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BY DESIGN : A Fast Break : After two years with JC Penney, Anthony Mark Hankins made his move. Now his ethnic styles are hot and his ambition endless.

November 10, 1994|ADRIENNE M. JOHNSON

Anthony Mark Hankins has big plans. There's the book deal, the tent shows in New York, the children's TV show, and, oh yes, the "Oprah" appearance.

When the designer speaks of these plans with his combustible mix of youth and determination, it's clear they are not dreams, they are certainties. He will summon them into being.

After all, this is the 26-year-old who left a well-paying job at JCPenney, set up his own company in two weeks, then signed a contract with the retailer that could bring him $1 million in the first year.

And to think it all started with Connie Chung.

Hankins had already worked with New York designer Adrienne Vittadini when he landed an L.A.-based job in quality assurance with Penney's. Two years later, he was showing its executives his line designed especially for African American women. He persuaded them to merchandise the clothes, and they were a hit. But Hankins felt strangely unsatisfied. An epiphany struck as he rode a train toward Upstate New York.

"I picked up a magazine that had a cover article with a title like, 'The Trials and Tribulations of Connie Chung,' Hankins recalls. "I thought, 'What kind of problems could she have?' "

The article told of the newscaster's career challenges as an Asian American woman. "And then she said things got better when she finally decided to take control and do things on her own."

Hankins got off the train at the next stop and called a JCPenney executive to say he wanted to quit and start his own business.

Now, his eponymous firm has the Elizabeth, N.J.-born designer living in Dallas, right in Penney's back yard, because "I want them to know I'm serious about them. I want to be woven into the Penney tapestry."

Through their licensing agreement, he brightens the firm's image with clothes that emphasize sizzling color and spicy ethnic prints. His signature is detailing--glass beadwork, braided trim and buttons that double as stylish ornaments. Even his label is embroidered with Mayan handprints, a symbol he says is spiritual.

The little things, he says, let his customers know he cares. "Those are the things people cherish--the things people labor over," Hankins says. "Retailers have forgotten that people buy for appreciation, not just because it's on sale. They want things for the soul."

With his line in 324 stores, sizes ranging from petite to extra tall, Hankins would love to see "every sister of color wearing something of Anthony's." But he believes his clothing's appeal is universal. In fact, he says, Hillary Rodham Clinton would look great in his clothes. "She has the perfect body for ethnic prints," he says. "I could have Hillary working it!"

The designer knows about working it. He has parlayed his JCPenney success into a deal with Vogue Butterick patterns, due out in fall, 1995. And he's developing a scent--something exotic and earthy with hints of basil and mocha--with help from a major fragrance house. "It will be for men, but women will sell it in the commercials."

Women surround and inspire Hankins. "I've always been fascinated by women," he admits. "They provoke change. How many men do you know that provoke change--besides war?"

Although he designs with such notable women of style as Diana Ross and Diahann Carroll in mind, Hankins credits his mother with introducing him to the drama of fashion. "She had a walk-in closet full of hats and suits, and she had earrings made from buttons. She believes in adornment."

As a church missionary, Hankins' mother also taught him a thing or two about faith and perseverance--he won't accept "no." Thus, he is confident in his two-year plan ("a book on a Generation Xer in the corporate world"); his three-year plan ("tent shows, but with my $64-for-a-set-type merchandise"); and his 10-year plan ("a PBS show on color appreciation for kids: 'Boys and girls, tomorrow we're going to Ivana Trump's house' ").

And let's not forget the retail stores and the haute couture line, because "Jessye Norman needs clothes too!" And the television appearances. "I'm going to be on 'Oprah' and '20/20'. . . . I will be on Barbara's (Walters) show if I have to show up on her set with my girls!"

When Hankins talks this way, he clenches his fists and squints and stamps his feet, as if to quell the overwhelming desire. He can see it in the distance, and he will make it so. He will .

Get ready, Oprah.

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