Highsnobiety Sports is our exploration of the intersection between sport and style. Head here for the full series and discover exclusive drops via our online store.
Amechi Ugwu has been archiving and selling vintage HBCU (historically black college and university) apparel and memorabilia through its Torch Sportswear brand since its inception in 2012. From fleeces to t-shirts to jerseys, Torch is the number one brand to sell clothing exclusively from America. 121 HBCUs. Ugwu first made the decision to sell HBCU gear while still at Southern University in 2012, and although it was suspended for a few years, the brand has since grown and found celebrity endorsement from Chris Paul to Beyoncé.
But clothes are more than just showpieces. By sourcing and archiving clothing, Ugwu preserves an important part of the black experience in America and a side of black culture that is too often forgotten or overlooked, as it is tied to the tides of an evolving popular culture. fast. In addition to the clothes, Torch has a diary on their site where they tell various stories related to HBCUs and the clothes Torch sells. And even the way clothes are purchased tells a story; although some of them are bought online, the rest of the clothes come from word of mouth or personal connections. It is a brand and a way of operating that shows the true power of clothing as more than just clothing, but something that is able to represent and display a culture, values and a way of life.
In collaboration with Victory Journal, we spoke to Ugwu about the huge importance of Torch Sportswear.
Fashion is an integral part of HBCU culture. Every day is like a fashion show. What role did this play in your desire to archive and sell vintage pieces?
My HBCU experience was a little different because I was in a band. So I didn’t go to all the parties and I didn’t relax all the time. We practiced every day, and we practiced a lot. During the fall, when all the festivities were going on, we were getting ready to play. A lot of my time was spent rehearsing and going back and forth between classes and practices, which was fun because I love bands. I feel like I’ve learned the true definition of dedicating yourself to something. And it was a real commitment.
I really started getting into fashion in my second year. It wasn’t something that always interested me or tried to participate in. I’ve never had Jades. I don’t have anything cool that everyone wore when we were growing up. It wasn’t really a thing for me. But when I started really getting into it in college, one of my roommates only wore ties and shirts. It was my intro. And from there, I built on it and started to get really experimental in college. I went to class with crazy stuff. But it was fun for me. That was the biggest part of it was that it was fun. Sometimes I felt like a different person. I would almost be a character.
After graduating, I did internships in very small stores, which I thought was the best version of retail. Because the owners are still involved and have relationships with these people, and they care about the brand. You learn why things are of good quality. I continued to be disenfranchised because you have to commit to the brand. And to feel that the disenchantment was important, because fashion is one of my outlets and I do what I want to do. If someone tells me I can never wear sneakers and jeans together, I can only do it for so long.
HBCUs have had a big impact on fashion and pop culture. How important do you think it is to make sure that HBCUs continue to be represented, not only in culture or on campus, but also in these fashion styles?
With HBCUs and a lot of black culture and history, things tend to fade away and then change over time. It becomes another story. I think there has to be a conduit, someone has to be plugged into it, to keep the story alive. This is where I started Torch. I always talk about how when these things are together, you look at them and you’re like, “Wow, that’s a story.” It is important that someone does. And not just for black people, because with HBCU culture we sometimes segment things, but that’s for all of American history. It’s all American culture inherently. It is important for the whole ecosystem. It’s important that someone or something is the conduit between these things, pushing this narrative or pushing this story, and then also preserving what we have.
You mentioned that the reason you started Torch was to archive those special pieces, basically to archive the story through that process. What does this process look like to you as you source these coins and try to preserve them?
This involves a lot of excavation, as there aren’t many places that specialize in preserving this type of thing. Everything is very random. You always have to be present in the fabric. As long as you seek, things come to you. The more I work, the more I research, I find things. I talk to people who connect me to other things. I end up selling most of the clothes I find, but I keep some that tell a special story or meaning.
In March, Ralph Lauren did a capsule collaboration with Spelman and Morehouse that was an ode to these classic styles. What do you think of that, given that you basically have one of the biggest archives of vintage pieces they refer to?
I understand why a lot of people are upset about this. But I also realize, having worked on this (and now working with universities), that these are companies. These are companies, and these companies have brands, and these types of partnerships happen all the time. Two brands come together. And this was one of them. They just line up. It’s the image of Morehouse, it’s the image of Spelman, it’s the brand, and I think Ralph Lauren was a perfect fit for that kind of partnership. They’re playing along. So I’m not mad at it on that front.
Part of the hindsight was that we were in a space, especially over the past two years, where white-owned brands are eager to try to align themselves with black people or blackness. How will the preservation of vintage pieces and the HBCU narrative help people see unsung influencers in fashion?
Archiving and paying homage to the past and such has been a big part of the brand so far. But one of the things that I also wanted to do, in terms of the brand, is the concept of Sankofa, or having one foot in the past and also being in the future or in the present. The collection will be archival. It will be something that we can always refer to, but I think going forward it won’t necessarily be the narrative. The story will focus on what is happening now. What does it look like today? Not what it looked like in the 90s.
How do you want to evolve Torch?
I have my own vision. What I see and what I do is one thing, but it’s also a business, and in business things change all the time. So I will never have all the answers. What the evolution of the brand looks like is letting people plug into it, letting others be a part of it, because it’s been just me for years now. Connecting other people and seeing how to incorporate other people’s ideas, people who are in the culture, people who are around me, people who live near me, people who are anything. But let it be a “we” thing rather than a “me” thing.
Do you have any advice for other creatives or designers, especially black designers who don’t always have the resources that a lot of white brands or white business owners have?
So there is a quote. I don’t know what the exact words are, but it’s Arthur Ashe and he says, “Start where you are, use what you have, and go from there.” And I think now, more than ever, we have so many tools at our disposal and access to so many of these things that you need that you can use what you have around. Create a community around you and do it together. You will find ways to make it happen. I still do it today. It’s literally just me for Torch. I’m sitting in front of this window, I’ll have a whiteboard with a chair, and I’m taking pictures for Instagram. I just use stuff around the house, because that’s what I have. I’m not going to think about what I don’t have. I’ll use what I have here to try and get to the next step.