Founded by long-time best friends Tomasa Calvo and Alejandro Rodriguez, BTFL has become a notable name within the competitive fashion industry. Inspired by an exploration of classic American design and tradition, they have spun the brand to become a unique balance of something beyond what is generally expected in the world of menswear.
I would love to find out from you both, where the passion for fashion came from? Was it childhood or an interest when you were older? Alejandro Rodriguez: Do you want to go first, or do you want me?
Tomasa Calvo: I already know you have some queued up, you go. [laughs]
Alejandro Rodriguez: Well my interest started when I was a kid I remember, specifically seventh grade, which would make me what, 11 or 12 years old? I would be on Microsoft Paint and drawing my own t-shirts, creating my own flannel plaids, and whatever. I thought that it was easy. My mum was always into fashion, but more style than fashion. She had very cool personal style. And so, then into high school, I really, really got into it. I won Best Dressed, to be honest, every day was a fashion show for me!
So then the people around you, were your main influences? Alejandro Rodriguez: Thinking about it, I’d say hip-hop, and sport culture, for me, was my main introduction to fashion. Back then, it was like, you were either a skater a sport player. You like hip hop, you like goth, you like rock… it was about the subcultures. But then, because of my mom, there was a weird mix of Western, and Ralph Lauren, mixed with hip-hop, that kind of vibe. I remember I wanted a pair of green shoes to match a jersey and decided to go home and paint a pair with some house paint, because my mom had just painted the house trim green. They were a disaster! But then, I, kind of, perfected the whole thing, and it ended up turning into a business for me. At 16, I did shoes for Usher's Confession tour, as well as Madonna and Miss Elliot's Gap commercial. I mean Nelly. Every hip-hop artist at the time.
[laughs] That is crazy! So, you started making custom shoes. Alejandro Rodriguez: Custom shoes. But specifically Nike’s. We were selling them for $500-600 each. So, it went from this horrible, cracking pair of shoes to this big business.
Amazing! What was the name of your business? Would love to know what 16 year old you called their company. Tomasa Calvo: He's great with names.
Alejandro Rodriguez: Killa Kicks. [laughs] It was so dumb. But, we had the KK, and it was backwards facing out. And so when I decided to change it, I wanted something, kind of, more obscure that didn't have to do with shoes. It was another dumb thing, so as I wanted to keep the KK, so it was Krispy Klean.
Tomasa Calvo: But, your branding was good!
Alejandro Rodriguez: Yeah I thought the branding was cool. It was a hand-drawn iron, because we always went for a sharp and clean look. It had this bubble writing around Nike text that said Krispy Klean. I guess that turned into people suggesting I go to fashion school. It was something I had never even thought about it.
And you are still 16 doing this all? Alejandro Rodriguez: Yeah, it was crazy! On my prom night, I was delivering shoes to Usher! So, fast forward, people said to go to fashion school, but I had no idea that that was an option.
It’s sad that some people don’t know all the possibilities they have around them. A lot of kids grow up like, "Oh that was an option?" Alejandro Rodriguez: It's true, my dad's an immigrant from Mexico, so his thing was, "If anything, I want you to go to school. College. University." So, I had it in my head since I was in, I don't know, fourth grade, "Get good grades, you're going to go to USC." I mean, I could’ve, as I was on track, but then, I took an interview at FIDM, the LA fashion college, and they were just like, "You need to be here." I mean, not that I regret it now, I don't know what I would've done different. I went to fashion school, did my two years, continued the shoes during school. After I left however, I just was uninspired, kind of lost. I didn't know what I wanted to do, so I ended up working for some fast fashion brand, which I was miserable at.
That must have been hard, especially after having run your own small business. Alejandro Rodriguez: Yeah it was the Ed Hardy-ish type of thing, you know, rhinestones and crosses. I hated it, but what happened was I got to see their business increase by 40-50% in the first six months I was there, and I thought, "Oh, okay, I’ve got something." They were hard asses, and it kind of taught me to stand up for myself, and ask for what I want. So, during lunch breaks, I just, kind of, walk through factories near the downtown Los Angeles offices, and started making samples.
How about you Tomasa? Did you have similar trajectory? Tomasa Calvo: Growing up on Guam which is immersed in surf and skate culture shaped my sense of style. Also having two older sisters, who were significantly older than me, exposed me to the latest stateside trends. They would always dress me up in their favorite pieces. Their unique fashion choices became my inspiration, and i often found myself mirroring their style.
Did you go to college in Guam? Or in the US?
Tomasa Calvo: I went to college in the US, Otis College of Art and Design, where I mainly focused in photography and graphic design. At the time, there was a wave of people back home on Guam, who were starting t-shirt brands. That is when I first saw the relationship between graphic design and fashion, and that sparked some interest for me. After college, as i pursued various graphic design jobs, I decided to take an internship opportunity at a fashion company to keep myself creatively engaged and explore the industry. It was a women’s contemporary line out of Los Angeles. I learned so much from them. They remind me of how we are now, a super small team, but very successful, and very hands on.
Were you getting more involved in the actual design of pieces? Tomasa Calvo: Not design, but everything from administrative to production to shipping. Kind of learning all the ins and outs of the company.
That sounds really useful, as a lot of people miss learning about that part of the business, mostly because it is not fun. Tomasa Calvo: Agreed! There’s so much more that goes into it. At my old job, I would see other interns come in, and they would only last two days, because they were like, "This is not what I thought fashion was." To me, it was that part that was more intriguing.
How did you two cross paths? Did you end up meeting through work? Tomasa Calvo: No actually we met in college through a mutual friend. I think in 2006? 16 years we've known each other. [smiles]
Alejandro Rodriguez: Wow!
