To Federico Romeo, a pair of Nike Air Max ’95 weren’t just a cool pair of sneakers when growing up — they represented innovation. The injections, the co-injections, the materials; he wanted to know how Nike did it.
“I never really wanted to learn how to draw a mannequin. What drives me is choosing the technology, materials, shapes and function,” explains the 32-year-old Italian designer, who has consulted and worked on concepts around innovative fabrics and materials for brands including Supreme, YEEZY, Stone Island, A-Cold-Wall*, Palace, 1017 ALYX 9SM, Maharishi, and Nike (on an in-house project). After studying marketing and business communication, he switched to product design at the European Institute of Design in Milan.
“I’ve always been a product nerd. From BIC pens to my [Nike] Mercurial soccer shoes, I wanted to understand how they were made, who designed them. Colors, materials, and design languages became my routine, and I was good at learning,” says Romeo, who as a 12-year-old got introduced to fashion and music through skateboarding. His youth heroes weren’t the same as those of his peers: “Dieter Rams, Bruno Munari, Franco Albini, Joe Colombo, those were the masters I followed. They helped me understand the coherence on a larger scale [between] fashion, architecture, transportation, and poetry.”
Romeo’s training forged his path to becoming the connective tissue between the world of fabric innovation and the high conceptual realm of fashion designers.
“I’m a creative consultant who collaborates and creates connections with brands and people,” he explains. His relationship with 1017 ALYX 9SM founder Matthew Williams began when they started talking at a fabric expo in Paris. “I thought it was great to see him looking for accessories, hardware, and fabrics on his own. Too many designers just care about Instagram now. Their product might speak loud on a picture, but it’s temporary.”
Romeo has been working with the 1017 ALYX 9SM designer for five seasons now and has overseen the brand’s Mackintosh collaboration released as Spring/Summer 2018, as well as numerous other projects. One piece he can legally talk about is a polar fleece from 1017 ALYX 9SM’s Fall/Winter 2019 collection, which is windproof, waterproof, and soft to the touch. It was created by using an unconventional printing technique called “reverse transfer” which puts the design directly onto the fleece, enabling the design to move with the material. Their overarching collaborative ethos is that “the technical element is vital in a world where climate and landscapes can change in a couple of hours.”
Another project with 1017 ALYX 9SM saw Romeo and Williams together create “a cape and a pair of pants with honeycombs Kevlar and high tenacity nylon inserted in the most stressed spot but only visible to a trained eye,” he explains. It’s highly technical clothing, produced in a way that facilitates a designers’ vision without technology dictating it.
Then came YEEZY. “One day, I woke up with a message on my phone saying, ‘Hey Federico, it’s Kanye. I want to meet you in Calabasas,’” he says. Any creative knows this is proof you’re doing something right.
“[Kanye’s] vision is too big to just have a clothing brand. What you see is just one percent of what he’s done. Anything you can think of, he’s worked on it. A YEEZY version of a toothbrush does exist. He knows shapes, colors, and concepts,” Romeo adds. “For our generation especially, he’s the creative director of the world, in a way, but he’s still challenging himself. He’s special.”
More recently, Romeo has been grappling with the more conceptual challenges around sustainability. “It’s not plastic that’s the problem, it’s how plastic has been used,” he says. “We have this idea that plastic is basically a one-use material. Recycling means that we’re forced to use something and then throw it away so it can be reproduced. [But] I have another approach. Things that can be used more than once, or can last for a longer time, are more sustainable.” Federico hits a nail straight through the most squirming of sustainability dilemmas: Is it our product behavior that’s at fault, or its means of production and distribution?
It all comes back to the design process he argues. “The moment you put your pen on the paper you have to decide: is this going to last, or is it going to last for [just] six months, and then it’s done?” Romeo says. “WaterZero,” a project with Majocchi — the Italian textile developers for the military and who work with fashion brands like Supreme, Palace, and Stone Island — is exploring the notion of decreasing water usage in the dying process, while making colors in garments longer lasting.
The project developed a carrier molecule that allowed pigment to go deeper into the fibre than a regular coating process. The effect is profound. It gives a more sustainable technique a more resilient shelf life; a sustainable practice that lasts for five minutes isn’t sustainable. The innovation appeared commercially in the third Woolrich x Griffin collaboration last year. Its usage for other products are currently in the testing phase.
“Being sustainable is [about] a bigger picture. Companies that use recycled fibers, but make them in Bangladesh for a low price — basically slavery — with equal markup for the rest of the world, that’s not sustainable,” says Romeo. “It’s like we only think about sustainability when it comes to plastic or emissions. We need to think wider and healthier.”
Romeo’s bigger picture thinking comes into play in his recent internal project with Nike. Again working with Majocchi, they created a windbreaker using repurposed military materials and products strictly available in the Milan region.
“I did that in two weeks, which isn’t possible anywhere else. For certain kinds of products, like fashion or sportswear, there’s no place like Milan,” he says. For the project, Romeo expands our ideas about sustainability, or indeed contracts it, localizes it. “Over-access to everything is what leads to an unsustainable world. Everything has to go towards reducing all the energy that we waste in the process of making a product. Big companies like Nike or adidas really have to think about how things are made.”
His ability to think critically and approach things from unconventional angles makes the designer a great collaborator for these large brands paving the future of fashion. He has the technical fabric knowledge, a robust understanding of the design process, and the collaborative connective tissue to spread information and be the cultural connector between leading companies and pioneering people.
But if he’s a reason for optimism, he doesn’t seem convinced. “I don’t see a tangible change in this precise moment. Especially in fashion, [the response] is almost like, ‘yes, it’s a good idea,’ but then recycled micro fabrics still cost more than a non-recycled one.” It’s the sad truth of where we remain stuck today.
As the majority of Italy remains on lockdown, Romeo's day-to-day work has been impacted like most others. "I've had to stop because companies are unable to produce, however, this tragedy hasn't stopped my research process," he says. "Having the opportunity to dedicate myself without set timelines is a luxury."
Pressing the importance of quality, things that last a long time, Romeo sketches to potential future outcomes. "One, when this ends, a large part of the world will have a wider consciousness, slow down, and not take everything for granted. The other possibility would be that we return to a very fast cycle to which we've become so accustomed. That would be tragic." Romeo, however, remains optimistic. "Like Einstein said, 'Creativity arises from anguish as day arises from the dark night. It's in the crisis that inventiveness, discoveries, and great strategies arise.'"