombed three days after they left. They first arrived in Texas, where they spent time with some family, before moving to New York, bouncing around staying with relatives and family members in the Bronx, Queens, and Long Island. Urrutia’s mother worked a job or three, while Angelo grew old enough to start skipping school to explore the shops, art galleries, and museums in Manhattan.
He did other things, too. “I was doing things I should not have been doing,” he said during one of our many conversations. “And I had access to money, and because of that, I was able to explore things.” That led to an appreciation for the kind of clothes and gear that were previously off limits. Style became an essential part of his life—fashion from Ralph Lauren, expensive hiking boots from Paragon. ”For me, it was just like, trying to out-cool the next guy. It was a sport.”
As a result, Angelo’s taste is as expansive and catholic as anyone I know, and he has a vast trove of fashion knowledge to back it up. He can tell you every detail of how an Armani jacket is made, or about all of the micro-differences between every Yankees fitted ever produced. He wears Birkenstocks with Chrome Hearts buckles and dangly pearl brooches with sweatpants. Every time I hang out with Angelo I come away with a new drop of deep fashion intel.
“I think Chanel is the most amazing independent company in the world,” he told me at one point. “A Chanel jacket is constructed with horse hair. It's this tweed that's still done by hand at times. There's a chain sewn at the bottom of the hem, so it hangs perfect no matter what.”
You’d think it would be easy for a lifelong fashion fan and obsessive like Angelo to launch a new brand from scratch. All of the pieces of fashion history are laid out there in front of him. He just has to choose his path and which pieces to use. But of course all that choice comes with a kind of agony. The agony of knowing how close you can get to perfection—to what Giorgio Armani or Phoebe Philo have been able to achieve, for instance—but not quite be able to grasp it just yet.
When, a few months after we met in Paris, Europe was overwhelmed by Covid-19, I couldn’t stop thinking about Angelo. After nearly twenty years working behind the scenes, he finally launched his own brand—just as the world shut down. It wasn’t just that I was excited to have a brand new brand in the world. It was that I knew Angelo and what he represents: a real New Yorker in Paris, a child war refugee, a dad who posts doting pics of his daughter on Instagram almost daily. He was finally positioned to tell his story to the world, and it seemed to be slipping away.
Then in March I got a text from Angelo: “Had a good season, considering,” he said. Turns out he got his fabric orders in before lockdown began, and someone from his team based in Italy was granted special permission from the government to visit factories, where production was underway. Progress was slowed, a couple wholesale accounts were lost, but things were moving ahead nonetheless. “Was looking forward to really taking a swing creatively and technically with ss21 now that i was going to have more time,” he wrote, “but now *face palm emoji*.” He was working on the spring collection in between making grocery runs for elderly friends and family in New York.
The next time we spoke was in June. His first collection, fall 2020, had been picked up by Ssense, Mr. Porter, and Nordstrom, but hadn’t yet arrived in stores. I drove out to his home on Long Island to visit him in his home office, a sunroom built on the back of a 1940s bungalow, where he had set up a temporary showroom. Miles Davis was playing and there was incense in the air (the spring 2021 collection included a collaboration with smell-goods purveyor Tropic Best). I was prepared to see a partial collection and hear Angelo tell me all about what should have been if it weren’t for Covid-19, but what he had on the racks was a triumph, full of technical fashion whiz-bang and easy elegance, with just a dash of the hype for that core, extremely-online menswear niche. There were lurex tweed shorts (Chanel for the boys), fil coupe floral jacquard camp shirts, seersucker tailoring, a Ventile cloth poncho, and, of course, embossed leather mules. Whether or not you know what all those things means, it was evident that each piece had been intensely considered, almost over-developed. Specialness just oozed out of this stuff. It was the kind of collection that only Angelo could make—a perfect cocktail of the American 90s with rarified high fashion flourish.