With such differing backgrounds, what brought you both together in a work context? Tomasa Calvo: I did a graphic design job in the Philippines for four months working for Cosmopolitan magazine. When I came back, and I guess you already had done a collection [looks at Alejandro].
Alejandro Rodriguez: Yeah I had done a collection, but I didn't know what I was doing. I had the same mind set as you discussed earlier, that fashion was just this glamorous, easy thing.
[laughs] Just hanging out with the fashion elite! Alejandro Rodriguez: Yeah man, I thought I would make a collection, and I'd send it to stores, and they'd say, "Okay, give us a 100,000 dollars more." I didn’t know what I was doing at the time.! Tomasa had just moved back, and because we hadn't really seen each other, we would meet and chat. I showed her the collection, and we laugh about it now, but she didn't believe that I did it!
Tomasa Calvo: He handed me the look book, and I guess because my friends at that time were making t-shirts, so to me, that was all I knew and then he comes along, "I made all these clothes, like cut and sew." I was like, "What?" I did not believe it.
Alejandro Rodriguez: Yeah, and I think I had asked her to help me shoot something. I was confused on how to make it work, and so we just decided to work together!
That is such a nice synchronicity and timing. Alejandro Rodriguez: Yeah, I don't know, it just worked out.
Tomasa Calvo: We had to learn how to be partners. We were so young!
How do you ensure a successful partnership? It must be hard to always be on the same page? Tomasa Calvo: I can say now that our work relationship is something I'm very proud of. It did not happen overnight. It took a lot of work. We've always believed in the brand and the vision. Our work styles are very different, so there was a lot of butting of heads in the beginning.
Alejandro Rodriguez: I feel like we trust each other for our own parts of the business. She trusted me to design and I trusted her to help get the vision out, and like Tomasa mentioned, it wasn't always easy. You have to realise as well, that nobody does anything alone.
As you both seem to be a pretty strong pairing, was the idea of referencing your label as “Modern Americana” something you discussed and planned? Or was it more a natural progression of alignment? Alejandro Rodriguez: I was like, "We have to have a voice. What is it?" Modern Americana became a tagline, but it was something that just came to us. I guess, the way that I try to explain it to people is that we are both American, but come from two completely different cultures. I’m Mexican and Native American, and she’s Chamorro. Our experiences coming from those cultures and especially living in the melting pot that is LA has given us a special view point that “Americana” is much more than the workwear of “white” America. It’s a blend of so many cultures and styles that to us ponchos and cowboy boots are just as American as blue jeans and a white tee.
That's a great definition of Americana, as traditionally I think Ralph Lauren, preppy, very white America, whereas, the way you are defining it, is actually what it looks like today. Tomasa Calvo: Exactly. We are making the new Americana. I really try to push that with all the images and branding.
Is there a person you have in mind when you design? Are there any muses or inspirations? Tomasa Calvo: Our creative process has been an ever-evolving journey, where the concept of a single definitive persona eludes us. Instead, it feels like a collective of personas, a tapestry of identities, each subtly distinct yet interconnected. We never explicitly set out to design for a specific person, but somehow our line resonates deeply with the creatives who encounter it.
Alejandro Rodriguez: “Creatives” are definitely our inspiration.It's about having a personal sense of style that they're trying to express to the world, I don’t believe we cater to the person who cares about “fashion” who buy stuff to say "I'm rich.” It goes back to styling versus fashion. I feel my special talent on this earth is just being me, and if I continue to just be me, the ideas will always come. It always works out. We have the space to be inspired as we only have two seasons a year. Somebody was telling me H&M designs 52 collections a year, so it's basically a collection a week.
How is that possible? Tomasa Calvo: Oh my gosh.
Alejandro Rodriguez: It's horrible.
It sounds like BTFL has built a groove? Do you think you have found a path that you are happy with? Tomasa Calvo: To be honest, in my mind, I'm still playing catch-up!
Alejandro Rodriguez: I've had a vision in my head, like I said, since seventh grade. It's taken longer than I hoped. When I was 17, I thought I was going to be a filthy rich millionaire on a yacht.
I feel that is how every teenage visions their future. You know, everything feels easy, but the reality may not be as quick and clear as you might have hoped. Alejandro Rodriguez: I guess that is what everybody thinks, right? We are in an interesting place, right now, where we're growing faster than we thought we would, but not as fast as I want. We're in a place where it's like that middle ground. It's people where it's like, "Okay, your clothes are hanging with Prada and Margiela, but you’re not them yet.” I want to build retail stores, that is one of my biggest goals. We'd really be able to showcase what we do on our own terms, not with somebody else saying, "This is how it's going to be." I think, that step would open us up to a whole new world of collaborations with people. It just gives us the space to really make it a lifestyle brand. I hate saying that because everybody making t-shirts and key chains, have started saying, "I'm a lifestyle brand. I'm a lifestyle brand."
Just because some people do it badly, I wouldn’t be so down on having that as a goal, as the result will be however you want to define it. Alejandro Rodriguez: That is true! We are building a life around ourselves that, really, is just an extension of us and the brand. BTFL is an extension of us. People are like, "You need to go have fun." For me however this is my fun. I say it's taken longer, but we only launched this brand in fall of 2020.
That's not very long. Alejandro Rodriguez: Maybe it is for us, we've been working for so long with other things, and then started BFTL. But, I guess that's with anybody, right? Some of the best singers or rappers, were performing since 13 years old, and they finally get their big break. So, anything worthwhile, I guess, takes time.
And, if you love what you're doing, it feels less like work. We should always feel lucky about that. Alejandro Rodriguez: Exactly. What’s the saying? It's the person who likes walking will get further than the person who only loves the destination. When you love the journey, everything will fall into place.