Today, Carlos Campos is a respected menswear designer whose clothing can be found in major department stores, on Broadway (he makes custom suits and costumes for several shows), and on New York Fashion Week runways. But his road to success was long and unconventional, to say the least.
At the age of 13, Campos decided to abandon his native Honduras and walk to the United States, up and leaving without a word to his parents or eight siblings. Though his native Honduras wasn’t experiencing the levels of violence it is today, the U.S. was using the country as a base for all military activity in Central America. Still, to hear Campos tell it, that wasn’t what inspired him to walk 1,900 miles to the U.S. 30 years ago – he was simply looking for adventure.
“I don’t know what drew me,” he told Aljazeera America about his journey in the 1980s. “Honestly, when I left home, I walked out of the house, and I thought, ‘I want to go to Brazil,’ because I always wanted to go to Rio. But a lot of people here were going to America. They were like, ‘It’s the land of opportunity.’ And I though, ‘Well, I’ll go that way, then.”
Along the way, he lived on the streets and got by working odd jobs in Guatemala and Mexico. Somehow, a 13 year-old traveling all alone managed to fly under the radar until he reached the U.S.. In Arlington, Texas, Campos was arrested by immigration officials, but because the government couldn’t deport him, he was put in foster care. Once again, Campos ran away – first to Miami, then traveling along the East Coast for nine months until he made it to where he lives today: New York.
It wasn’t until more than a year after he left Honduras that he contacted his heartbroken parents for the first time. And though they were separated by thousands of miles, it’s what his parents taught him as a child that gave him the skills to survive in Manhattan on his own at 15.
Both of his parents were tailors, so he went to a shop and expertly fixed a pair of pants – impressing the hesitant owner and getting himself a job and a place to live in the process.
Seven years later, at just 22, Campos had his own factory in the Garment District, and had earned his high school diploma through night school. But he felt frustrated and unprepared to handle it all, so he decided to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology to become a designer. “I decided that I can take this to another level, and not only be a tailor but be a designer,” he said. “I think that’s my calling in life.”
Nowadays, Campos is a fixture at New York Fashion Week. In 2009, he was named a rising star in menswear by The Fashion Group International. Two years later, he was a finalist for the Vogue/Council of Fashion Designers of America fashion fund award.
But despite all his success, Campos has not forgotten his roots. He is a brand ambassador for Honduras, and he also has a few clothing stands there. For every shirt he sells, he gives one away to someone who can’t afford it – so as his parents always said to him, they could look great even if they don’t have the means.
Currently, there’s an influx of Central Americans heading into the United States to escape gang violence. Knowing what he knows now, Campos doesn’t think he could ever make that trip again. “When I think about it, if you asked me now, would I ever do that again?” he said. “Hell no.”