Getting there had been hard enough: factories pushed him to the back of the line, and his pattern maker closed up shop, forcing him to describe his very specific needs to a new one. “You know when you go to the deli and you just make up your own sandwich?” he explained by way of analogy. “I would tell the deli guy on the corner and be like, ‘Can I get a peanut butter and banana sandwich?’ It’s an unusual order but he has those things, so he'd make it. I'd take it to the office, I'd eat it. And I'm like, ‘Ah! He cut it with the same knife he used to cut an onion!’ So the next day I'd say, ‘Hey, peanut butter and banana, but please use a clean knife.’ So slowly, I start getting exactly what I want from the place where you would not normally have these types of things. I'm just going to do this same thing I would do in a deli. You know what I mean? It's just a matter of establishing a relationship.”
At the time, 4S Designs was still essentially an insider’s secret, known only to buyers, editors and personal friends of Angelo’s. The fall collection wouldn’t start shipping until August, so he hadn’t yet sold a single pair of glittery tweed shorts. One under-appreciated agony of the fashion-making process is just how long the timelines are dragged out—all this effort, and Angelo still hadn’t seen any of his gear hit stores yet.
“Since my product has not been out in the world, I haven’t had a reaction to it,” he said. “Of course I love the sparkle, but not everybody else will.”
Last month Angelo showed his third collection, Fall/Winter 2021, in a borrowed showroom space on 26th Street in Manhattan. He’d been traveling again, back and forth between Italy and New York, to make the new collection and develop fabric for the next, subjecting himself to constant Covid tests. When I came to see the clothes, the usually stoic Angelo, ready to talk about buttons and seams, seemed to have found a kind of emotional breaking point.
“We've buried eight people," he said, referring to family and friends lost to the virus. Since then, he’s buried two more, including his grandmother and a cousin who died from Covid. “I'm like an open wound. The day after the Capitol riots I was reading the news and I just started crying. It was too much emotion all at once. If they were brown and black people they just would have been shot dead.”
We had talked a lot about how he might use the platform of 4S to make a kind of political statement the way other brands have, but Angelo seemed hesitant about how exactly to integrate that into the collection, especially when it’s so new. “How do I take a stance and put a point of view out there that really reflects the emotion I feel on an everyday basis?” he asked. “I just started my business. But at the same time, I have all this rage and emotion and disappointment. And a little girl I love more than anything else. I want to make sure what I do is meaningful for my family.”
Making meaningful fashion is something designers around the world have been trying to figure out this past year. It often involves charitable donations or some intensely communicated version of sustainability. But after the year he’s had, the year we’ve all had, Angelo has, perhaps inadvertently, arrived at a powerful new kind of meaning for 4S.
“The idea I’m trying to manifest is Americanising European ideas,” he said. This has an aesthetic flavor—for Fall 2021 there’s the neoprene Carhartt-style zip-hoodie with a fancy wool boucle exterior, a classic workshirt in a viscose chenille jacquard that mimics an ordinary shadow plaid, a delicate tulle overlay on a waterproof recycled nylon bomber, a Chanel jacket in construction-worker orange. But it is also a kind of statement. Despite it all, he’s celebrating the Americanness that he discovered as an immigrant child in New York, the Americanness of hip-hop and Ralph Lauren, the Americanness of skipping school to wander in and out of art galleries and fashion boutiques in Chelsea and Soho. “I want another Salvadoran kid or another brown kid to know that I did this,” said Angelo. “And you can do it too.”
“America is still a place where you can forge your own path,” he said. This may not be the message that America telegraphed to the world over the last four years, but 4S serves as proof that it’s true. And, as Angelo points out, Americanizing European ideas is a proven formula: “There’s Italian Trap music.”
Gauging the success of his first year isn’t easy. But while there have been ups and downs, with accounts coming and going, overall 4S is selling well enough. Growth has been upward and consistent. More encouraging, he told me, was what his audience was responding to. “It’s the special stuff that gets the best reaction.” For his next collection, Spring 2022, he’s just about done with concept and fabrications—he’s thinking about primary colors and black: “Black for summer feels interesting.” But the mission would remain the same, he told me. “I just want to keep the rhythm going.”
Originally Appeared on GQ